Recently, Bleeding Cool ran a piece on Icelandic artist Erró, who of late has specialised in taking comic book artwork, redrawing it, mixing it up, mashing it up and presenting it as art, to the extent that Erró had his work recently exhibited in the Pomidou Centre.
A number of artists, including Chris Weston, were rather annoyed by what Erró was doing and let him know.
Brian Bolland (pictured) actually went to the Pompidou Centre to see for himself how his Tank Girl: The Odyssey work had been reinterpreted. He writes an open letter;
Dear Erró (or Mr. Gudmundur if you prefer.)
My name will mean very little to you unless you remember deleting it from your version of my “Tank Girl Odyssey” cover from 1995.
I first saw your work in a gallery in Reykjavik. I was impressed by the wild exuberance of it while enjoying spotting the artists you’d swiped, most of whose names I knew.
I was at the Pompidou Centre in Paris recently and I walked onto the floor showing your work and there, featuring prominently in the window of the gift shop, was a large poster of MY “Tank Girl” signed by you and on sale for 600 Eu. It consisted of a badly copied version of my work and, where the original logo had been, a group of figures presumably taken from Maoist Social Realism. My wife Rachel was with me. She’d worked with me on the original artwork. She painted Booga (that’s the kangaroo!) She said out loud what I was thinking: “That’s just NOT RIGHT!”
I spent five years in British art schools and I’m pretty liberal minded about the fine art world. I respect collage as a medium – from Max Ernst on. Warhol’s soup cans. Lichtenstein’s huge copies of Russ Heath and Jack Kirby’s work. I found your earlier work with its radical juxtapositions very amusing, the sheer mass of detail created an almost migraine inducing new whole. Collage is all about the juxtaposition of incongruous elements. Where the number of elements you’re collaging becomes so few and one of those elements is the thing that attracts the eye the whole experience is no longer about the juxtaposition. The element dominating your “Tank Girl” print is my Tank Girl cover. You look at Tank Girl and Booga first and then at your additional figures. It is they (and my efforts) that are attracting your eye when you see the poster for sale in the gift shop.
I was interested to see that you’d copied almost every detail from my original Tank Girl cover but with a couple of telling exceptions. My original was itself part collage. You may not know this but the pillow on the right (which you did include) has on it my copy of the cover of the first LP by the American band Ween. “God, Ween, Satan, the Oneness”. The butt of the rifle had on it some photos that were stuck onto the artwork. You’d left those out. Most significantly you’d removed my name which was running along the left-hand side of the TV.
I have in front of me your reply to fellow artist Chris Weston’s email to you. You consider yourself “a kind of columnist or reporter”. Reporters quote their sources all the time in order to get at a greater understanding of events. Their reports, like your work, are made up almost entirely of quotes. The difference between reporters and you, Erró, is that they name the source of their quotes and an honest reporter would be careful not to misrepresent his sources or take their quotes out of context. If he did he’d be deliberately setting out to discredit them. In your “Tank Girl” print you “quote” a whole piece of work by me. At a particular moment you consciously deleted my name – the artist’s name. In so doing you are claiming that this wasn’t done by an artist – it wasn’t done by anybody in fact – therefore it’s not “art” it’s just “stuff’. Just raw material for your “Synthesising” process. There’s something particularly furtive and grubby about the moment when you removed the artist’s name, when you thought no one was looking, from a whole piece of his work. It’s the moment when you admitted that you knew you were taking his work, discarding him, and selling it as your own.
You compare yourself to Rubens? he was surrounded by “an incredible number of assistants”? Well I’m delighted that you consider me to be one of your assistants, albeit one of your unnamed, unpaid and unwitting assistants. I have a feeling Rubens’ assistants would have known they were his assistants and consented to be his assistants and he would have paid them.
What this is is a kind of colonialism. You, Erró, have found a place for yourself in the land of the Fine Art Elite, in “Gallery-land”, and you have gone out and discovered a dark continent inhabited by pygmies – barely more than savages really – people with a colourful but primitive culture. Like the Victorian explorers you find what they do ghastly but somehow alluring so you steal from them, give them nothing in return and dismiss them. You display bits of their infantile and garish nonsense in what you call a “synthesis” on a gallery wall in the civilised world, something which has nothing whatsoever to do with giving a full and accurate “report” on the stuff you steal or the people you steal it from. It’s more to do with the titillation of your peers. You’d like them to be shocked by the vulgarity of the artefacts you’re bringing back from whatever nasty place you’ve been to but appreciate them (and you, of course) in that post-modern kind of way. One reviewer of your work said “I don’t know where Erró finds all that stuff”. Luckily for you she and other inhabitants of the galleries don’t know the names of the people you steal from and you’re not in a hurry to list them. You’re exploiting people like me, not because you’re a “witness to our time” but because you want to turn the base metal of comics into art gold – and you’d like to have a lucrative career in Gallery-land.
Back in the early ‘70s, when I started doing what I do, comic artists were treated pretty badly. They had to turn out many pages very quickly and had to accept whatever terms their publishers dictated. They signed away any right to be repaid if their work was used again. Their artwork was not returned and they were not allowed to sign their name or have their readers know who they were. In 1977, for the first time, we were given credits. The names of the writers and artists were listed on the title pages. I and a huge population of people who know about comics, BD, manga or whatever you’d like to call it, know the names of the artists. All of them work hard. Many of them are technically brilliant and/or display a unique form of self expression. They are Artists in every sense. Artists in my field have achieved a high degree of control over what their work looks like, how and where it’s printed and published. I, personally, don’t like another person to ink over my pencils or colour my work. I’m a control freak! So, in the light of all this, it’s particularly infuriating for me to see an image I created coloured and inked in a line that is not mine, with my name removed, in a place that is not of my choosing, signed by someone else – and that’s all before we get onto to the matter of the 600 Eu price tag. We’re used to being shafted by publishers – but by a fellow artist?
I always did my work with a clear conscience. It pleases me (and it seems ideologically sound to me) that if anyone wanted to see my work they could do so for the price of $1 – or at least at a price they could afford. I could never be comfortable with the idea of producing a piece of art merely to sell it to one wealthy person who then had the exclusive right to view it. My only reason for working – and the thing that gives me as much pleasure as being paid for it – is when the work is printed and distributed and the printed version is in my hands. I know that I and anyone else who wants to see my work is holding the very same thing. “Gallery-land” is not for me.
So – Let me sum up. I’ve very much liked your earlier collages The many elements have created a new whole, but I think your “Tank Girl” print is not about Erró’s choice of image juxtaposition. It’s dominated by my work. I think the selling point of your poster is my work. The way that promotional photo of you with the “Tank Girl” poster behind you is cropped proves the point. You’ve moved well away from “fair use” into plagiarism. By removing my name from the image you show you don’t really care about the artists whose work you steal. Your work sneers at and perpetuates old stereotypes about the kind of work done by me and people I respect – and does it no good whatsoever. Your work is about “Recontextualizing”. Ie. taking something out of one place and putting it somewhere else, thereby showing it in a different (possibly ironic) light. In view of the fact that your poster of my Tank Girl is selling for 600 Eu I suggest you stop selling it and I invite you to recontextualize the money you got from the sale of it out of your bank account into mine.
SirFollowing your email, we have decided to no longer sell this edition “Tank”.
We have made 20 copies, we sold three copies, we have given 5 copies to Mr. ERRO.
We’ll give him the 12 remaining copies.
Game set and match to Brian there, I think.