A few weeks ago I was given the opportunity to do a talk at the Tate Modern. Tate gives all those who work or volunteer there the opportunity to share their personal view on a particular work of art. They also hold days where they invite members of the public to talk about pieces of art in the gallery. I love this breaking down of barriers to appreciate art.. art should be accessible to all. But often there is still a pretentiousness surrounding it. I'm so pleased to find world renowned art galleries breaking the boundaries.. shaping the future. Artist Joseph Beuys stated 'Every man is an artist: Social sculpture will only reach fruition when every living person becomes a creator, a sculptor, or architect of the social organism.' So if we are all artists.. we can all have a go at shaping the society we live in creatively. We can all collaborate within our own societal structures if we choose ... and it can be in any way that is creative, not restricted.. but free.
I chose to speak about Picasso’s The Three Dancers in my 10 minute talk. I think it was my own inner desire to pretend I was a big shot art historian to be honest... it felt liberating and exhilarating the very thought of standing in front of a Picasso. But it wasn't meant to be.. the painting wasn't actually on display... glad I checked. I decided to embrace the challenge of preparing a speech in less than 24 hours on another piece of art at the gallery. I chose Insertions into Ideological Circuits: Coca-Cola Project by Brazilian Artist Cildo Meireles. Funnily enough I had been drawn to the coke bottles when first given the list of art to choose from. I love Coke.. even the sugar ;) I decided to find a connection between the Three bottles and the Three Dancers... and here is what I said.
The Three Dancers was painted by Picasso in June 1925, and what at first seems to be a happy joyful dance, actually depicts a catastrophic love triangle, which heavily impacted Picasso’s life some twenty five years before he painted it. Picasso was ready to release his emotions when he painted the painting, the whole painting was one big movement towards the liberation from emotional pain.
The man on the right is Ramon Pichot, one of Picasso’s earliest friends from Barcelona, who had very recently died when Picasso started the painting. The person in the middle with arms outstretched was believed to be another of Picasso’s friends, a Catalan artist called Carlos Casegemas who had committed suicide 25 years before, because he had fallen in love with Germaine Gargallo, on the left, after she had refused his advances. It was believed that the recent death of Pichot, combined with the memory of his earlier friend’s suicide, stirred Picasso to create this chilling depiction of a love triangle.
The deathly dance takes place, with the dancer on the left having her head bent at an awkward angle, with a skeletal head and bulging eye sockets. The dancer on the right (recently deceased) is like a shadow; and the dancer in the middle looks like he is being crucified in a frenzy.
However what I have since discovered whilst researching this painting is that beneath the surface of the painting lies another painting. When Tate acquired the painting they undertook some technical analysis and a X-radiograph made in 1973 revealed that three more conventional and classical female ballet dancers lie beneath the painting’s surface.
I find it extremely exciting that a painting can have multiple layers, with multiple meanings, and Picasso chose which features to keep and which to cover. There are hints at breasts in all of the paintings. Some pointed, some distorted. The figures become very enigmatic because it is unclear what sex they are, and in reality their sex is irrelevant.
Now look closely at the coca cola bottles. The beautiful contours, the sensuous curves, so graceful, and elegant. Three figures. I personally love the Coca Cola bottle. I love drinking Coca Cola. I love a full fat glass bottle in summer when it’s so refreshing, and a can of diet coke virtually daily. I love everything about the experience of drinking it.
Joseph Beuys talked about the Coca Cola bottle in ‘What is Art? “The Coca Cola bottle has something very beautiful about it.. It has really beautiful proportion, almost plant like, that contracts, it has ribs, a fine foot below. He argued for the beauty of some good industrial designs as pieces of artwork in themselves. What makes these bottles stand the test of time. Is it the pop, the fizz when you take off the bottle top, is it the anticipation of the beautiful refreshing drink within it. The bottle is beautiful in each case here full, half full and empty. They are perfectly harmonious alongside each other.
In 1914, Harold Hirsch, the lead attorney for The Coca-Cola Company said:
“We are not building Coca-Cola alone for today. We are building Coca-Cola forever, and it is our hope that Coca-Cola will remain the national drink to the end of time." 8 to 10 glass companies across the U.S. subsequently received a challenge to develop a “bottle so distinct that you would recognize if by feel in the dark or lying broken on the ground.”
Later in 1975 Andy Warhol’s noted in his book, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol: "What's great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you know that the president drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke, too. A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good. Liz Taylor knows it, the president knows it, the bum knows it, and you know it."
Making a product available to the masses so that everybody was equal, may have started as the vision, but the vision was fraught with division, and still is today. Cildo clearly didn’t appreciate America's influence and one of his messages on the bottle said “Yankees go home”.
In 1970 Brazil The Coca Cola bottle had become an every day object of mass circulation; it had become a symbol for US imperialism; and it had become a symbol of capitalist consumerism.
During 1970 when this artwork was produced, Brazil was undergoing an oppressive period because of a 21 year government by military dictatorship. The messages put into the bottles were apparently a form of guerilla tactics of political resistance in order to elude censorship. It is said that the messages inside functioned as mobile graffitti. The bottles had to be in circulation and be being recycled to be fulfilling their purpose, they were not meant for display in an art gallery. These bottles were all about communication, circulation, exchange and information, they were fulfilling a higher purpose. Cildo removed the bottles from circulation, modified them with a political statement, or instructions on how to turn them into a cocktail, before returning them to the circuit. The bottles would move around during the recyling process, messages were reaching people. The piece apparently arose out of the need to create a system for circulation and exchanges of information that did not depend on centralised control.
When I first saw these bottles of coke, and the references to mass consumerism I assumed that the bottles were not well regarded. However I’m not so sure now, these bottles became a conduit, and were using mass consumerism to make a difference. They were controlling the system, rather than it controlling them. The sharing of information to the masses liberates society, but it depends who controls the information.
Propaganda is rife in all societies and in many ways Twitter nowadays is the current way we can share messages and ideas, and is fulfilling a similar function to these bottles. If you look at Cildo’s other work in the room closeby at Tate called BABEL 2010, a tower of radios are all playing at once. This piece addresses ideas of information overload and failed communication, again a similar overload to Twitter. There's always good and bad to be found simultaneously within mass consumption.
So how can this all be linked to Picasso’s the Three Dancers which marked an entry for Picasso into Surrealism with the figures being so disturbed and dis-jointed. This painting seemed to be a catharsis for Picasso, his own exorcism … an escape from the prison of emotional turmoil that the death of two of his closest friends had brought upon him. Picasso did not conform to expectations about beauty or even how reality should be captured within a painting. He was free, and this enabled him to develop so many new genres and ideas. He did not paint this scene in a way he thought society would imagine it should be remembered, but in terms of the impression the memory had made on him. This painting represents pure movement of emotion. He did it his way.
Likewise the three bottles, so beautiful in contrast, elegant, more like the ballerinas beneath the surface of Picasso’s painting. There is irony within the painting.. the beauty lies beneath, but life isn't always so sweet at the surface. There is irony in the bottles... the message disappears when you drink the Coke.
But for me when I look at these bottles there is a sadness in me. I am particularly drawn to them as I want to preserve them. They are things of beauty, and they are available to all, but they are under threat. They may not be around in 10 years time. They sit within the gallery now as a piece of art, but there is chance they will one day sit in a museum. What started out as a drink for all, designed to lift spirits, is now undergoing a transition of status. There is a shift in perception generally around Coca Cola and it will be interesting to see how this plays out as our government continues to ban things.
What I have learned whilst researching Picasso and Cildo is that change is inevitable, risk is essential and expect the unexpected. As in Cildo’s piece the full picture will only emerge when you fill the bottle, and when you empty the bottle information will disappear. To work information must be circulated, and it is people who need to share it for it to work. Participation is key to movement and exchange. Collaboration is key to our future, and art can be the messenger.