SYMBOLS AND ICONS IN BUSINESS AND ART By Bernd Schmitt
" Most art (Chinese or western) is about meaning and symbolism. And a
work of art, if successful, becomes a symbol of culture - a cultural icon.
The same rule applies to corporations and their brands. Consumers (western or Chinese) do not purchase products simply for their utilitarian and functional benefit. A mobile phone is not only for making phone calls. It is also a powerful means of projecting one's status, position or lifestyle. In other words, consumers buy and consume products for their symbolism. And some of the most successful brands (Coca Cola, Kentucky Fried Chicken, McDonald's and Tsingdao Beer) have become cultural icons of consumption.
Ji Wen Yu's work makes extensive use of the associative network inherent in cultural symbolism. He bombards us with cultural icons (western and Chinese; commercial and noncommercial). In "Rubens 1" and "Rubens 2", he juxtaposes the work-inherent icons of Rubens with Chinese symbols of dragons and butterflies. In "Chinese God of Fortune and Coca Cola" and "Chinese God of Fortune and McDonald's", he contrasts the iconography of CocaCola and McDonald's (the trademarked bottle and typeface; Ronald McDonald, the burgers and fries) with icons of Chinese Buddhist culture. In "Noble Woman" he mixes both worlds - the world of art and commerce, Ingres and Mickey Mouse.
Modern corporate communications use a similar approach. As part of a global ad campaign, Mercedes Benz, Germany's premier car manufacturer, is running advertisements that look and feel like paintings and celebrate the visual power of icons including traffic signs, the Peace symbol, Mona Lisa and, of course, the prime Mercedes symbol - the Mercedes star. In China, Coca Cola has created outdoor installations along Nanjing Road, one of Shanghai's shopping streets, featuring the Coke bottle. Chanel displays Warhol's artistic rendering of the Chanel No.5 flacon as an advertisement.
Ji Wen Yu's work is sensitive to this commercial iconography. He picks up logos and commercial symbols, strips them off their commercial context and elevates them to what they are - cultural symbols.
Yet, Ji Wen Yu's work may be interpreted as an artist's critical reading of the developments of China into a consumerist culture. In my opinion, Ji Wen Yu work has moved far beyond the trivialities of such a pre-postmodern critical interpretation. Ji Wen Yu is intrigued by the new visual reality that is created by cultural contact and the merging of commercialism and art. As such, he offers a commentary on some of the pressing questions facing corporations today - how to structure communications between the corporation and the consumer.
For example, what visual styles should a corporation use in its communications with consumers? What should be the color schemes, the typefaces, and the shapes of corporate brochures, corporate stationery and business cards? Moreover, what symbolism should a corporation use in its brand communications? Slogans or tag lines? Traditional or modern symbols? Universal symbols of local ones? Finally, what media of communications and transmission are appropriate? Personal or impersonal media; private ones of shared ones; single channel or multiple channel; analogue or digital?
These corporate decisions are the same type of decisions that artists- -consciously or unconsciously--face when they create a painting, a sculpture or a performance. Modern corporations (Coca Cola, McDonald's, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Nike, Motorola and the like) approach these issues from a marketing perspective--by defining (and designing) corporate identities, setting up websites and retail outlets, associating their brands with new and borrowed symbols. Ji Wen Yu struggles with the same issues as an artist.