IF it is possible for any one person to own a typeface, then Barbara Kruger
owns Futura Bold Italic. The font has appeared in her artworks since the
early 1980s, and its combination of effi cient modernist style and a certain
shouty sloganeering has come to epitomise her art, which appropriates the
aggressive tactics of advertising and propaganda to critique commercialism
and ideas of representation, as well as identity and gender politics. Her
now-iconic works combine short, dramatic sentences – ‘Your body is a
battleground’, ‘You are not yourself’ – usually written in white text on a
red background, with obscure, occasionally disturbing, black-and-white
photographs lifted from various media.

Kruger’s skill at replicating and adapting the codes and iconography of
design and advertising undoubtedly come from her early education at Parson’s
School of Design in New York, and her later work as an art director on
Mademoiselle magazine. Adopting these codes into contemporary art in the
early 1980s chimed well with the era’s growing obsession with consumerism
and commercialisation and allowed Kruger to distribute her art outside the
confi nes of the gallery and museum system, although she was welcomed there
too. Alongside appearances in art venues across the world, her work has
been shown on billboards, in magazines and on book covers, allowing the
artist to reach diverse audiences beyond the typical contemporary art crowds.
With her skill at using bold text and imagery, Kruger’s work has
evolved into a ‘brand’, with its own distinctive, and extremely popular,
house style. This has allowed Kruger to maintain a position at the forefront
of contemporary art for over three decades, but does not come without
drawbacks. As with all brands that achieve longevity, time has lent Kruger’s
work a reassuring familiarity, which is perhaps at odds with the provocative
messages she is attempting to transmit to her audiences. There is a risk that
these dispatches are no longer being absorbed and debated, and, instead,
that her work achieves a recognition with audiences but fi ts too comfortably
within the canon of contemporary art to maintain its shocking or subversive
qualities. In addition, Kruger is now far from alone in using the communicative
power of advertising and design to convey an artistic message, prompting
questions of how it is possible for her to raise new and diffi cult questions
within a vastly over-saturated media.

One recent way she has been able to achieve this, however, came in
a surprising form: through a collaboration she undertook with the hip London
advertising agency Mother to create a campaign advertising the 2003–4
Christmas sale at Selfridges department store. A simplistic reading of this
project could be that it signalled a decision by Kruger to ‘sell out’ and make
some money by getting in bed with the enemy. While she may have written
the copy for the campaign herself, the posters do feel like Kruger knock-offs,
incorporating slogans including, ‘Buy me, I’ll change your life’, and even one
of her most famous lines, ‘I shop therefore I am’. So strong was this reaction
that many commentators on the campaign (which has been ongoing for
several years in the store) assume that Mother adopted Kruger’s style for its
own gain and that she, in turn, should sue.

An alternative view of Kruger’s involvement is that it has allowed her to
explore some of the taboos that lie between the advertising and art worlds,
while also reaching a broader audience via one of the most prominent
commercial sites in London. Advertising and art make uncomfortable
bedfellows, perhaps because of our ongoing desire to see art as existing
outside, and above, the commercial sphere, despite ever-increasing evidence
to the contrary. In this project Kruger alerts us to this and to advertising’s own
increasing complexity, by illustrating how an anti-advertising campaign can
now become a successful tool for selling a product.

A discomfort still surrounds Kruger’s collaboration with Selfridges,
however, evoking a similar reaction to the recent discovery that Joni Mitchell
and Bob Dylan had both signed recording deals with Starbucks, and
that, even worse, Dylan had appeared in a Victoria’s Secrets underwear
campaign. But this may refl ect more on our desire to keep our heroes
within certain categories, and for them to espouse only the views we are
comfortable with. By refusing to conform, Kruger has once again found a
way to be provocative.