Is Art Just Another Ad? Timur Si-Qin on Why Artists Need to Embrace Their Brands

Is Art Just Another Ad? Timur Si-Qin on Why Artists Need to Embrace Their Brands
The artist Timur Si-Qin. Photo by Maxime Ballesteros

Super-slick and immediately attractive, Timur Si-Qin’s installations and sculptures evoke hip window displays and billboards—at first glance. But if you're expecting a critique of consumer culture from the Berlin artist with a growing cult, you're a bit off.  What he's doing is far smarter and far more unexpected than that.

Si-Qin's work, which references men's fashion companies like Axe and Hood By Air and often features his own pseudo-fashion brand PEACE, is less about ideology than ontology, specifically the object-oriented variety that’s steadily pervading certain sectors of the art world. For Si-Qin (and fellow OOO adherents like Pamela Rosenkranz), objects and materials assert their own kind of power over viewers that goes far deeper than man-made economic systems. It’s this theoretical foundation that upholds the charismatic appearance of his artworks.

As the ideas around his work have become more popular, so has Si-Qin; he’s been featured in shows from Vienna to Taipei, and is now represented by the icy-cool Berlin gallery Société. This month is especially busy for the young artist, with a major work appearing in the DIS-curated Berlin Biennale and another installation being presented by Société in their Art BaselStatements solo booth next week.

In between these international installs, Si-Qin carved out some time to speak with Artspace’sDylan Kerrabout bringing a cult to an art fair, the evolutionary basis for advertising, and why, contra postmodern thought, he really believes the truth is out there.

What can you tell me about your piece at the Berlin Biennale?

The piece is called A Reflected Landscape, and it’s from a new body of work that I’ve been working on for the past six months. It’s an artificial landscape that is being reflected through media by its own mediated image. There’s a large LED panel in the center of the installation playing footage from the system of live webcams [around] the room, as well as a couple videos that are topically about the landscape itself. For instance, there’s a video of some footage of the same landscape taken from above with a drone.

I’m really interested in how matter recursively feeds off of itself, which is how life arises. Contemporary mediated culture also builds its structures in similar, iterative processes. It’s an allusion to climate change as well, which is also a kind of feedback mechanism.

Is this at all related to the work you’ll be presenting at Art Basel?

Yeah, it is. In the past, I was using this PEACE brand in different works. I see the brand as a kind of topological sculpture that can be expressed in various spaces and times. Now, I’ve rebranded PEACE to become NEW PEACE, and I’m structuring it as a kind of materialist cult from the future. In Basel, I’m presenting a prayer space video and installation for this future religion. 

Berlin biennaleInstallation view of A Reflected Landscape at the 9th Berlin Biennale. Photo by Timo Ohler, courtesy Timur Si-Qin

Like much of your recent work, these pieces seem to be playing with the ideas of Object-Oriented Ontology or other schools of thought that are quickly gaining currency in the art world. These ideas fly in the face of so much postmodern literary and art theory, which says that the only meaning things have are what we give them through language.What is it about these new philosophies that you think is especially relevant to the art conversation right now?

The reason I use commercial imagery is because I’m trying to go against the idea that all images are created or fully informed by ideology. This steps away from the psychoanalytic mode of art interpretation, where I think most art is coming from. You have a sign—like a commercial image—and that image is then interpreted as being a linguistic symbol for something like capitalism. I think that’s almost a kind of stereotyping,

The reason that advertising works is because it works on our brains. The reason that something like brand logos are everywhere is because that’s how memory works—you have a sign with specific set of associations that you can memorize easily with this visual symbol. It has nothing, really, to do with any sort of school of economic thought.

I ultimately think this is a path to a true ethics. If you can’t take science to be true beyond the fact that it's a construction of one culture, then you can’t really say that scientific statements are true.  Look at the study of bees, for example—they can only see in ultraviolet light, so the only access that we have to bee consciousness is through science. The only way we can take a bee—or any animal, or any human for that matter—to be real is from a realist point of view, to think that those beings are real and not just a projection of your own culture and language.

You’re saying that science is the means by which we can posit that something like a bee or something like a person really exists outside of our perceptions.

Right. This is not to overemphasize science—I’m using it as a stand-in for the realist, materialist perspective that there is a real world out there that has nothing to do with my consciousness. From a postmodern perspective, that idea doesn’t really work. I’ve heard arguments against New Materialism that say it’s missing the subjective or human side of things, but I think ultimately this is the only way to get to that human side. 

 What is it about these ideas that make them so exciting for artists and thinkers today?

I actually don’t think that so many artists are specifically reading up on these ideas. I think there’s only a select group of artists who actually do read this stuff, but I also think that a lot of artists are responding to things that can be explained or framed by these ideas.

art basel statementsRendering of Si-Qin's NEW PEACE prayer chamber, to be shown in Art Basel's 2016 Statements section with Société. Courtesy Timur Si-Qin

I’m interested in the connection you make in your writing between the attractiveness of an ad image and our evolutionary history, which primes us to pay more attention to certain forms, like faces or hands. How far are you willing to go with this idea? Is an evolutionarily ideal artwork possible?

There’s a misconception about how evolution works. The idea of survival of the fittest isn’t enough—it’s a lot more complex than that, because these things are always so dynamic. Fitness is always a shifting landscape, and it’s totally contingent on other factors in the environment. People who aren’t super-familiar with the basics of contemporary evolutionary thought don’t realize that it has nothing to do with achieving an ideal. It’s more about temporary coagulations of traits that function in a certain time and place.

There’s this idea that biology and culture are separate from one another, but actually, from a contemporary scientific understanding of evolution, that divide isn’t real. The two feed into each other, and you can’t separate one from the other. That’s actually what the Biennale piece is about, the reciprocal feedback process by which these two spheres co-constitute one another. This idea is very similar to the Buddhist conception of causality.

Can you say more about this? What is the Buddhist conception of causality?

There is a very specific term, Pratityasamutpada, which I actually put in the wall text for the Biennale. It means dependent co-arising, which basically means that things constitute one another. It’s a conception of causality that really only appears within Buddhism and Daoism—Hinduism doesn’t have it—as well as contemporary systems theory and cybernetics.

Does the fact that these ideas turn up in realms as seemingly dissimilar as contemporary systems theory, ancient Eastern spiritual traditions, and upstart 21st century philosophies suggest to you that there’s some real, material validity to them beyond mere coincidence? In other words, are you taking these ideas as capital-T true?

Being a realist, I think that these things are saying something real about the world. I think there is a real world, but it’s not an essential world. That’s the critical difference. I think everything is just a matter of relations and that it’s all ultimately temporary and dynamic. 

My PEACE logo is actually an allusion to this. Originally, I was interested in how you could put different signs together and in doing so strip the meaning from them. I had the Daoist taiji [often referred to in the West as the “yin-yang symbol”] and the word peace, two things that don’t necessarily have a relationship. I was interested in how you can combine and reuse these signs in different ways, thereby negating their previous meanings.

The PEACE brand is only tangentially associated with the idea of peace—it’s obviously not a political campaign for peace—but it takes the word and uses it in a way that is foreign to the lexical meaning. I think that’s also an indication that there’s no essence to words, just like there’s no essence to signs either. It’s all contingent. 

Biogenic materialsInstallation shot of "Biogenic Material," a 2015 solo exhibition at Magician Space, Beijing. Image via timursiqin.com

Ethics and spirituality are topics many contemporary artists either ignore or deride. How would you describe the ethics that you’re reaching for, and how do these spiritual traditions inform those ideas?

It’s part of an exploration I’m undertaking. In this new speculative religion I’m working on there’s this slogan, “Replication Serves Variation.” I’m building it with this idea that diversity and variation are ethical goals. In NEW PEACE, the world exists so that matter can experience all variations of itself. I think there’s an ethics embedded within that, which is a celebration of diversity. I think this is part of the basis of these ancient Eastern philosophies as well.

In years past, a cool young artist employing commercial imagery was almost always assumed to be approaching the subject from an ironic or critical angle. In your work, that disapproving stance seems to be largely absent. How would you characterize your stance to the capitalist machines that you’re working with?

That’s really interesting. Most reviews that I’ve gotten have read my work as criticizing capitalism, and sometimes say I’m not criticizing it hard enough. For me, it’s not about a critique of capitalism at all. I feel like there’s another stereotyping process going on here. If you present an Asian person in a movie, for example, then that Asian psychoanalytically represents “China” or even all of Asia. In reality, people and things don’t have to represent these greater things that are arbitrarily associated with them. 

The reason these commercial images have their form is because they’ve been selected for, which happens for various reasons. Cognitive load, for example—people like clean objects in their commercial environments because there’s less to look at, meaning there’s less for the brain to deal with. As a result, ads tend to be clean.

This is why I reject the idea that you can just make something messy as a political act against commercialism or whatever larger entity you’re opposed to. I think that’s ultimately ineffective, and it misunderstands why images work the way that they do. 

SpeculationsInstallation shot of works from Si-Qin's series "Axe-Effect" from the 2013 group show "Speculations on Anonymous Materials" at Fridericianum Kassel. Image via timursiqin.com

These works have intensely theoretical backgrounds, but of course you’re making physical objects to be looked at and purchased. How important is an understanding of these theories to appreciating your artworks? And how do you make sure you’re making works that function aesthetically as well as theoretically?

It’s a really rare and new occurrence for me to have a conversation with someone like you where these topics are understood. That makes me pretty happy, but it’s not something that I expect people to do. My work is very aesthetic, and part of that is my reading in the psychology of marketing and how images work. All of that goes into the work, and I’ve relied on that a lot because I don’t think a lot of this theoretical knowledge is out there. It’s also hopefully not necessary, either. I’m happy that it is there, though, and I hope that it slowly leaks out to justify itself.

Are you more concerned with having a solid theoretical basis or with making an attractive object?

I think I can’t really separate it. I wouldn’t be happy without one or the other.


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