These collages made from vintage chemical ads are not what they seem.
In black-and-white newsprint, a plane sits on a runway, threatening to take off. Alongside the jet stand smiling, uniformed men holding signs in front of piles of chemicals in sacks and barrels. Underneath, in cheery block caps, is the tagline: "Monsanto Chemicals—by the ton—help a hurrying nation go places."
There's just one twist: the barrels are affixed with a ginger label, reminding the viewer that the chemicals about to board the aircraft may have been Agent Orange, an herbicide used in the Vietnam War that was liberally sprayed over the forest to remove cover for guerrilla fighters. It was later found to have caused fatal health issues for much of the Vietnamese population, as well as US service people.
"I felt like I don't need to add much more: it's already there," says artist Kirsten Stolle, who collaged the orange strips to the Monsanto advertisement in her work By The Ton (2013). It forms part of the series Monsanto Intervention, which explores the ways the chemical company portrayed itself through advertising in the middle of the 20th century, exhibited as part of Stolle's solo show Proceed At Your Own Risk at NOME in Berlin.
Many of the collages leverage redaction—thick black cards stuck over sections of the text—next to the cheerful domestic illustrations of the commercials. "When governments redact sensitive information, they're hiding something," Stolle explains. "I wanted to change the language to read as what they truly are. Their agenda is to make money." These redactions turn the text into something harsh yet beautiful: "Make Insect Profit!" "War in paradise," and "The condemned hear." "To me, they're sort of like postmodern poetry," Stolle says.
The project began when Stolle was researching genetic modification (GM) farming techniques—and particularly how they affected the production of soy, which she, as a vegetarian, was consuming a lot of. Her research led her to Monsanto, a large player in the GM market, and particularly how the company contributed to the Vietnam War and World War II, such as its role in the development of the atomic bomb.
"These are adverts that would've been found in Time Magazine, Life magazine, Fortune magazine, from 1944 up until 1960," says Stolle. "They're promoting their chemicals to use during wartime: insecticides and herbicides for the home user to kill bugs or pests." Even in the original advertisements aimed at regular consumers, Monsanto's language is macho and militaristic, at times racist and xenophobic—a reminder of the chemical company's link to products of war.
Stolle's additions also take the form of colorful collaged dots and fantastical doodles that nod to the more contemporary scientific procedures that chemical and food conglomerates engage in, such as genetic modification, or "pharming" (a biotech process of genetically modifying plants or animals to produce medicinal substances).
The latter forms the thematic basis for the second series on display in Proceed At Your Own Risk, entitled Animal Pharm. In these collages, scientific illustrations of cow ankles shoot like clock hands out of test-tubes, while elsewhere a rib cage makes a gruesome apparatus for forceps and a tube of K-Y Jelly. "It's about using animals to create drugs, which I thought was a little creepy. What are the ethical implications of this?" asks Stolle. "I wanted to amalgam body parts and medical instruments to engage people. I want people to feel uncomfortable about it."
Today, Monsanto is perhaps best known as a food producer, with much of its toxic, warmongering past forgotten. Stolle is fascinated by this greenwashing: "Their website, as it is today, hardly uses the word 'chemical' at all. 'Monsanto: a sustainable agriculture company'—sustainable for who?"
Kirsten Stolle, Proceed at Your Own Risk is on show at NOME, Berlin until 8 April 2017.