Danish artist Morten Rockford Ravn works in a variety of disciplines, the latest of which involves black-and-white collages tackling the genre of appropriation art. We've previously shared his series of hand-picked moments from Grand Theft Auto V, woven into haunting narratives, but Ravn also paints, takes photographs, and uses any medium he can to realise the concepts bouncing inside his head. The new, untitled series blends works by blue chip appropriation artists like Richard Prince and Jason Rhoades with both photographs of consumer waste and other original images created by Ravn himself.
Different generations, from Duchamp's readymades to Andy Warhol's Campbell's Soup Cans and Prince's controversial Instagram photo prints, have used the language of appropriation to discuss how media is consumed at any given time. By appropriating the artwork of modern appropriators, Ravn accelerates the conversation around appropriation as a medium. "In a sense I’m trying to create bastards the art world eventually has to face and deal with by bending the narrative in an uncomfortable, yet necessary direction," he tells The Creators Project.
Ravn spent the last four years working on this concept, in between independent projects like Fear and Loathing in GTA V. The results are cacophonous and dense with information, but visually unified as a series. The centerpoint involves a dramatic takedown of Prince, whom Ravn criticises at length. While he admits that the artist opened a lot of doors for artists where fair use is concerned, Ravn says that Prince, "blurred the lines of good taste and appropriation," in his infamous use of Patrick Cariou's photography.
In order to gain a deeper insight into his practice, The Creators Project spoke to the artist about his new series, why people appropriate, and the connection between appropriation art and cultural appropriation.
The Creators Project: First, can you run me through this work, your criticism of Richard Prince?
Morten Rockford Ravn: This piece is probably the most information-dense in the series. I've taken a picture of a Richard Prince exhibition, turned it on its head, along with his perhaps most infamous work, a reproduction of the Marlboro Man from his Cowboys series of the early 80's, and meshed it together with my own abstract photography of consumer waste turned into sculptures. I've also added a photograph of a photograph of a billboard by Christopher Wool with another rebellious and counter-cultural message in the lower left corner. In a sense, I'm turning the message around in this piece, and back against these established art world titans who were once transgressive counter-cultural figures, but now in the context of blue-chip galleries also occupy a space of being artifact-generators for the ultra rich. A paradox in itself.
In his original Cowboy piece, Prince removed the text from an Marlboro ad to strip it down, and re-contextualised the image. The symbolism of the cowboy as a free masculine figure, roaming a vast landscape on his white horse took on a new meaning, and thus paved the way for further inquiry. In my piece, the cowboy is no longer a symbol of freedom. He looks as though he's running away from something, the vast chaos behind him. Running wild like a confused outlaw who just wreaked havoc because it's all he knows how to do. The self-destructive human-being, lost in the world.
What made you decide you wanted to tackle appropriation through your own work?
Looking around the landscape of contemporary art I felt a growing sense of urgency in bringing some clarity to the table in regards to appropriation, a subject riddled in profound confusion. The catalyst was Richard Prince's exhibition of other people's Instagram photographs. It seemed so out of touch with the times we live in, here's a guy who got a platform to get his ideas out, and he's going about it in such a counterproductive fashion. It seems to me he's lost the plot completely, so I wanted to provide a counterpoint.
Culture has always built upon itself. Artists borrow and steal from each other consciously and unconsciously all the time. The importance is in the actual substance of the work. To draw a parallel to cinema, Quentin Tarantino is a master appropriator, and yet his work is idiosyncratic. He recombines elements into new forms, presenting new narratives that transcend the sum of their parts. In contemporary art, there's a current fashion of appropriation as an end in itself, and I believe this idea is severely outdated. Duchamp did it back in 1917 and later on Warhol with his transfiguration of Pop and consumer culture. It's essentially very old ideas that made sense when they first appeared during the industrial age. Now we live in a post-industrial society, and we need to move beyond these ideas and start trying to figure out how to move forward in a way that doesn't alienate the audiences. When the old guard becomes too self-serving the new generation have to step in and challenge them.
Why did you choose this format, collaging famous appropriators with your own work?
The idea was to appropriate the appropriators, to turn their work against them while going beyond the notion that would be enough in itself. I tried to further the narrative by combining their iconic work with my own abstract photography, and blend it together digitally creating Frankenstein-esque hybrids that reflect the abstraction of the paradoxes I'm exploring to further the conversation beyond appropriation and toward a more metaphysical and existential inclination. That being said, I also used the work by John Chamberlain and Jason Rhoades, two artists I greatly admire, so I wanted to have the full spectrum and let the viewers make their own connections. It's a critique that tries to transcend itself.
What beliefs do you hold about IP, copyright, and the other legal ramifications of appropriation?
I think copyright is a necessary evil, at least for entrepreneurs and inventors, as to incentivise creation and innovation where the creators can rightfully reap the rewards of their creations. That being said I also believe many of the laws in this area are severely outdated. While technology progresses and time becomes compressed through globalisation, the internet and so forth, it seems particularly outdated that copyright should last longer than 10-20 years, nevertheless that's the case thanks to Mickey Mouse Protection Act. As for artists I think it's a question of ethics. We can use pretty much anything for artistic purposes while being protected by fair use. Richard Prince is a pioneer in this field though he balances on the razor edge of the most basic decency in his efforts.
Do you think this kind of work is connected to cultural appropriation?
Cultural appropriation is a very sensitive subject. On one level, osmosis between cultures is what have helped push culture forward historically, but again, it's a moral judgement without easy conclusions. Each case needs to be judged on it's own merit in relation to the circumstances. I recently read the fashion designer Jeremy Scott is in a legal battle with graffiti artist Joseph Tierney (a.k.a., RIME), Jeremy stole his work, put it on some Moschino dresses, and now the artist is suing him. Jeremy Scott and his legal counsel responded by arguing, "graffiti is an act of vandalism and should not be protected by law." So, he appropriates a subculture, without permission, for commercial purposes, and then tries to undermine the artist and graffiti culture at large.
Jeremy is a perfect case study of how not to go about cultural appropriation. In another case he appropriated Native American culture in a fashion collection, again without proper credit or consent, for commercial purposes, despite America's historical mistreatment of Native Americans. That's profoundly ignorant and beyond disrespectful. On the flip side, I think the American artist Joshua Hagler used cultural appropriation in a very tasteful and meaningful way in his My Name is Nobody show, working with stills from old Western films to explore the American psyche and shifts in the collective perception of Native Americans and colonisation historically.
The larger the audience, the more commercial the project, the more responsibility comes with the territory as a rule of thumb.
How do you hope people react to this work?
I hope Richard Prince will sue me, so that I can win and give him a taste of his own medicine, which would help spread these ideas further. I also hope this will give other artists the courage to speak out publicly, not only share their work, but share their ideas and philosophy as well without too much ambiguous buffoonery. There's so much fear in the art world. Artists are afraid of losing their livelihoods if they criticise the status quo, and as a result mostly do it through ironic work that ends up being pretentious. We are being silenced in the current paradigm and we need to change that. Contemporary art is rapidly losing cultural relevance as a result of over-commercialisation and tireless regurgitation of redundant ideas. Ironic works have turned contemporary art into the punchline in an absurdist joke. Deconstruction, appropriation and excessive use of irony as main forces of expression have largely alienated the audiences, and for the vast majority of the public that means contemporary art is being avoided altogether as a result. There's only a very small elite who benefit from this paradigm. Paradoxically we live in the time where most people live in the top of Maslow's hierarchy of needs, which means art should have a much more prominent cultural position. The only way to get there is to speak up and create work with substance.
See more of Morten Rockford Ravn's work on his website.