Simon Denny, the representative artist of New Zealand at the 56th Venice Biennial, is known for his research-based projects and exhibitions which look into the condition and production of knowledge through imagery used by institutions and corporate. In 2017, the artist showed his works at Hammer Museum, L.A. and OCAT, Shenzhen. Here Simon explains how brands and logos serve as visual documentation of today’s commercial culture and how they are re-contextualized in his art projects. He also shares his view on the difference between private and public sponsorship.
I would like to start by asking about what it means when branding appears in your work. Is it a realism or materialism, in the sense of directly reflecting the world as you find it? Or are you particularly interested in how logos and other forms of branding appear and transmute? I'm thinking of obvious cases like Huaqiangbei (Shenzhen's sprawling electronics marketplace), but also Berlin startup branding, NSA visual branding, Samsung, Kim Dotcom, TEDx, DLD.
In each project or group of works, branding can behave differently. It’s not always the same thing I am looking for when featuring branded material.
For example, with works I made about the NSA’s illustrations, it was a way to examine a particular genre (through categorizing and compiling internal illustrations and logos) that gave insight into the values and culture of a very secretive, very powerful organisation. With the branding on the vitrines from Huaqiangbei, it was more about recognizing and reframing those modular glass vitrines that make up nearly all displays in the white-label malls—as a monument to the promise of entrepreneurship for everyone, rapid innovation, and access to tools.
Art has a very different timeline and timescale from commercial culture. It’s potentially “permanent” if it becomes canonical. While logos and brands constantly evolve and change in the dynamism that is our commercial world, art is cared for in museums, unpacked and contextualized by a whole group of cultural thinkers who are slower and more careful, who have the resources and capacity to build longer-term meaning (albeit in potentially siloed repositories). Hopefully, when my projects do their jobs properly, the cultural richness of brands (visually and in terms of what they signify and contain socially) can become something that stands in for companies’ systemic power to reflect our world and values.
Have you done any projects that have been supported in larger part by corporations or brands than by governments or foundations or collectors? Is that model compelling for you?
I haven’t done any projects that are majority supported and lead by corporations. I have done many things about corporations that are supported by governments and either private individuals or foundations. Having said that, it’s hard to draw a line between public and private money in the current landscape. Museums and biennials routinely fold private support into their systems in many forms at many levels. And what of the Chinese context—can one say a state enterprise umbrella that funds real estate development, tourism, tech hardware production, and contemporary art at the same time is legible in terms of dividing public and private money? Having worked at OCAT in Shenzhen, this was a question that I found difficult to unpack with the frameworks I was used to working with. Also, foundations and powerful collectors are often prominent industry leaders. So while X major pharma company may not be sponsoring or supporting Y exhibition, their founding family might be. Is that corporate or brand sponsorship?
To add another set of problems on top of this which feels to me related, there is the question of who should be funding the kind of art I make and exhibit, and who really is the audience? In a world where there are strong signs of increasing polarization, where taxpayers might be increasingly resistant to the idea of supporting complex and difficult artwork, who might feel better about supporting other kinds of culture—or indeed maybe no explicit “cultural” activity at all—private money seems increasingly where support for this type of activity is being called for and found.
I don’t love that idea as an abstract proposition—I would prefer to think that what I do should and can be of value to a wide public and therefore could also justify the financial support of taxpayers—but I also understand when those kinds of questions are asked in a polarizing world, where some people might find even just the context of art alienating in its current set of forms and conventions.
For me these questions remain unresolved.