This article is the second installment in a new series on contemporary art as political commentary.
The Blanton Museum’s current exhibition, Words/Matter, reflects the use of language in Latin American art predominantly through the inclusion of Spanish text. Two works, however, manipulate a globally understood symbol: the Coca-Cola logo. Cildo Mieriles’s “Projeto Coca-Cola” and Antonio Caro’s “Colombia Coca-Cola” use Coca-Cola products and branding to disrupt the carefully crafted public relations image of Coke as a unifying global force. The works comment on “Coca-Colonization,” a term coined during the Cold War that connects Coca-Cola products to the global spread of American capitalism.
Coca-Colonization began during World War II when Coca-Cola traveled around the world alongside American troops. Socialists in Latin America and Europe protested the sale of the beverage, arguing that the company represented a neo-colonial economic force, that it was a forerunner of fascism, and that the beverage had dangerous side effects. These concerns, however, were drowned out by mass marketing campaigns and U.S. interference in the economic and political operations of Latin American countries. Since then, Coca-Cola has become a visual reminder of America’s extensive cultural and economic influence. Despite these connotations, the brand’s marketing has embraced the company’s global presence. The company became a sponsor of the Olympic Games in 1928 and, in 1971, introduced the cheery “I’d like to Buy the World a Coke” advertising campaign.
Meanwhile, in 1971, contemporary Brazilian artist Cildo Meireles began transforming glass Coca-Cola bottles into guerrilla art by attaching labels with slogans of protest and then returning the bottles to circulation. In the gallery, this politically radical work appears as a row of glass Coca-Cola bottles filled with different amounts of the sugary brown liquid. Meireles’ labels, at first glance, could easily go undetected, allowing them to dodge the intense censorship imposed by Brazil’s military dictatorship. In a museum setting, the label’s near invisibility disguises the work as a readymade or an art installation created from manufactured objects after the influence of Marcel DuChamp, but these bottles carry far more political power than an overturned urinal does. In the fine print, the bottles bear the anti-American and anti-imperialist message used by protesters throughout Latin America: “YANKEES GO HOME.” Each bottle also contains Meireles’ statement of intent: “Record in bottles information and critical opinions and return them to circulation.” As a part of Meireles’ art series “Insertions into Ideological Circuits, Projeto Coca-Cola” functions as a simple way of promoting dissent through quotidian symbols of U.S. imperialism.
In Antonio Caro’s work, the gimmick is clear: the word “Colombia” is written across a red sheet of tin in the same distinctive white lettering as the Coca-Cola logo. It reflects the pervasiveness of Coca-Cola branding in Colombia and underscores the company’s importance to the Colombian economy. Caro claims that his work contradicts the idea that art must be “something mystical, something outside of the everyday.” In “Colombia Coca-Cola,” he draws from the mundane images of mass produced and popular culture, embracing a Pop Art aesthetic. Through American Pop Art, Coca-Cola became a symbol of American identity. In Andy Warhol’s “Green Coca-Cola Bottles” and series of “Coca-Cola” paintings, Coca-Cola bottles illustrate the uniformity of American life. In the Pop Art of Mel Ramos, female nudes are positioned next to Coke bottles and other consumer products to reflect an American identity built around mass consumerism.
Although Latin American artists adopted Pop Art aesthetics, in visual art, Coca-Cola branding remained a symbol of the United States. In this context, “Colombia Coca-Cola” seems to blur the lines between national identity and economics, suggesting, perhaps, that Colombia has been reduced to a consumable product by the U.S., or even that Colombia is dependant on U.S. capital, such as that provided by the Coca-Cola company. In the U.S., Coca-Cola may be “the pause that refreshes,” but the moment of escapism sold by Coca-Cola is only available to the colonizer in the neo-colonial economic system set up by American corporations in Colombia.
Described by the company’s president as “the essence of capitalism,” Coca-Cola is explicitly linked to American economics and political power. The reclamation of the brand by Latin American artists disrupts capitalist systems and manipulates the power of mass media to spread an alternative message. Cildo Meireles harnesses pre-existing methods of circulation to encourage revolutionary activity while Antonio Caro subverts expectations associated with branding and national identity. Positioned next to each other in the same gallery, “Projeto Coca-Cola” and “Colombia Coca-Cola” illustrate the Coca-Colonization phenomenon in two different Latin American countries.
Both works will remain on view in the Blanton Art Museum’s Words/Matter exhibition until May 26. Entry to the museum is free with a student ID.