The Don Draper with soul

Robert Montgomery’s anti-capitalist art subverts advertising’s tried and tested tricks

Slick copy that sings like poetry, emblazoned on the sides of buildings, the wallpaper of everyday life – but this time not cynical, corporate advertising lingo, instead, a humane anti-capitalist message from British artist Robert Montgomery. By subverting the methods and mediums typically used by advertisers to push what he calls, “a selfish and flawed extreme model of capitalism,” Montgomery creates public work that surprises, challenges and comforts. 

This year, Montgomery has shown at the Venice, Istanbul, and Lyon Biennales, and had his words subtly embossed onto the front cover of style mag Purple, but he says being asked to do a banner in London’s Trafalgar Square by the Stop The War coalition was his biggest honour. This autumn, a “recycled sunlight sculpture” will be shown at Galerie Nuke in Paris on October 20th and will then travel to a rooftop in Brooklyn, and then to the facade of Templehof airport in Berlin. It reads,

“The city is wilder than you think and kinder than you think. It is a valley and you are a horse in it, it is a house and you are a child in it. Safe and warm here in the fire of each other.”

We bumped into him this week and asked him a few questions.

Much of your work is temporary – how important is it to you that there are photos of that work?

The photographs are important, mainly because they go on the internet and I have a big audience there. It's very touching to get emails from complete strangers – art teachers in Melbourne, students in Amsterdam, chefs in Chicago – who just write to say a particular piece touched them. The internet is at least as powerful a medium as the streets.

Your work exists on a number of platforms – billboards, projected lights, burning lettering, even embossed into the cover of a magazine, why?

I'm quite interested in f**king with the medium – anti-advertising messages on billboards, anti-celebrity messages on magazine covers, like my piece on the cover of Purple Magazine this season. At the same time, I like old-fashioned mediums too – I also make my poems in watercolour and cut gesso panels, which are both very old-fashioned mediums. I'm a big fan of pathos – if the medium and the message together create a kind of pathos then that makes me happy.

Robert MontgomeryRobert Montgomery

Due to the public nature of your work, it’s experienced by a lot of people who wouldn’t usually go looking for art, is that important to you?  

It's really important to me that a non-art audience can see my work. I want my work to be seen by bored commuters and I want it to be seen without people knowing it's art. You would be surprised how smart and switched on “ordinary people” are if you give them the chance; I don't think they are any less switched on than the art-audience. I'm humbled constantly, honestly, by the emails I get from complete strangers who like the work. And those emails keep me going when I feel depressed and discouraged. Also, I think this is a very good litmus test for whether or not art is any good – if it touches the hearts of strangers it's probably good art, if it doesn't touch the hearts of strangers, it’s probably just not very good.

You use similar tactics to advertisers– enticing copy, placing the work in strategic public areas, if an advertiser’s agenda is to sell a product, what’s yours?

My agenda is to change the world by helping to re-ignite the hippie dream, fighting against our dependence on a selfish and flawed extreme model of capitalism; fighting against our dependence on the economy of war; trying to help find a kinder way of living by investing less of our time and money in war machines and more of our time and money in free healthcare and free education; trying to help find our way out of this mess towards a system based on principles of kindness, pacifism, education and ecology. Why would anyone have any other agenda?

Robert MontgomeryRobert Montgomery