How many billboards?
Photo: Gerard Smulevich

Michael Asher

Michael Asher works site-specifically: he answers an invitation to exhibit by analyzing the host venue, identifying key areas of interest, and instigating a proposition that responds to the exhibition site. Most of his works are singular exhibitions in museums; in the case of How Many Billboards?, the site of exhibition is advertising space. Asher's piece is a reproduction of a 1959 print advertisement designed by Doyle, Dane, and Bernbach for the marketing of Volkswagen in the United States. "Think small" was the tagline in the ad and it became the concept of the campaign. Asher's piece performs a kind of time travel, stretching back a half a century and replaying a historical campaign for our present consideration. When the "Think small" ads came out, America was firmly committed to a post-war economy perpetuated by the rapid growth of consumerism. Going against that grain, the "Think small" message encouraged investment in a reliable, affordable car rather than an oversized, flashy one. Visually and linguistically, the message of the campaign was to consume less, not more. Yet the ad's critique of big consumerism performed well for corporate capitalism: many cars were sold, and the ad itself is credited with creating a sea change in the way advertising is created.

Asher's choice of ads reflects several ideas. Firstly, the revisited ad can be read as a challenge to the excesses of consumer capitalism. The VW bug became the iconographic vehicle for a 1960s counter-culture, as its efficient approach to economy rang true with subcultures that were becoming aware of humanity's impact on the planet. Today the "Think small" message resonates, as concerns with global sustainability are heightened, the U. S. grapples with a major economic crisis, and the model of unfettered growth, massive consumerism, and the debt that fuels such an economy are questioned. Secondly, its reinstallation prompts a comparison of art and advertisement, and suggests the influence of one upon the other. The use of white space, the composition of the picture plane, and the ironic tone, foreshadow developments to occur in contemporary art in the 1960s and after. Thirdly, the subject of the ad is a Volkswagen, which originated from Nazi Germany as a "people's car" serving the dark ambitions of Adolf Hitler. Asher interrogates the transformation of VW from Nazi ideal to hippie mobile, reflecting, as he notes in an unpublished artist statement, on the "iconic and discursive status that constitutes its contemporary reception." By Kimberli Meyer

LOCATION: Glendale Blvd, north of Silverlake Blvd, on the west side of the street, facing south.
METRO: Glendale Blvd Metro Bus 92. Silverlake Blvd Metro Bus 201.
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Michael Asher (b. 1943)
A lifelong Angeleno, Michael Asher is one of the pioneering figures of Conceptual Art in California. His influence derives from his subtly provocative installations in museums, including the Kunstverein, Hamburg; Centre Pompidou, Paris; Museum of Modern Art, New York; and most recently, the Santa Monica Museum of Art (2008), as well as through his engagement with students in "post-studio" courses at California Institute of the Arts beginning in the early 1970s. Asher's works have become touchstones for contemporary artists and the discourse of "institutional critique." His practice is not based on the creation of collectible or displayable objects, but rather elides the conventions of viewing and display, making the museum and gallery his medium.
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