BY Emily King in Reviews | 10 SEP 03
Featured in
Issue 77

50th Venice Biennale

Various Venues

BY Emily King in Reviews | 10 SEP 03

Badge distribution has become an art world commonplace, the knowingly inert protests registered by small, breast-born statements well suited to the often diffident temperaments of the international art audience. At most large-scale art affairs a single button prevails, a graphic counterpoint to the event's official identity, and at this year's Venice Biennale that badge was Yoko Ono's Imagine Peace. Moving away from the 1968-derived conventions of protest graphics, Ono's instruction appears in small black capitals on a plain white background. The understatement conforms to Ono's general aesthetic and has political intent: messages of obvious merit need not be shouted. Offering the most decorous of protests against the ugliest of circumstances, Imagine Peace found itself attached to the smart outfits of people who, I suspect, have no truck with Ono's political ideal. If the message functions irrespective of the wearer, then this was a triumph.

If Imagine Peace won the badge equivalent of Venice's lumbering Golden Lion award, then Jeremy Deller's No Vogue was the outright winner of best young artist. Consisting of the Vogue logo in a red circle with a diagonal red slash across it, the badge was conceived as a response to the coverage by British Vogue of the last Biennale. Prompted by Deller's badge, I dug out the issue (September 2001) to see just what had offended him so. It is jaw-dropping stuff. Under the title 'Gondolas and Gucci', Justine Picardie reduced the entirety of contemporary art to an absurd backdrop for asinine behaviour on the part of artists and their hangers-on. Photographer Anders Overgaard supplied glossy pictures of the richer, prettier participants, and the tired exchange 'is it art?' and 'who cares!' is repeated several times in various clumsy guises. The only redeeming feature of the piece is Isaac Julien's coinage of the phrase 'The Prada Pavilion'.

I had thought that the idea of a pre- and post-11 September divide in fashion was dramatically overstated - remember Sacha Baron-Cohen, in the guise of fashion journalist Bruno, encouraging the designer Shail Upadhya to confess that all his 'September 10 clothes' were now confined to his closet - but Picardie's article made me realize how wrong I was. It is almost impossible to imagine this kind of 'fashion, festivity and footwear' piece being published now. But that doesn't mean that fashion magazines got clever and that Deller's protest is no longer relevant. Worn by good-looking artists who are no strangers to the pages of Vogue, the badge prompted lively discussion of the irritations supplied by Condé Nast: the way that American Vogue fuses fashion with patriotic duty, British Vogue's pathetic obsession with pointless society figures, Anna Wintour's relentless promotion of fur and so on. The badge also became the Biennale's most desired accessory.

The iconography of Deller's badge was borrowed from British road signs. Established by the Geneva protocol of 1949 and introduced in Britain in the mid-1960s, the red-rimmed round sign is a means of giving orders. These signs are not entirely logical. In some cases what is pictured in the red circle is forbidden (for example, a circled bicycle forbidding bike-riding), in other cases it is obligatory (for example, the black arrow instructing you to give way to oncoming traffic). The red slash is employed to clear up ambiguity (for example, no left or right turns). Had Deller simply put the word 'Vogue' in a red circle it would have appeared to be some kind of endorsement - but as with illegal U-turns, it must be crossed right out.

Emily King is a London-based writer and curator with a specialism in design.