Michael Murphy: “Art is not an ad”

A conversation with the pioneer of perceptual art, who became worldwide famous for his Obama portraits and, and who has recently created with Samsung an installation in London without being there.

In the beginning, the idea was to celebrate Samsung’s 8K TV lineup, that means the maximum resolution you can buy today, with a sports-related artwork, by hanging 8,000 soccer balls. “I said we could do it, but then it would be as big as a city block”, says Michael Murphy, explaining that’s when he suggested using the TVs themselves. The result of that concept is a new immersive experience realized with Samsung at Saatchi Gallery in London. Through a four-meter high spiral of Samsung Neo QLED displays, visitors are teleported to Biokovo Park in Croatia, where the English electronic duo Gorgon City’s performed their new track Skywalk

“All of this would not have been possible without the technology behind these TVs”, Murphy admits. The new Samsung Neo QLED QN900A TVs, ultraslim and almost bezel-less, were the real inspiration for the project: “I thought to make them fly through the space”, says the artist. In the installation they are “frames of animation” that, placed at different angles, move by a rotation of 31.4 degrees. A number that’s a reference to Pi and circles, and that is itself a reference to project producers Cercle Music

Michael Murphy. Image courtesy of the artist

“You can imagine for someone who projected images on suspended pieces of paper, how exciting it is to work with these 8k TVs”, comments Murphy, who gained worldwide fame with his portraits of Barack Obama at the end of the ’00s. When I drop into our conversation the topic of activism, he looks cautious. “There are lots of artists that want to make a positive impact on the world“, he says, “the intentions are there, the heart is there”. But he also explains that “most of the activism is paid: ‘agents’ hired by different political parties tell artists what to make”. And about the Obama portraits, he recalls when “the whole thing got hijacked by Democrats”. 

Michael Murphy. Image courtesy of the artist

Murphy is widely recognized as the pioneer of perceptual art – consider that his personal website’s URL is http://www.perceptualart.com. When I ask him to explain what perceptual art exctly is, Murphy goes back in the days. “When I was a kid, I used to spend a lot of time in the woods, and I would see images in the trees, like noses, or eyes”, he recalls. “It’s like when you see pictures up in the clouds, three-dimensional objects that create illusions of flat images”. He says that he was fascinated by all of this but couldn’t really understand the mechanics of what was happening. When he grew up, he started taking photographs to project them onto three-dimensional objects— images of bugs and butterflies to project on a tree line. “And if you walk around, you will see a flat illusion of the butterfly, but also the texture of the forest”.

Michael Murphy has never stopped experimenting throughout his whole career, trying to find out new approaches and new solutions, and he looks sincerely excited about this collaboration with Samsung, that was the occasion for a step ahead in what he usually does, he explains, because of a trick, a movement that happens inside of a flat image, “an illusion inside of an illusion”. 

“New technology is always very inspirational to me”, comments the artist, comparing it to a hammer. “I think of technology as a tool”. He says that he tries to get his hands “on as many tools as possible”, as many hammers as possible, whenever a new technology comes out. 

Talking about experiments with digital technology, he tells Domus about his recent works with AR and all the excitement that came with it. “I could do an installation in minutes and be able to interact with it and walk around it”. He says that’s a real inspiration to him since it “drops a lot of the restrictions that formerly existed for imagination”. And when it come to NFTs, even though he points out there’s “so much scam going on around them”, he says that he sees his work functioning “in that space”, since he’s mostly creating experiences, “which is very ephemeral”, and not actual objects - even if throughout our conversations refers to clay artwork he’s been working on.

The whole Samsung project was developed in the virtual space through conference calls and email. “That’s completely new, I never touched anything. And for the first time, I attended on Zoom an art show where I had work in”. Because of Covid travel restrictions, I couldn’t be in London either. And now I’m having this conversation with Murphy, who’s at home in Brooklyn, from Milan, where I live, through a video call. 

Artwork for Nike. Image courtesy of Michael Murphy

This is not the first time Michael Murphy collaborates with a brand to produce art. When I ask how it works for him, he answers with an anecdote. The other day he and his wife, he tells, were driving through Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and more precisely in Kent Street, when they spotted something “that looked like a mural”. But that wasn’t art. It was an ad. “Because there’s this whole trend going on”, he tells me, “large corporations hire a sign painting company to paint what looks like a mural”. And that’s supposed to be art, but it’s not: it’s just an ad. “And that makes you feel like you’re tricked”, he says, because “it looks like a mural, but it’s an ad for Lucifer on Fox (a TV series, whose sixth season was launched on September, ed) ”. 

What makes the Samsung project different, the artist explains, is that the company enabled him and other individuals to collaborate and to create artwork and not an ad. “It’s something that I stress with all my clients”, he points out: in this way, they will have the chance to associate themself with “insanely cool artwork”, instead of hiring him for an ad. “You’ll never see the Samsung logo on the artwork we created, and that’s cool. To me, that’s what makes Samsung incredibly cool”. 

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