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Masato Nakamura at SCAI The Bathhouse

by Kara Besher

Upon entering Masato Nakamura’s installation at SCAI the Bathhouse, one sees an octagon of giant glowing yellow arches. Is this a portal to heaven, or an entry to a fast-food restaurant?

Walking among the M-shaped arches enables the visitor to fraternize, almost merge, with one of the most recognizable of corporate icons; the "golden arches" of McDonald’s.

Logos serve three primary functions: to identify, to draw attention and to attract. Since Nakamura’s icons are authentic, Mc-blessed items, the pieces do all these, and well. As per regulation standards, the letters are an appealing school-bus yellow, molded in slight relief. Their graceful, fluted forms belie the sturdiness of their design. After all, these signs were meant to be displayed at drive-thrus, revolving outdoors in rain, sleet and hail.

Some visitors might find the strong architectural presence of the installation compelling, even uplifting. Arches, particularly golden ones, are a symbol of heaven; the sky vault that intermediates between earth and the great beyond. Passing under an arch signifies rebirth, a change from old to new. Arches symbolize victory, and mark the entryway to sacred places.

But as everyone knows, arches which look like this signify only one thing: a dependable burger. The wonder of the Big Mac is that it tastes the same wherever you are.

Nakamura says that he got the idea after returning from a round-the-world trip in 1996. "After developing the pictures I took, I noticed these yellow Ms in many of the shots. It didn’t matter what country I was in--there they were," he says.

The McDonald’s arches are one of the most pervasive elements of urban architecture on the planet. The sign marks over 20,000 restaurants in more than 100 countries, and 1, 500 outlets in Japan alone.

Nakamura says he was struck by a sort of Gaia-like parallel. "I had the feeling that this living creature [earth] was transforming, with the Ms appearing all over its surface, almost like blemishes," he says.

Seen in the context of the artist’s previous works, which incorporate multi-national food brands and convenience store emblems, Nakamura’s golden arches can be read as an ominous commentary on corporate invasion and world domination.

Rather than political ideology, the new homogenized, postmodern world bases its creed on commerce. In a commodity-based culture, willing converts are drawn by the trappings of ease and affluence, and the lure of a "Happy Meal."

The Economist uses the Big Mac to measure price parity for currencies around the world. Its called, simply enough, the Big-Mac Index. It uses the Big Mac because it is one of the most standardized and accessible products in the world.

McDonald’s is notoriously picky about which countries may play host to their restaurant; the key seems to be a certain level of economic and social stability. This strategy may have far-reaching diplomatic implications.

In the "Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Preservation," Thomas Friedman of the N.Y. Times pointed out that no country with a McDonald’s has ever gone to war with any other such country. The hamburger chain’s own research confirms this thesis. According to Friedman, "People in McDonald’s countries don’t like to fight wars. They like to wait in line for hamburgers."

The integrity of a corporate identity must be vigorously protected. Trademarks owned by McDonald’s corporation include the phrases, "You deserve a break today" and "Twoallbeefpattiesspecialsaucelettucecheesepicklesonionsona-sesameseedbun," and of course, the Golden Arches logo. When University of California at Berkeley students sold vegan activist tee-shirts with the logo, McDonald’s threatened to sue.

Thus it seems almost miraculous that Nakamura has succeeded in obtaining company permission to use them in his work. Not only that, but McDonald’s Japan actively supported and supervised the construction of the factory-made pieces.

In doing so, McDonald’s took a great risk, putting its preciously guarded symbol into the hands of an artist with a possible political agenda. Admittedly, though, unless Nakamura were spearheading a group of militant vegetarians (arguably, the burger chain’s greatest threat), there is just not much that one person could do to affect a corporate identity that is so well established. Besides, the payoffs are tempting. Look what Andy Warhol did for Campbell’s soup.

Nakamura’s work involves more than just the appropriation of a symbol. It also brings into play the irony of corporate complicity. Soliciting the sanction of such a company is a triumph of sorts. This particular sponsor seems aware that the sight of its own looming arches may just be drawing attention to the specter of consumer imperialism. But it doesn’t matter—the big M is just too huge to be concerned.

Nevertheless, Nakamura himself understandably hesitates to comment on the social implications of the piece, maintaining that his own aims remain largely aesthetic. "I wanted to create something beautiful," he says. The installation is visually stunning but mute, and visitors are free to draw their own conclusions.

In the realm where artistic endeavor meets corporate interests, the artist usually plays underdog. The Absolut ad series, for example, features famous international artists, each interpreting, of all things, a vodka bottle.

This campaign was highly acclaimed in the media world. But when accepting money to highlight a product, the artist is in danger of becoming a mere illustrator, a lackey to big business. In Nakamura’s case, however, the artist shows it is possible to turn the tables, using a mega-company’s means to achieve his own ends.


Pictured is QSC+mV
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