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TIMES SQUARE AND THE BILLBOARD STOCKHOLM SYNDROME

Rasmus Andreas Frederik Quistgaard, Art critic - 2015

Times Square has an almost mythical position in the global and commercial popular culture of the present day. The square is known as a fulcrum of activity in one of the most influential cities in the post-war era and the most photographed city in the world: New York.

Artpusher's paintings of the city are detailed, almost photo-realistic works, executed in oil on canvas. They depict the seething crowds, the intense traffic and, not least, the intense light displays of the neon advertising screens and signs. But there are unexpected surprises hidden within these neon lights. Brand names and logos have been transformed. A Facebook advertisement now promotes "Facefuck", and a neon sign in the shape of McDonalds’ familiar golden arches turns out be a pair of female legs, spread akimbo.

Why are they portrayed in this way? Artpusher's pictures bring us face-to-face with our lustful consumption of advertisements and visual media. They depict what may be called ‘the Stockholm syndrome of visual advertising’. Commercial and strategic visual products have invaded our entire existence. They attempt to capture and monopolise our attention and attitudes as consumers – and, in general, our response is to become infatuated with the dreams these images present.

Artpusher’s paintings of Times Square depict two tendencies, which co-exist in the world today. First, they show how images have seized control over this space. Secondly, they show how people react to this visual environment.

Let us begin by taking a look at the first tendency. We are already familiar with this kind of visual invasion. It is played out on a daily basis before our very eyes; on TV screens, in the printed press, on our computers and in more or less every aspect of our existence. Images vie for our attention, and this struggle can be described as a kind of arms race, which started in the domain of visual art and which has since gained momentum as photography, film, TV and the digital image have increasingly entered into consumers’ consciousness.

Times Square in New York is unique in this context. It is the epicentre of the explosion of the image in the 20th century; a place where this tendency is manifestly expressed in the space itself. Here, the cityscape is completely overwhelmed by neon signs, billboards and enormous advertisements. The architecture, the people and the space are secondary to the visually strategic products that have been placed there by various media outlets and corporations.

The place itself is iconic and recognisable on a global level, not least of all because it is endlessly photographed and portrayed in films and the media.

It is clear that Artpusher is interested in the symbolic space of "Times Square", rather than the actual, "real-life" location. Recent traffic diversions to the actual square are not depicted in his paintings. They are omitted, and he chooses instead to emphasise the recognisable aspects of the space via the digital processing of the images and his own artistic decisions. In the paintings, the perspective is skewed. This highlights the traffic, energy and speed of the place. The iconic yellow cabs are also emphasised to such a degree that they almost seem to be an integral component of the architectural landscape. The pictures are also cropped so that Times Square fills the entire frame, preventing the viewer's gaze from wandering.

Artpusher’s paintings of this place are a reconfiguration of a pre-existing image; one which already exists as a fixed point on the map of global popular culture. You might say that Artpusher paints Times Square as a kind of microcosm; the paintings portray the state of the world as a whole. And the world according to Times Square appears to be embroiled in an all-encompassing process of visual prostitution.

This seizure of power by the images is a human drama. We might also ask what kind of anthropology there is in the cosmology of Times Square, where images threaten to enslave people’s attention and fabricate dreams on their behalf? Are we being reduced to mere recipients of visual stimuli?

Artpusher’s modifications to Times Square – all of the surprises, changes or fictional additions – are examples of a human, subjective approach to the images. Common to many of these small changes is that they are linked to one of the most essentially human traits, namely sexual interest. In one picture, a neon sign displays the name "Hard Cock Café", instead of the bar's real name “Hard Rock Café”. This is primitive in the deepest sense of the word; it represents a very human “reading error" and a sense of humour, which critically distances itself from the commercial function of advertisements.

The paintings are full of this kind of suggestive replacement, as if the commercial images have been infected with a kind of erotic virus, transforming the meaning of their messages. One might imagine that these works are a critical response to a contemporary world in which we, along with our children, are increasingly inundated by capitalist imagery. But it may not be as simple as that. The humour and the visual and linguistic playfulness of the modifications indicate that something else is afoot. These modifications could be understood as a critical response to the influence exerted by extraneous images, but they could also be interpreted as an exposition of the dreams and urges that advertisements aim to incite. In other words, the salacious substitutions can also be seen as a series of revelations – which not only reveal what lies at the core of the influential visual media but, what is worse, also show that such images are effective in triggering fundamental human urges.

This phenomenon, visual advertising’s Stockholm syndrome, is what Artpusher’s Times Square work are all about. The paradox here is that we can be conscious of how the visual media force-feed people strategic messages via their eyes and, at the same time, experience first-hand that the more we look at such images, the more likely we are to assimilate the world view they represent.

 

Rasmus Andreas Frederik Quistgaard, Art critic - 2015

 

 


 

 

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