How many billboards?

Think Small

Mar 08 2010

As his billboard affirms, Michael Asher has always been a master of considered restraint. As much as we can grab a handle on his paradigm-shifting practice with the term institutional critique, we can also think of his site-specific methodology as one of carefully measured and decisive, yet tight and small, interventions that hinge on a crucial economy of gesture. Characterized by a certain clarity and directness, his works repeatedly deal with a (so-called) ‘minimal’ alteration to a space that reverberates with expansive resonance and implies conceptual complexity: he removed, for example, the wall separating exhibition space from office space in Claire Copley Gallery in 1974, or he relocated Houdon’s bronze George Washington from the front steps to an interior gallery of The Art Institute of Chicago in 1979. In a sense, then, and in terms of physical actions, his specific and efficient way of working could be viewed as an encouragement to—in the words of his billboard—“Think small.” (“Think small” signals a political position vis-à-vis environmental sustainability, capital consumption, globalism, overmatter, intellectual precision/specificity, etc.)

Considering the specificity of the billboard as a medium and urban site, Asher’s project pinpoints a rich moment of intersection between advertising (effective mass/pop communication) and car culture in the iconic 1959 Volkswagen ad campaign “Think small.” The ad he reproduces (appropriates) makes dramatic use of negative, white space—emphasizing the car’s compact, diminutive size by isolating the VW bug in the upper left corner against blankness and captioned simply with the tagline and some other text at the bottom. Playing off its bold and asymmetrical compositional simplicity, Asher only uses a small portion of the billboard’s surface to reproduce the ad, leaving the rest blank and open: a minimized ‘footprint’. There’s something ballsy and understated about committing 90 percent or more of the billboard to blankness—again, a scrupulous economy of marks, of ink, or visual activity, of presence.

But, in the real life of the city, that open expanse of whiteness was also a vulnerable target, an apparently irresistible ‘blank canvas’ invitation to graffiti which was soon answered with some sloppy purple bubble-letter scrawl thrown up lazily and hastily. The graffiti—and consequently virtually the entire billboard, save a little circle around the tiny VW bug in the top left corner—was whitewashed by someone as of a day ago. Due to its double defacement, the reduced visual content of Asher’s “Think small” billboard got even smaller. Language got obscured in the process and the image became abstracted and further decontextualized. Asher’s critical specificity/image context has been mostly absented in the process, but maybe for those with curiosity to inquire and investigate (note how fast history accumulates!), the present altered state’s increased ambiguity opens up possibilities of signification…Maybe the “Alterations” sign of the tailor shop below will suggest an approach.

Sarah Lehrer-Graiwer

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