Throughout history, art has served society’s rich and powerful individuals and institutions, helping to raise their public profile as has been the case with the church, the royalty and the bourgeoisie upper class. In modern times, politicians and CEOs are known to be photographed in front of a favoured piece of modern art, often wearing a tie suited to match the painting, to give the impression that they are intellectually ready to tackle complex situations, as Wolfgang Ullrich notes in his book “Mit dem Rucken zur Kunst.”1 Company art collections complete the corporate identity. This is a topic I will examine more closely here, since, in my opinion, today‘s corporate culture is an especially interesting aspect of modern society.
Corporations largely began expanding their art collections in the 1980s. During this time, many companies were merged or acquired and gave up their local identity in favour of a globally oriented image. Furthermore, many companies were no longer producing goods but instead offering technology and services, which are not visually appealing. Art therefore became useful for representation, helping to create a corporate identity and a positive atmosphere for clients and employees. Corporate art collections and globalisation, as we know it today, developed in tandem. When I took a closer look at what kind of companies are collecting art, or engaging in contemporary art, I found that it’s not just small and middle-sized companies, but also the largest international firms with great economic power. Art continues to serve the mighty and powerful and now it also serves corporate needs.
In the 1960s and 70s capitalism was subject to criticism by conceptual artists like Hans Haacke, Claes Oldenburg, etc. Ironically, critical works from this period are now found in corporate art collections – indicating that the economic powers have incorporated a previously critical counter position. This is an interesting power game but it does not matter who is the winner or loser. What matters is that artists are actively contributing to the corporate world, working for a global art market and producing highly valued goods. As JJ Charlesworth stated, artists are “the new aristocrats of the service sector.” 4 Descriptions and articles on corporate art collections are quite revealing about the value art is rumoured to bring into the corporate world: “We believe the arts serve as a constant reminder of the value of creativity, innovation, inspired action and energy - values that we at xxx (world’s 36th largest company in 2006) seek to bring to the relationships we share with our clients every day.”2 Do art and global economy really share the same values? Looking at what Stephen Willats calls the “fabric of reality,” I wanted to experience globalisation from a different perspective, using the tools that are available to me as an artist. I started to look at corporate headquarters - the architectural manifestation of what I knew from the stock market and the media.
For my body of work “Inventory” (since 2006), I have been travelling to corporate headquarters, equipped with a camera. My aim for this project is to photograph the world headquarters of the global 500.”3 Each company has several locations but only one world head quarters, usually in the country of origin. While taking the pictures, it is important for me to have a subjective view of the building. Trees, cars, lampposts, people and anything that surrounds the building are part of the picture. I do not need special equipment nor do I ask for permission. In that sense, my method is different from Bernd and Hilla Becher’s documentary photos of industrial buildings, because for me it is a personal view - I am appropriating the building as a sculpture. For me, it is an adventure to visit these sites; it feels like being on the prowl. Sometimes, I even call the companies and ask them about their corporate art collection – information not easily obtained!
After gathering the photographs, conversations and notes, which all together is my raw material, it passes through a transformative process. I use a variety of techniques, old ones are mixed up with new ones, which means I use knives, paint and a computer to create silhouettes, cutouts, collages and 3D models. By using the images of the corporate world I aim to create a landscape of our time. My aspiration is to generate a very elegant kind of subversion that sneaks into the system through my work.
Miriam Steinhauser for Control Magazine, edited by Stephen Willats, London, 2007
Ullrich, Wolfgang 2000: “Mit dem Rucken zur Kunst. Die neuen Statussymbole der Macht”, Verlag Klaus Wagenbach, Berlin, 2000
http://www.ubs.com/4/artcollection/about-us/index.html, accessed 10/05/2007
All images and texts © Miriam Steinhauser, 2008