M / M (Paris) spring out of context
M / M (Paris)Haunch of Venison, London
17 February–25 March 2006
The design work of M / M (Paris) – a partnership between Mathias Augustyniak and Michael Amzalag – spans fashion, with advertisements for Stella McCartney and Jil Sander; magazines, in particular the redesign of Paris Vogue; and art, through collaborations with Liam Gillick, Pierre Huyghe, Philippe Parreno and Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster. By working as artists in any given design context, and as designers in numerous art contexts, M / M effectively scramble the usual rules pertaining to both. The result is the graphic designer as conceptualist.
M / M are at their most innovative either when commissioned to realise a particular aspect of an overall work or when they actually direct the situation at hand themselves. The credit sequence they fashioned for Huyghe, Perreno and Gonzalez-Foerster’s film in the Venice Biennale – which commanded more space than the actual film projection – is an example of the former from within art; their commissioning of Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin to style Björk for a video is an example of the latter from within design. In both of these cases the duo fashion themselves as a tool to enable a process – the process called graphic design.
As a result of their process of working, the duo have begun to accumulate a personal vocabulary. Each new project they are engaged in adds a further set of symbols and signs to it – and it is the consistency with which these personal effects are plucked from M / M’s lexicon and redeployed in a variety of contexts and scenarios that differentiates them from many other graphic design groups.
For their exhibition at the Haunch of Venison, instead of treating the gallery as a commissioning body by redesigning their corporate identity – or even playing with the way graphic design is usually considered to be merely useful by the art world (think of gft’s work for the Frieze Art Fair), but not necessarily worthy of study in its own right – M / M chose to adopt the formalities customarily associated with artists. It followed that Spin, the designers usually engaged by the gallery, designed the ads, catalogue and invites for the exhibition. In pursuing this line, M / M made it clear that they wanted to be considered in the same framework as the gallery’s artists.
What M / M chose to do instead was select a variety of different works from across the myriad projects they have worked on and gingerly place them around the gallery. Upon first entering the exhibition, to experience how each floor of Haunch of Venison was replete with examples of graphic design was a delight. But once this initial surprise had worn off and a more tenacious gaze been cast, the premise behind it – not necessarily the individual works – started to falter because of their relation, or lack thereof, to the context of the art gallery. The first question their approach raised turned on how these objects and images should be experienced in this context – ie, out of the original one they were intended for. By now, M / M’s advertisements for Balenciaga from 2001 are iconic – but how much mileage do they have here? The advertisement, now resized as a limited-edition print, draws its strength from the history of fashion photography and advertisement design. The way the duo have doodled over a slick photograph lends the advertisement a sense of daring and personality in the context of a fashion magazine. But in the context of an art gallery this is lost. When recontextualising an image it is vital to negotiate with the new context with as much cunning as the initial one. Otherwise the tense dynamic such interventions depend on slackens off. A similar fate was also awaiting their poster designs of their own label ‘Pour Homme: M / M’ (2004). Experienced in a fashion context they would have an impact since the clothes don’t actually exist – such a nonsensical element in their approach would speak volumes in a world concerned with marketing products. By contrast, a further collaboration with Huyghe and Parreno for the project No Ghost Just a Shell (2004) faired better since its primary context is the gallery as it was originally conceived for an exhibition and accompanying book.
While these questions concerning shifts in context need to be embraced, to simply judge M / M as having less critical and creative acumen than artists is lazy. Since the Museum of Modern Art in New York started a collection in the 1930s, design has been perceived to be a vital part of the programming of some of the most progressive international museums and galleries. So why is it so odd that design should make its way into a com-mercial gallery today in London? This only goes to show how a new set of criteria needs to be developed to enable sense to be made of M / M’s work in a gallery context. These criteria should come from more thinking about the subject. For the art and design debate is too vital to be dealt with in only a cursory way.