As part of the feedback on assignment 3, The Reality and Illusion of Mannequins, my tutor suggested I look at the work of Victor Burgin *(1), a British conceptual artist who extensively explored the relationship between the apparent and implicit meaning of images in the 1970s.
In his lengthy paper on the wider subject of Writing with Images, George Dillon *(2) dedicates a chapter to the subject of “Appropriations”, a chapter in which Victor Burgin has a leading role. According to Dillon appropriation is the idea of placing an object or an image in a context with which it is not normally associated intending to unsettle our normal expectations and lines of interpretation. The concept has existed in modern art for at least 100 years and Dillon points to Marcel Duchamp’s famous sculpture, “Fountain” from 1917 , a piece of art created by placing a standard urinal on its side and signing it “R.Mutt 1917”. According to The Tate’s description of their replica of this work *(3), Duchamp chose an ordinary everyday object and placed it into a different context that changed our view of it. He is believed to have said that he had “created a new thought for that object.”
This act and the thought behind it would resonate with many photographers, especially those looking to follow, in some way, in the footsteps of the American colourists. The idea that art is created by providing a different perspective on an ordinary thing is at the heart of the work of a wide spectrum of modern artists in different mediums. Anna Fox at her recent talk to OCA students told us to “record something to give it significance” an idea that has helped me understand the work of many contemporary photographers and something that I see as a driving force behind the work of Shore and Eggelston (and of course Fox herself).
Victor Burgin took the idea of appropriations in a different direction. He is a man of strong political beliefs and has used photography to comment on a wide range of subjects including consumerism, the imbalance of wealth distribution, racism, the role of the male in modern society and unobtainable aspirations. The later being one of the drivers behind The Reality and Illusion of Mannequins. His work in this area falls into two categories, opposites, or perhaps more accurately two sides of the same coin.
The text is typical of the way fashion houses describe themselves and their products.
“…… the tones are pale, delicate. These are the classic Mayfair colours. White naturally takes pride of place ……. very much for the pampered lady dressed for a romantic evening with every element pale and perfect.”
Burgin positions text from a fashion magazine alongside a picture of ordinary people at a bus queue with a black women leading out of the text. The point would seem to be that this fashion house does not have this person in mind when they wrote the text, their target market might be a “pale” white women of a certain status and class who is unlikely to be queuing for a bus in a multi-cultural area.
This idea resonates with me for a number of reasons. Firstly, the thought that developed during the research for Mannequins was that fashion houses’ literature and websites use an unique style of language. It is flowery, pompous, self indulgent, egotistical and often, in their desire to fit all the desired trigger words into the same sentence, verging on unintelligible.
“Exclusive, glamorous, the most precious as goddess’ require” – Versace
“Its iconography was further defined by the bold and dramatic advertising portraying glamorous but strong women.” – Jimmy Chou
“An universe of contradictions and endless collaboration, noble causes and base temptations” – Prada
Beyond the attraction of using their words for satire or irony there is also a sense that the fashionistas live in a protected bubble inside the glitz of Milan, London, New York and Tokyo but a world that is detached from both the reality of their supply chain and the consumers of fast fashion. When they do talk about the environmental and social issues caused by their policies it is often patronising and condescending and with limited reference to how they intend to change those policies. The stance of Stella McCartney that I used in Mannequins is typical.
“We try to use organic fabrics and low impact dyes but we won’t do so unless we can achieve a high quality product” – Stella McCartney unintentionally explaining why only 1% of all the cotton produced in the world is fair trade and organic *(5).
Dillon quotes Jefferson Hunter *(4) as describing Burgin’s work at this point in his career as “smug texts and truth telling pictures” and this appears to be the perfect summary. His work is difficult to track down on line but Dillon tells us that he created many images using pictures of the everyday juxtaposed with language from fashion, property developers and estate agents.
The interesting facet of “Life Demands a Little Give and Take” is that, in isolation, neither the picture nor the text would communicate Burgin’s message; it is only by combining them that the overall image works. Later Burgin was to reverse the formula to create the piece of work that my tutor originally suggested I looked at.
Instead of an everyday picture juxtaposed with an unrelated piece of text that, when seen together, provides a meaning Burgin uses a studio style image combined with language that, whilst politically motivated, is suggested by Dillon to be abstract, theoretical, dogmatic and self righteous. This is clearly a complicated issue and as the viewer we can only read the message we think we see or, perhaps, want to see.
Above the picture the artist asks what possession means and below he makes the simple statement that 7% of our population own 84% of our wealth. This is a remarkably clever piece of work on several levels. The models look straight out of a fashion campaign, their style of dress suggests wealth and their body language might infer possession.
The bottom half of the picture makes a straight political or social comment which is a quote from The Feminist magazine. My reading of the overall images is that an advertising campaign using such a picture would be targeted at the 7%. Possession was created as a poster for the Arts Council to promote an exhibition of contemporary artists in Newcastle and 200 copies were pasted up around the city. There is an intriguing side note in Dillon’s paper about a survey that was carried out at the time to find out how people seeing the poster interpreted the message. It was found that few passersby remembered the poster let alone understood the message. Dillon puts forward the view that this was because the picture and text were so perfectly integrated people saw a fashion poster not a political or artistic statement. Another view might be that this lack of understanding is connected to the context of the image so visitors to an art gallery, expecting there to be an artistic message, would read this poster quite differently from a passerby expecting to see an advertisement.
In these examples Burgin is using diametrically opposed text and pictures to communicate his message which is an approach used by other artists such as Anna Fox in Workstations *(8) where she uses her photographs of office life in the 80s alongside the smug management speak of business literature. I followed Fox’s approach in Mannequins and have, out of interest, tried Burgin’s approach in fig. 01 above.
The two examples of Burgin’s work that I have discussed are part of a larger body of work carried out between 1976 and 1978. When researching “What does possession mean to you?” i found the work of Scott Benzel *(6). He has taken Burgin’s original poster and reversed the reversal by substituting the glamorous couple with a still from a “possession” genre horror film. This “copy” of Burgin’s work is interesting because the message, which as I have already mentioned was not readily understood in its original form, has become more confused in the copy. It depicts a cowering women which works strongly with the “what does possession mean to you?” banner potentially highlighting domestic violence or the perception that women can be owned but I, for one, fail to understand the link with “7% of our population own 84% of our wealth”. It is always informative to see chains of influences that allow the student to trace ideas both backwards and forwards from a single artist and reminds me of my favourite quote from Steal Like and Artist by Austin Kleon *(7).
” Everything that needs to be said has already been said. But, since no one was listening, everything must be said again.” – André Gide.
Another example of images out of context being difficult to interpret might be The United Colours of Benneton posters that were used after 1989 when they became the first fashion house to eliminate pictures of their product from their advertising. It strikes me that this campaign might also be in flunked by Burgin. Like “Possession” these were slick, professionally produced advertisements that used photos and text to communicate a message. This could be considered as a different form of appropriation in that Benneton appropriated social and political issues to promote their name and did this in such a sophisticated manner that, Serra Tinic *(9), a sociology professor at the University of Alberta, believes the original issues lost their significance by being transformed into advertised commodities. Ms. Tinic provides a thoughtful analysis, which can be found here, of the issues surrounding Benneton’s United Colors campaign and the mixed reactions it has received but, there is also a photography subject in play partly because a number of their posters evoke Burgin’s Possesions.
As well as being a photographer in his own right Toscani is the art director behind the Benneton campaign and according to CNN *(11) the man behind the brand’s rapid rise to prominence.
If we put the appropriation of social issues to one side I could argue that there is no appropriation in the photographic sense of the word because the text and picture are from the same source, an advertising agency and the diversity of the sources seem to be an important aspect of the technique. However, because we approach this poster with the knowledge that Toscani and Benneton make political statements with their posters we read the image as being a political or social statement and “get the message”; without the Benneton logo the image is weakened and its message becomes less clear. I therefore believe that, in effect, there is another form of appropriation in play because as soon as the art director dragged the Benetton logo onto this photograph he changed the meaning of the image by linking it to Benneton’s history of using social political issues.
I am grateful that I was directed towards the work of Victor Burgin, an artist I doubt I would have found without my tutor’s help. He was also a difficult man to research as, despite his status as an artist, a photographer and an educator his work is not easily found on-line. I wanted my assignment 3, The Reality and Illusion of Mannequins, to be considered in the light of my research into Anna Fox’s Workstations but it has been a very useful exercise to also be able to look at what I was trying to do in the context of Victor Burgin’s work.
It has been equally helpful to delve deeper into the subject of reading images and how the idea of bringing text and pictures together can work to make or underline a message.
*(4) Hunter, Jefferson. Image and Word. Harvard University Press, 1989
*(7) Kleon, Austin. (2012) Steal Like an Artist: 10 things nobody told you about being creative. New York: Workman Publishing Company
*(8) Fox, Anna (1988) Workstations. Cameraworks
*(1) The Tate. Victor Burgin. http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/victor-burgin-834
*(2) Dillon, George L. (2003) Writing with Images: Toward a Semiotics of the Web http://courses.washington.edu/hypertxt/cgi-bin/book/wordsinimages/appropriations.html
*(3) The Tate. Marcel Duchamp : Fountain. http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/duchamp-fountain-t07573
*(5) People Tree. Emma Watson. http://www.peopletree.co.uk/about-us/collaborations/emma-watson
*(6) Human Resources. Scott Benzel: What does possession mean to you? http://humanresourcesla.com/scott-benzel-and-what-does-pos/
*(9) Tinic, Serra A. United Colors and Untied Meanings: Benetton and the Commodification of Social Issues. http://homes.ieu.edu.tr/~ykaptan/MCS570/Serra%20Tinic%20Benetton.pdf
*(10) Toscani, Oliviera. Oliviero Toscani Studio. http://www.olivierotoscanistudio.com/it/biografia.htm
*(11) CNN. Oliviero Toscani: ‘There are no shocking pictures, only shocking reality’ http://edition.cnn.com/2010/WORLD/europe/08/13/oliviero.toscani/index.html