Aleksandra Mir: What is artistic freedom?
Martina Westin, Manager of Communications, The Absolut Company, Stockholm: The
artists that collaborate with us are given complete artistic freedom. But it is important to
understand that we don't buy art, but look for a relationship in which we ask artists to
interpret our bottle. In that, they are free to do whatever they like but of course there are
a lot of considerations taken on the way. Practical issues are discussed for example. We
consider the location, and that the work is transportable. If the artist would want to do
something immensely BIG that is impossible to transport or even realize, well, I guess that
wouldn't be so great either for us or for them. Since many of the art works are advertised,
some policies and laws apply, such as no cars, no children and no pornography. That way
the freedom of expression may be limited, but our parameters are clearly stipulated from the
very beginning when we brief the artist and he/she accepts and enters the collaboration.
Most art projects involve constraints either from a gallery, a museum or a curator so when
does an artist really enjoy total freedom? I can prove to you, however, how far we are
ready to go: Chris Ofili has made a painting for us in which he includes the medallion on
the bottle featuring Lars Olsson Smith, the ancestor of Absolut Vodka, on elephant dung.
We would NEVER allow an ad agency that kind of freedom. And Maurizio Cattelan's rat in
the bottle… I tell you, I have worked in the food industry for many years, and rats in
conjunction with food is the ultimate no-no. But here we felt that the artistic freedom and
the integrity of the artist is important, so we approved it.
AM: It is interesting you brought up this particular ad because I think it is the ultimate
Absolut Vodka ad. Apart from being a brilliant interpretation of the bottle, it also becomes
self-referential and talks about the traditional and dubious relationship artists have
with alcohol. It is daring from all ends. So, who takes the initiative in your relationship?
MW: We do. We contact artists we find interesting, that are inventive and cutting-edge, and
if there is a mutual appreciation we form a partnership with the artists and start a project.
This collaboration could either result in an art work that is advertised or occasionally we may
commission events or other types of work. Puneet Sulhan in England, for example, recently
made an art project about loving people that became an installation. Also, we are very
interested in the artists as individuals and their personalities. We want to form a long-term
partnership and have a personal relationship with the artists. Since many of the projects
involve openings and interviews for the media it is an advantage if the artist is attracted to
that kind of activity. All that comes up during our initial meetings with our artists when
we explain what we do and they come up with their ideas. The people we end up working
with like taking the challenge and are able to find an inner expression. Dan Wolgers said,
“It is fun to do something difficult.” The artists find it exciting and they compare themselves to
each other. “ 400 artists did this before me; Warhol did it; What could I do?” Apart from the
challenge, we offer the possibility to reach a large number of people through our advertising
and international exposure through the Absolut Art exhibitions around the world, and the
artists will find themselves in good company with some of the leading artists of the world.
Money plays a very small part in this collaboration. Many times, artists will call us and
ask to borrow a work they made which is in our collection, for a show they are making
somewhere else. So it is a mutual relation in continuous development.
AM: You work with ad agencies and with artists. What is the general difference?
MW: There is no comparison at all. They are two completely separate ways of working
and approaching the subject. When we hire an ad agency, PR company or a promotional
agency, we create an assignment to which they have to respond in a very defined way.
AM: So who comes up with the ideas there then?
MW: Well, we come up with the mission here in Stockholm and brief the agency, it is the
traditional way of working with an advertising agency. We may, for example, say to them,
“We would like to be speaking to a group of 25-32 year olds who are interested in music.”
And the agency comes up with a creative solution to that. In comparison and contrast,
the artists are involved in a dialogue with us all the way.
AM: I find that very strange because some of the ad agency ads I have seen are so
much better than some of the artists'.
MW: But we don't ask artists to make ads. They make artworks, which then become
photographed for ads, by agencies. The original artwork remains intact and circulates at
shows. Then there are of course a whole lot of very creative art directors who can allow
themselves a great deal of freedom in the ads they do for us.
AM: Are artists who approach you categorically refused?
MW: Yes. A lot of artists want sponsorship from us, or want to sell us ready-made work.
We prefer not just to be a mere sponsor but rather have an active collaboration with the
art world. We are really interested in creating projects with the artists and so ready-made
works are not very interesting for us.
AM: And what about all the amateurs? You must be sitting on a gold mine of ideas
people have sent in?
MW: We work with over 100 agencies all over the world and they constantly submit
creative ideas to us. There is the copyright issue. If we look at an idea sent in from an
amateur and it turns out that someone in our network already had this idea, it is a hard
thing to prove, so given the possibility we ask people not to send their ideas to us. We
only produce ads based on ideas that come from our network.
AM: But wouldn't that be yet another possibility?
MW: It is a great RISK. If we did something members of the public would recognize as
their own two years down the line, we would get sued. The most typical proposal we get
is from people who inform us that the Circle Line on the London Underground Map looks
like the Absolut bottle. We once even put that as copy into the ad ABSOLUT TRIVIA:
“Number of people who think the Circle Line is shaped like an Absolut bottle: 19,142.
Number of advertising creatives who've thought of doing an Absolut Circle Line ad:
AM: I was thinking more in terms of personal interpretations people might have done.
Naiveté is a recurring theme in contemporary art. A few years ago, thrift store painting
was all the rage. I am sure it would be really popular among people of my generation
to see some outsider ads next.
MW: But we do that of course! We have worked a lot with graffiti artists, for example, or
computer animators. Although their names may not be world-class, we are really interested
in people who are credible within their own contexts. We also work on putting the work
into its right context. If we plan an activity in Bulgaria, we will consider working with a
local artist. What is really important though, is that the label and the artist have the same
value and collaborate on equal terms. We don't want to take advantage of anyone's ideas
and all our artists are contracted to execute a clear idea. I can add that ours is a highly
original way of working. The more I travel and the more I see, I realize how fortunate we
are to have this relationship with the art world. Many other companies are involved in the
arts. They usually play a classic patronage role, offer stipends or function as detached
sponsors. For us it all came about in a very particular way: We launched Absolut Vodka
in 1979 and over the years we received a lot of attention and prizes for the bottle design.
In 1985, Andy Warhol made contact. He had met with our distributor in the U.S. and
asked to do his interpretation of the bottle, since he found it intriguing and different. His
silkscreen was the first artist commission and for a long time it just hung on a wall in a
board meeting room. Then Andy started recommending people. He introduced his
protégé at the time, Keith Haring
, who became our second artist. And then Haring said
“I have this friend I go to art school with, Kenny Scharf.” At that time, nobody could have
imagined the consequences. Fifteen years later, we still do projects with Kenny Scharf
and the collaboration between Absolut and the art world continues.
AM: So Warhol took his own initiative.
MW: He did. Warhol, Haring, Scharf. We consider them the founding fathers of Absolut Art.
AM: What is good and what is bad art?
MW: I don't know. I have many artist friends, I go to shows and exhibitions and I read
magazines, but I am not equipped to answer that question. We consult art experts for
that. My role and responsibility is to deal with the commercial side of our marketing,
to make sure our product remains credible, that the projects are run professionally and
that the integrity of the artist is respected. It is a very exciting position to be in and it is
very inspiring to work with people like Damien Hirst, l'enfant terrible of British art, or
someone like Francesco Clemente, who just had a retrospective at the Guggenheim in
New York, It is quite amazing. In all humbleness I have to say, we are but a Swedish
vodka company and world famous artists work with us!
ALEKSANDRA MIR/MARTINA WESTIN, STOCKHOLM, AUGUST 2000