Archive: Issue No. 103, March 2006

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Gerhard Marx

Gerhard Marx
Sheet #2: Horizontal Figure 2, 2005
Cut and reconstituted map fragments. 38 X 141cm

Luxury German automobile manufacturer plagiarises the work of young SA artist

by Paul Edmunds

The appearance in several of last week's national newspapers of a BMW ad featuring drawings made of cut-out and reconstructed maps may just have demoted young Johanesburg artist Gerhard Marx to the 'artist whose works look like the BMW ad'. When I saw it, the likeness to Marx's work was so unmistakeable that I thought (a little disappointedly) he must surely have sanctioned this use of his methodology. I was never under the impression that Marx had done the work himself - the drawing is, in short, piss poor.

As it turns out, Marx was not consulted. He is 'enraged' and currently seeking legal advice.

BMW, who recently transferred their R10 million account from industry stalwarts TBWA/Hunt/Lascaris to newly created agency Ireland/Davenport, have appropriated fine art for their promotion before. The Mona Lisa once had her smile turned 90 degrees to describe the certain pleasure of driving one of their luxury vehicles. But this is a little different. The Mona Lisa is surely one of the most reproduced works of art and Leonardo's legacy is well intact - he will hardly be remembered as the artist from the BMW ad.

A few years ago I came across an ISCOR ad which featured an image of an Antony Gormley work. Smelling a rat, and the potential of a story to sell someone, I contacted the agency concerned. They assured me that they had gone through all the right processes and and had obtained permission from both Gormley's gallery and the photographer to use the image concerned. In this case of course, the product being advertised and the image being used to sell it were not unrelated - Gormley frequently works with large steelworks on projects of a scale somehow congruous with South Africa's largest steel supplier.

Given then that Gormley is the sculptor of Angel of the North, a 20m high figure situated off the motorway into Gateshead, which is popularly regarded as the work of art seen by the most people daily, his reputation is hardly likely to be tarnished by a black and white pic in a South African daily. Nevertheless, the ad agency sought his sanction. Now compare the relative sizes of client and ripped-off artist in the BMW/ Marx affair and see just how the luxury German vehicle forces the smaller car onto the hard shoulder.

Artists are no strangers to copyright issues, certainly no more than ad agencies are familiar with art. In recent years Gillian Wearing, Andy Goldsworthy and Damien Hirst have all locked horns with corporates and received a few payouts between them.One of the more famous cases of this is that of the 2003 Honda Cog ad which Fischli and Weiss claim appropriated generously from their 1987 Der Lauf der Dinge. The inspiration of this series of cause and effect events, admit Fischli and Weiss, were the inventions of Rube Goldberg, a San Francisco city engineer turned Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist. Their movie was also the inspiration behind a Trashcan Sinatras music video from 1991. Just who really copied whom becomes murky and intellectual copyright hovers around quite uncertainly. Honda, incidentally, took six months and spent $6 million dollars on the ad.

In the Marx/BMW affair, however, there is no such series of palimpsests - the ad is for a local campaign, made with local maps, drawing rather too heavily on the work of a young artist just establishing himself in a fickle and treacherous, underfunded industry. The way in which the product is being advertised and the crass interpretaion of Marx's work are actually quite offensive. In one fell swoop the manufacturer of some of the world's most expensive gas guzzlers dumbs down the carefully wrought, finely aimed probings of a young artist for the design-as-lifestyle generation.