Ever since social media exploded and internet networking sites such as Facebook and Myspace landed in our lives, the concept of “Brand Me” has taken off. For hundreds of millions of us these days, our own personal “brand” revolves around an online profile, tailored to appeal to employers, mates, dates and goodness knows who else. What we eat and who we hang out with are just some of the facts that can be fed daily into our online image; add pictures and opinions and we start to carve out our own little reflection in cyberspace. Brand me marks the rise of an “independent” revolution.
Branding has an obvious function in art as well, with plenty of artists not only creating a signature ‘look’, but also adding a recognizable and distinctive ‘persona’ with quirks and idiosyncrasies to the overall package. Few are more successful personal branders than Yayoi Kusama (1929), whose paintings, sculptures, performances and installations all carry the hallmark of pattern and accumulation, with her ultimate trademark being the repeated use of colored dots. But dots are only part of the Kusama “brand”. Upon moving from New York (where she’d lived from 1958 for 15 years) back to her native Japan, Kusama voluntarily entered a psychiatric institution, where she has lived ever since. In many ways, this seeming streak of ‘madness’ has become as much part of her public image as the dots have. By referring to herself as an “obsessive artist” and recalling the disturbing hallucinations she had as a child (in which her body and everything around her was infested with dots) Kusama has added fuel to the fire of her intriguing, alluring profile.
The NGA’s big Kusama canvas hangs on the Mezzanine level of the East Building. Infinity Nets Yellow (1960) appears from a distance to be uniformly colored and textured, but on closer inspection the familiar dots emerge. The picture shows vertical divisions where the artist demarcated areas for dotting on a particular day. The effect of thousands of tiny individually hand-painted dots makes your eyes blur and your mind swim – perhaps not unlike one of the artist’s own hallucinations.
When looking at Kusama’s art you can’t help but get the sense that she knows what she’s doing (she has continued to work prolifically, despite being institutionalized). By working with a recognizable ‘look’ and an interesting character, she has always stood out and has created a brand that makes sense visually and intellectually. It’s turned out incredibly well for her: in November 2008 Christies sold one of her pieces for $5.1m, a record for a living female artist.
In cyberspace too people are starting to recognize the emotional and financial value of personal brands, as seen in the emergence of services that help manage and protect online identities. There is even now a bank in Switzerland that offers customers the chance to lock away 1GB of digital data along with a swab of DNA. Can it be that our online brands are actually turning into a sort of cyber “life’s work”? Scary, and certainly worth thinking about, next time you tag a photo or add some text.