“As a private person, I have a passion for landscape, and I have never seen one improved by a billboard. Where every prospect pleases, man is at his vilest when he erects a billboard.“, a private person once said.
He continued, “…When I retire from Madison Avenue, I am going to start a secret society of masked vigilantes who will travel around the world on silent motor bicycles, chopping down posters at the dark of the moon. How many juries will convict us when we are caught in these acts of beneficent citizenship?“. That private person was, in fact, a rather public one; David Ogilvy, founder of the Ogilvy & Mather advertising agency, quoted from his book Confessions of an Advertising Man, 1963. Master–puppetmaster turns culture jammer. Awesome. It is a fascinating trick of the human mind, to crack on in your endeavour, while deep down your conscience is at odds with it. A debate for another day, I won’t judge, I’m as much a hypocrite as the next man.
On the matter of this billboard though, it holds a strange allure; an enormous, blank sheet of aluminium glinting in the sunlight, it was tragic, and majestic. Planted a hundred miles from any kind of civilisation, I was really drawn to it. It appeared like Arthur C. Clark’s monolith in 2001, an eerie, geometric counterpoint to a barren, vast green expanse. A beautiful contrast.
Their incongruous placement, or juxtaposition can actually add to a scene. Controversial I know, and undoubtedly I am of a generation so bombarded with signs and signals that I am slightly immune to it, it is so normalised. The world of marketing and commercial transmission reaches so deeply into every realm, it is expected. But I think it is more about there being a wider appeal toward the aesthetic of disruption. Where something anomalous, something that breaks the pattern, something unexpected, can be much more stimulating than the safe, warm blanket and mug of cocoa that is expected continuity – the image is interesting because of the object planted in the field, otherwise, it would just be a field.
Clearly in this case the scene would not hold its ominous, conflicted charm if the billboard had an actual ad or political propaganda statement adorning it; it’s emptiness gives it a tragicomic quality, to whom, and about what, am I supposed to be broadcasting, way out here in the Himalaya? I suppose What Mr Ogilvy was criticising more was not the physical object, but rather the corrupting of, or violation of a pastoral innocence with the steady creep of consumerism. Agreed. But in this case, captured and imortalised as a visual motif, I find that ‘corruption’ is precisely what stimulates my cerebral cortices.