Culture

Beating advertising at its own game

BEIRUT: Type “McDonald’s” into Google images and you’ll see dozens of pictures of the fast food chain’s mascot, the grinning clown Ronald McDonald, and dozens of pictures of obese men, women and children eating hamburgers.

At Artlab in Gemmayzeh this month, McDonald’s is encapsulated in an image that encourages people to think not what the company does for us, but what we do for the company. While the public is getting fat on milkshakes, cheeseburgers and fries, McDonald’s is getting fat on the profits.

“Unhappy Meal” captures a lopsided red cardboard fries carton, emblazoned with the globally recognized double-arch of the McDonald’s “M.” A sagging paunch and two nipples drooping at the end of flabby pecs protrude from the carton, which resembles a human torso. Dozens of arms with flailing hands stick out of the top – fries fit for a cannibal.

Above this nightmarish scene, a flying Ronald McDonald, squat and rotund with frizzy hair and an alcoholic’s swollen nose, buzzes on tiny wings like a fly over feces, dripping goo and coughing up what looks like blood.

The grotesque drawing, created using black and red ballpoint pens, is one of a series of 20 on show at the gallery as part of a solo exhibition by Lebanese artist Bernard Hage, who goes by the name Boo. Entitled “UNDRESSED – Society’s Reflection in its Brands,” the exhibition is a form of anti-advertising that takes globally recognized brands and inverts their carefully cultivated public image.

Hage began working on the series after quitting his job in advertising two years ago. The intention, he says, is to show what happens when brand logos are incorporated into a reflection of the darker aspects of daily life, rather than promoted as part of a mythical incarnation of a non-existent perfect society.

“Basically it’s my old job that gave me the inspiration,” he explains, “because when I used to work in advertising they used to tell us that the product represents the people, the product speaks to the people, the product reflects the perfect society. This made me think, ‘Who told us that society is perfect and that people are flawless?’ Society is corrupted to the core and anyone who takes a good look can see that ... It’s dark and twisted and every day many things happen that your mind cannot tolerate, especially in this area, in this country.”

The drawings are certainly dark and twisted – grim, bleakly humorous images full of teeth and blood and monsters. Hage’s bold style and repellant subject matter evoke illustrator Ralph Steadman, whose unflattering expressionist portraits of VIPs hobnobbing at the Kentucky Derby helped propel Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson to fame in 1970, when the pair collaborated on the article “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved.”

Hage takes on some of the world’s most recognized brands, from Coca-Cola and Pepsi to Shell petroleum, Marlboro cigarettes, Durex condoms and Red Bull energy drinks. He doesn’t just undermine the companies’ branding by rendering the logos grotesque, but by tackling the negative effects or fears associated with each product.

A series of three drawings tackle unpleasant side effects of drinking. “Butt Wiser” captures a Budweiser bottle, transformed into a monstrous creature with its bare, hairy bum sticking up into the air. An eyeball lies amid a pool of viscous liquid beside a mangled bottle of bourbon in “Smashed Daniels.” A bottle of Johnnie Walker Black Label has transformed into two giant eyeballs on a pair of tentacles in “Johnny Stalker.”

“You have three reactions when you drink alcohol,” the artist explains. “You either get horny, which is ‘Butt Wiser,’ or you get smacked, which is ‘Smashed Daniels,’ or you stalk your ex-girlfriend or ex-boyfriend, which is ‘Johnnie Stalker.’”

Hage spent a year working on the drawings, each of which took between two and four weeks to complete. Having studied graphic design at university, he says drawing was just a hobby until he quit his job.

“To be quite honest, the technique was developed in boring brainstorming sessions and meetings with clients,” he laughs. “I used to sit and scribble. They’d be talking about how to sell people stuff and I’d be like, ‘Mhmm,’ every once in a while.”

Now working on a book of short stories and poems, to be accompanied by his own illustrations and original piano music, Hage says he believes that art should be synonymous with activism.

“For me an artist is someone who can make a change, someone who starts a revolution,” he says. “It’s not about technique anymore, it’s about what you want to say, your ideas ... Real artists are seldom seen these days, in my opinion. I don’t consider myself an artist yet, but at least it’s what I aim to become ... An artist should change something, otherwise they’ve failed.”

At this stage, Hage says, he is not calling for change so much as trying to emphasize that change is needed.

“As a first step, it’s a reflection [of society],” he says. “Changing our habits I believe will come in later steps. In order to change something, first you have to admit that there’s something wrong ... Things are not working. Stop lying. Stop telling us that there is a happy family and the husband bought the wife detergent and she’s happy to use it. No – it’s not the case. The housewife has got sick and tired of working around the house alone ... Stop portraying this perfect life, because it’s not happening.”

“UNDRESSED – Society’s Reflection in its Brands” is on show at Artlab in Gemmayzeh until Nov. 29. For more information, please call 03-244-577 or visit www.societyundressed.com

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on November 20, 2014, on page 16.

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