Project White

This project involved reading an essay White  by Richard Dyer (Evans et al, pp 457) which is about the illusive nature of  ‘Whiteness’. Dyer is a Professor of Film Studies at Kings College London and as such his discussions take films as his texts. The project then required me to watch at least two films: Simba  which is British film from the mid 1950s which is a colonial adventure film centred on the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya; and The Battle of Algiers  which is an award winning Italian film by director Gillo Pontecorvo which is about events during the 1954-1962 Algerian War against French Rule.

Simba  is organised around a rigid opposition of white  and black with white standing for modernity, rationality, order and stability and black for backwardness, irrationality, chaos and violence. Dyer demonstrates how this is played out through the film’s mis-en-scene. Emphasis in the film is on this division which is depicted as visual and bounded. Everything about the native black people is visually  primitive, dark and threatening, whereas the white characters are generally depicted as reasonable and conciliatory. The film could be seen as an endorsement of the moral superiority of the white values but also suggests a lack of confidence in whether this will prevail. The Mau Mau uprising is represented as an unstoppable dark force.

The Battle of Algiers is altogether a different kettle of fish. To begin with it is a much better film. Simba is predictable and amateurish. The Battle of Algiers is intriguing and moving. The latter is in black and  white which gives it a sense of gravitas, almost like one is looking at newsreels from the time.

The Battle of Algiers takes a completely different slant on the issue of whiteness. White in the form of the French are presented as the barbaric oppressors. Black in the form of the Algerian revolutionary movement the FLN is represented as the wrongly oppressed. The French gendarmerie are depicted as racist, sexist bigots and the Algerians as devout, law abiding Muslims. In order to put down the guerilla forces of the FLN the French bring in the paratroopers under a commander Mathieu. Mathieu uses a range of oppressive measures to root out the leaders of the FLN, including curfews, bombing and  torture . Mathieu is also shown manipulating the media to mobilise public opinion in favour of his actions. Towards the end of the film he appears to have suppressed the uprising, when all of the leaders have been captured or killed. However there is an interesting postscript which shows the mass public protests which took place two years later. These eventually lead to the Algerian independance. So once again the inevitability of the eventual collapse of colonialism is represented. Curiously this postscript reminded me of the recent uprisings during the Arab Spring which of course were directed at oppressors in the form of corrupt dictators and military juntas.

Evans J. & Hall S (eds) (1999) Visual Culture: the reader  London: Sage


Project Women artists

This project is specifically about British artist Sarah Lucas and involves annotating images of four of her works and relating them to the ‘isms’ so far discussed on the course.

The first work is ‘Au Naturel 1994 Mattress, water bucket, melons, oranges and cucumber’:

Au Naturel 1994 Mattress, water bucket, melons, oranges and cucumber by Sarah Lucas

What this work depicts is pretty transparent. The sexual organs of both the woman and the man are constructed out of fruit and a copper bucket and these are placed on a bare mattress which is lying on the floor. The work is a sculpture of a man and a woman lying in bed naked and ready for sex – ‘au naturel’ as it were…The top of the mattress is bent and leans against  a wall. The use of everyday objects to construct the sexual organs, such as the melons for the woman’s breasts,  references the use of such words in popular slang. In this way Lucas is showing how sexuality is embedded in language through association with everyday objects. Arguably this could also be taken as an illustration of how the roles of men and women are culturally determined and patriarchal society is perpetuated. This idea is further reinforced by the fact the fact that the woman is lying on her back with her sexual organs available to the rampant male by her side, which parodies the role of the woman as presented in popular culture. Placing a man and a woman side by side in a work of art also hints at the question of the role of both sexes in art and perhaps more relevantly the role of women in art (or the lack of recognition of such).

The second work is Human Toilet 1997. This is a self portrait photograph. She appears to be naked and is sitting on a toilet. She is holding the cistern in her hands.

Human Toilet 1997 C-print

The walls of the toilet are bare and the woman looks pale. She is averting her gaze looking down. This work seems to suggest that woman’s role in society is akin to that of a toilet. The implication is that women exist to serve the interests of  men however base these may be. Although the subject, Lucas,  is naked,  the image is not sexual. An alternative interpretation is that she is disgusted with herself. There is a second version of this photograph Human Toilet Revisited  in which she is sitting on a toilet smoking a cigarette. In this work she is wearing a tee shirt but with nothing covering her legs.

Human Toilet Revisited 1998

Here again she is averting her gaze with her eyes looking downwards. She has her knees bent and her feet on the toilet seat. The toilet seat is down. There is a narrow window with a rough wooded frame behind her. The reading for this second work could be taken as per the first except that in this second photograph she is less a part of the toilet – she is not holding the cistern. She seems to be comparing herself to a toilet, almost as if there is an element of self loathing. This could be associated with the smoking. Perhaps she considers that this habit relegates her to the status of a toilet. Both images are present depressing image of women. Perhaps this is how Lucas views the role of women in life and in art.

The final work  is ‘Self Portrait with a Mug of Tea’. This work is a collage of digital prints mounted on brown paper. Lucas sits with her legs wide. She is wearing blue jeans and a shirt. She is holding the mug of tea in her right hand and has a cigarette in her left. She is looking out beyond the viewer.

Self Portrait with Mug of Tea 1993

This quotation from an interview with Lucas sheds some light on her approach in this image ‘I suddenly could see the strength of the masculinity about it – the usefulness of it to the subject struck me at that point, and since then I’ve used that’ (Lucas quoted in Barber, p.16). Her aim here is to confront the ‘normal’ cultural roles of men and women in society. She is not dressed up for the voyeuristic scopophilic delight of males. She looks like a man. She is not modestly averting her gaze and taking delight in being seen. Rather she is ignoring and looking beyond the viewer. Her pose, the mug and her cigarette also represent her manly pose and her confrontation with gender stereotyping.

Lynn Barber, ‘Drag Queen’, Observer Magazine, London, 30 January 2000, pp.10-16

Project Gendering the gaze

The source material for this project is Laura Mulvey’s excellent essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. Mulvey proposes that the western cinema has been structured along the lines of the patriarchal society that exists today. Films are made to satisfy the scopophilic urges of the dominant male. Women are presented in as passive objects to be seen. According the Mulvey the cinema goes “.. far beyond highlighting a woman’s to-be-looked-at-ness, cinema builds the way she is to be looked at into the spectacle itself.” The main thrust of her argument is about how men derive pleasure when watching films both from looking (voyeuristically) at the women characters and through identification the male characters,as ‘ideal ego’ role models.

I have also to watch Hitchcock’s Vertigo and comment on it. I have yet to obtain a copy of the film. I will post some comments on this at a later stage.

The project also asks how the portrayal of contemporary black music in video matches up to Mulvey’s insights. This image is typical of the way in which women are represented in these videos:

E! reality series “Candy Girls”

They are scantily clad. Their involvement is largely visual. The vocalist could be either male or female. In the case of a female star she too is likely to appear in provocative clothing. The videos are constructed to provide the (male) viewer with intimate views of the bodies of the female dancers. They satisfy the male scopophilic gaze. They most certainly turn the women’s to-be-looked-at-ness into a spectacle. The women also serve as Ideal-ego role models for female viewers. This is clearly evidenced in the mode of dress of young women at clubs, parties etc. They emulate the provocative poses of the role models in the videos.

The final part of this project involves annotating Manet’s Olympia in terms of the gaze and the various characters within and without the image.

Edouard Manet, Olympia, 1863
(Musee d’Orsay)

The form of this portrait reflects a classical representation of the reclining nude. What differentiates this painting is the nature and direction of the gaze.The nude female figure would normally be expected to avert her gaze  or cast her eyes down – not so in this painting. This is what made it so shocking at the time it went on show. The woman looks directly at the viewer. She is given a face and a personality.  Her gaze is confident, strong and uninhibited. She does not show modesty and she confronts the male viewer head on. This makes it difficult for the viewer (assumed to be male) to objectify the nude figure. In a way the confrontational gaze seems to deflect the male gaze, and to cause embarrassment to the male onlooker seeking scopophilic pleasure. The black servant also looks directly at the woman. She is holding flowers but the woman is ignoring her and looking straight at the viewer, without distraction.

Project Images of woman

For this project I had to review John Berger’s picture essay (Chapter 2 – Ways of Seeing) and watch episode 2 of his TV series Ways of Seeing. The first task following this was to prepare two collages of images from magazines and newspapers which illustrate two opposing views of the visualisation of women today.

Here is my first collage. It shows how women are represented (for the most part) in the popular press and men’s magazines. Essentially women are placed on show for the sexual gratification of men. They are objectified and are depicted as available. ‘Indulge your fantasies’ as the headline in the centre says.

Woman as sex object

The second set of images are images of women who are successful in politics and business. Here there is a curious mix of woman as nurturer (smiling, helpful), woman as role model (businesslike, successful, chic) and woman as castrator (bossy, dominating, powerful)….

Woman as role model, nurturer and castrator

The second part of this project involved collecting images of nakedness and the nude. Berger makes the distinction by saying that to be naked is to be oneself, but to be nude is to be seen naked by others and yet not recognised by others. The distinction if thus that the nude image is created specifically to be seen by others. The nude man/woman is on display. The subject is objectified.  Lord Clarke makes the distinction differently. He maintains that to be naked is to be simply without clothes, whereas the nude is a form of art. There is some overlap in these views as art is made to-be-seen. I decided to put in a google search first for ‘naked’ and to take the first few images and annotate  and classify them as nakedness or the nude. Then to repeat the process for a search based on ‘the nude’.

The first ‘naked’ image is a photograph by Spencer Tunick who makes series of photographs of people who are naked in public. Interestingly this image is intended as art – Tunick refers to his work in this way. And in fact this is how I interpret this image. The large numbers of people are indeed being offered up for display. They are presented anonymously. We seem to be being invited to imagine ourselves within this scene which can readily be interpreted as sexual.

Mexico City – Spencer Tunick

The second image is from a news report in the Guardian newspaper. It shows a naked cycle ride. The image on the face of it represents nakedness. It has not been made as art or to be seen by others. It is simply a news report.

York’s naked bike ride pedals into its seventh year – Guardian Newspaper

The third image is of a group of clowns posing for a photograph for a naked calendar. This is interesting because it could hardly be called art as Clarke would call it yet it is made specifically to-be-seen by others. A distinction here however is that the individuals are being themselves and are recognised as such. This is part of the fun of calendars such as these. So I would classify this image as depicting nakedness.

Members of San Francisco’s Clown Conservatory.
Photo © Naked Clown Calendar

The final image is a photograph of Mischa Barton which was on the cover of Cosmopolitan magazine in the UK. Here it seems to me she is presented as a nude to be seen by men for scopophilic pleasure and women as an Ideal-ego.

Mischa Barton – Cover Cosmopolitan UK

I next typed in the word ‘nude’. The first image is a rather strange image which presents a naked manikin who has her face and arm covered with what looks like ‘bondage’ clothing for sado-masochistic sexual acts – a gas mask and a curious contraption on her right arm. This for me is presented to be seen as an object – definitely a nude. But can a manikin be a nude?

Lucy in the Nude by Airbournevirus Deviant Art website

The next image is from an article called ‘a day out in the nude’ from the Olive Press website. It shows a naked woman diving to return a volley ball. Whilst this could be presented as an item of news, it can so easily also be seen as an image which objectifies the female form. The fact that the woman has an attractive figure readily supports this view. This brings into the debate the question of how the viewing context might change the interpretation of whether an image is simply a depiction of nakedness or the nude.

‘a day out in the nude’ from the Olive Press

My final image is a copy of a painting by Paul Desire Trouillebert – The Nude Snake Charmer. The for me definitely falls under the category of the nude. Why one wonders would a snake charmer wish to carry on her trade in the nude??

Paul Desire Trouillebert – The Nude Snake Charmer

Project Looking, observation and surveillance?

This project involved reading a passage entitled Panopticism by Michel Foucault, which came from his book Discipline and Punishment. The essay is a reflection on Jeremy Bentham’s architectural design for the perfect building to keep people under surveillance – the Panopticon.

The design of the Panopticon comprised of an outer building shaped like a hoop. All of the rooms/cells in the hoop  have windows at both ends so that an unobstructed view into all of the rooms is possible when looking from the centre. At the centre there is round watch tower with subdued lighting and screens which mean that it is not possible to see into the tower from the rooms in the outer hoop.

Panopticon design by Bentham

The result is that those incarcerated in the cells are visible at all times. The inmates know that they can be seen at all times, but they do not know whether they are being surveilled at a particular moment in time. The structure works as a system of control. Those in the cells come to behave at all times as if they are under surveillance. From the perspective of those in a position of power this is  a very efficient means of keeping large numbers of people effectively under surveillance by a small number of ‘guards’.

My sense is that Foucault uses the Panopticon as a metaphor for similar systems of control which are becoming more common in today’s society. Consider for example speed cameras on British roads. We all know that they are there – they are big and yellow and well signposted. We all know that they may or may not have a camera in them. So we do not know if we are being surveilled. Yet generally we behave as if we are – we slow down. There are increasing numbers of physical control systems in our society and indeed yet more when one considers the policing and surveillance of the myriad forms of communication, telephone calls, emails, internet usage etc.

The course notes indicate that a major contribution of Foucault’s thinking is that we are all now very much aware of the differences between looking, observing and surveilling. I thought I would just set out my own interpretation of these three words. For me…

  • looking implies that we are holding something or someone in our vision but with no particular intention in mind, at least to begin with
  • observing implies that we are paying particular interest in the subject under our gaze with a view to interpreting or analysing what we are seeing
  • surveillance implies that we are looking at something with a view to controlling it in some way, as is the case in Foucault’s notion of Panopticism

The projects asks the question as to whether Foucault’s ideas shed any light on the dichotomy of the contemporary desire to be seen (e.g. reality TV, celebrity, social networks etc) and the desire for privacy (laws which ban photography, curbs on the media, injunctions by members of the Royal Family etc.).

Looking for example at social networks such as Facebook. They act just like a Panopticon. We place our thoughts,  photographs, details of relationships and such like on a public website available for all to see. We know that our pages may be being studied at any time but we do not know if they are under surveillance at a particular moment of time. For all we know we may be being stalked by unsavoury characters. So why do people do this? Why do we willingly subject ourselves voluntarily to a system of surveillance. My guess is that it is our way of achieving fame just like our celebrity heros and heroins. These well known (or even less well known) personalities serve as role models. They too have Facebook sites. They too are surveilled by the media. So we follow their lead and place ourselves in the public domain. This boosts our self esteem. We feel like celebrities ourselves.

With regards to the growing desire for privacy, I think that this is a reaction against the undoubted fact that there is more and more surveillance of our lives and that we are being controlled by ‘Big Brother’. We want to see ourselves as free agents and so rid ourselves of unwanted systems of control.

The next task involves looking at the work of some video artists and to think about why many use themselves as the subject in their videos. I found some interesting content by an Austrian artist Pipilotti Rist. In her early work she featured as the subject in many of her video installations. Here is a Youtube link to one of her videos here

To be honest listening to interviews with the artist I believe that her appearance in her own work was for practical and economic reasons. Setting this aside thought I think there is another issue to consider. Placing someone in a video which will be shown in a gallery, is tantamount to placing the person under surveillance. The subject is under the control of the video producer and the controlling gaze of the viewer. One way to avoid this association is for the video producer to become the subject also.

The final task involved sourcing photographs which have come about as a result of looking at, observing and placing under surveillance.

First two which result from looking are from Garry Winogrand’s somewhat controversial book Women are Beautiful (Winogrand).  These are quickly taken photographs snapped by Winogrand in the street. They reflect the male gaze and objectify the women pictured. However, as they represent a fleeting moment on the street I feel they could only have come about as a result of a quick look.

From Women are Beautiful 1965 by Garry Winogrand

From Women are Beautiful 1965 by Garry Winogrand

Turning now to photographs which arose out of observing. The first of these is from Walker Evan’s Subway Photographs, in which Evans secretly photographed fellow passengers on the New York subway. This photograph was shown in the 2010 Tate Modern Exhibition  Exposed  voyeurism, surveillance and the camera” (Phillips). Evans would have been sitting opposite his subjects on the train observing them and in his own time decided who might be his best subject for the photograph.

Walker Evans Subway Portrait

The second photograph is a Brassai portrait of Picasso. Portraits by their nature seem to me to be a situation where the photographer has the time to observe and click the shutter at the moment of his/her choice.

Pablo Picasso by Brassai

The next photograph, which I feel arose from surveillance, is also from the Exposed exhibition. It is by a Japanese photographer Shizuka Yokomizo. She created a series of voyeuristic images. The approach was to send a stranger a letter asking them to stand at a window of their house at a prearranged date and time. She then took the photograph of them and disappeared without contact with the subject. There is clearly an element of surveillance in these photographs.

Shizuka Yokomizo Stranger No. 1 1998

The final image is a collage of photographs from Sophie Calle. Calle is fascinated by the interface between our public lives and our private selves. This has led her to investigate patterns of behaviour the techniques of a private investigator, a psychologist, or a forensic scientist. Calle’s very first work involved following strangers around Paris (Calle).

Sophie Calle early work – surveillance of strangers in Paris

Winogrand G. (1975) Women are Beautiful  New York: Farrar Straus Giroux

Phillips S. (Ed.) (2010) “Exposed voyeurism, surveillance and the camera” London: Tate Publishing

Calle S. (2003)  Sophie Calle: M’as tu vue? – Did you see me? London: Prestel

Project The mirror phase

This project involves reviewing an essay by Jacquest Lacan on the ‘Mirror Phase’ and then:

  1. finding two surrealist paintings which might have echoes of the ‘Mirror Phase’ and
  2. two examples of how the contemporary media makes use of the idea.

Lacan and the Mirror Phase

Lacan is notoriously difficult to understand. Bur his work is highly influential. He was a follower of Freud and his work was originally founded on reinterpretation of Freud. Indeed his approach overcomes two key criticisms of Freud. One is that it is sexist: male centred. The other is that it is sexual: as if the unconscious centre of all we are is our sexuality, and only that. By re-framing Freud’s Oedipus story, Lacan addresses these two problems.

Lacan retains the idea that we are driven subconsciously by desire but in his terms this is a desire to experience what he calls La Reelle, raw reality. Lacan believed that we cannot experience reality directly. We perceive the world around us through language and images and all the limitations that this imposes. Lacan believed  that although we cannot know la réelle, in any way whatsoever, we have an obscure sense of it and its richness. We desire it. It is La desir.

Looking again at the Oedipal Complex, Freud represents it as a conflict, centred on sexuality, between mother and father. In Lacan, it is a conflict, located in désir, between the two things that we use to  describe the world: images (associated with the mother) and language (associated with the father).

For Lacan, we are “who we are” only in relation to other people. Our aims and desires are shaped by the desires of others, in interpersonal terms and in terms of social expectations and prohibitions. Our knowledge of the world comes to us by way of other people; the language we learn to speak prexists us, and to a great degree our thoughts conform to preestablished concepts and linguistic structures.

The ‘Mirror Phase’ is concerned with the formative exposure of the child to the images from the outside  world. These are characterised as the child seeing an image of itself in a mirror and recognising it as an image of itself, as a cohesive whole. Although the child recognises itself it also perceives the image as other, a form of idealised self or as Lacan puts it an Ideal-I. This is the beginning of what becomes a lifelong preoccupation with the idealised self image.

Surrealism and the Mirror Phase

This painting by Belgian painter Rene Magritte has echoes of the Mirror Phase for me.

Dangerous Liaisons René Magritte

A naked woman is holding a mirror which faces away from her. Her legs, hands and the top of her head are visible around the mirror. The mirror is reflecting the back of a women, which I assume to be the same woman. The parts of the woman’s body visible in the mirror image are the same as the parts of the woman holding the mirror which are obscured by the mirror. We would have course expected to see ourselves in the mirror. Is this painting suggesting that when we hold a mirror up to ourselves what we see is not ourselves but rather an idealised image…

The second painting is by Paul Delvaux and is called Mirror.

Mirror 1939 by Paul Delvaux

This shows a woman dressed in a long gown sitting on a stool looking into  a mirror. The room has a bare wooden floor and peeling wall paper. The mirror in contrast has a gilt frame and a crown on the top. In the mirror we see an image of a naked woman sitting on a stool with an idealised renaissance landscape in the background. This seems to me to be a clear reference to Lacan. Whilst the figure in the mirror is the same woman it is an idealised unattainable image of her. The contrast between clothed appearance in the room and her nakedness in the mirror might be a reference to unfulfilled sexual desire and the contrast between the bare room and the idealised garden a reference to a desire for a grander, richer life.

Contemporary Media

This is typical of what I was expecting to find in the advertising media.

Mirror Mirror on the Wall… 2009 Lanvin Ad Campaign

It shows a beautiful woman dressed in glamorous and expensive clothing, complete with the full range of accessories. She is looking into a mirror. She is sitting on an expensive looking chair and has her legs resting on a matching cushioned stool. Her bag is thrown carelessly on the stool. We only see the back of the real woman, so in a sense the real woman could represent anyone, and in particular the viewer of the ad. The vision in the mirror is one of great beauty, and I believe is intended to be a vision of what the viewer might expect to look like were she to buy and wear Lanvin clothing….

Mirrors also feature widely in album covers for popular music. The cover for the Ja Rule album The Mirror is typical.

Album Cover Ja Rule The Mirror

What you see is a representation of a mirror image of the artist/rapper. For the viewer it is intended to represent what they might see if they looked into a mirror, viz a rap star. Again it is appealing to the notion of the Ideal-I, someone we aspire to be.

Project Freud, Oedipus and castration

This project involves reading Freud’s passage The Dissolution of the Oedipal Complex and then using the arguments it presents

  1. to help understand Edvard Munch’s painting Ashes and,
  2. to seek out some images or picture postcards which show a dominatrix or simply a large woman and to annotate these with regard to Freud’s castration complex.

In summary, Freud’s work maintains that both men and women go through a formative period as very young children when they are attracted to their parent of the opposite sex and perceive the same sex parent as a rival – the so-called Oedipal Complex. This is named after the character in Sophocles’ play Oedipus Rex  who kills his father and marries his mother. For most children this phase is ‘dissolved’ or is put aside. Freud suggests that resolution of this complex is fundamental to our development and if it remains unresolved can result in various neuroses. At the heart of the motivation of a male child to give up their Oedipal Complex is the idea of Castration Anxiety. The boy gives up his desire for his mother because of the fear that were he not to do so the consequences would be his castration. This fear surfaces when a boy first becomes aware that women do not have a penis and assumes that a parent has been responsible for its removal. Freud also suggested that women also go through an Oedipal Complex phase and that it is generally discarded because  “…In her, far more than in the boy, these changes seem to be the result of upbringing and of intimidation from outside which threatens her with a loss of love.”  It is worth noting that Freud’s contention that because of her lack of a penis, the female “…feels this as a wrong done to her and as a ground for inferiority.” is highly controversial!

Munch – Ashes

Ashes. 1894. Edvard Munch. Oil on canvas. 120.5 x 141 cm.

Ashes  deals with a recurrant theme for Munch –  the problematic relationship between men and  women and the mysteries of  sexuality. It is a visual depiction of emotions with representational content secondary concern. The detail of the figures and landscape are suppressed. It shows a man and a woman in a barren landscape, with trees in the background and rocks, including one which look like a skull on the ground.

The woman is standing and stares out at the viewer. She is clutching her hair which cascades down over the man who is crouched at the bottom left of the painting. She has sad and despondent eyes. Her expression is empty, vacant. Despite this her complexion is colourful, almost bright.

The man is turned away from her with his head bowed. One of his hands rests on his head. His complexion is deadly pale. He appears powerless, without hope, downtrodden.

To the left smoke rises from  a tree. This is said to be symbolic of Munch’s pessimistic view of the relationship between the sexes.

The the woman’s white chemise is wide open revealing a red bodice suggesting that her innocence has been lost.  In contrast the man is dressed in dark clothing suggesting gloom and despondency. The painting uses colour symbolically – black for sorrow, white for innocence and red for passion.

The smoke seems to suggest that all that is left of the relationship between the man and the woman is ashes. Despite this the woman still exudes sexuality.

The work could be interpreted as a visual representation of the Oedipal Complex with the man’s sorrow representing the recognition of that the man’s desire for the woman (his mother) can never be fulfilled.

Munch lost his mother at a young age. It is said that he could not free himself from the association of sexual relationships with death. Perhaps the death occurred before Munch’s dissolution of the Oedipal Complex, leaving him unable  ever to set aside his desire for his mother. Her death meant that this desire could never be fulfilled, leaving him in an unresolved state of hopelessness and pessimism about relationships with the opposite sex.

The woman’s frontal stance, her open chemise showing her bare breast and her red bodice signifying passion suggest to me that the woman in the painting may have been unfaithful – perhaps this is a reference to his mother’s relationship with his father. The idea of a male child’s rivalry with his father for his mother’s attentions is a key aspect of the Oedipal Complex. The woman is depicted as open to sexual advances but not for those of the man crouching in the corner.

Postcards Annotation

I expected it to be easy to find relevant postcards through searching the internet. In fact I have found it quite difficult. I have resorted to using characters from comic books. My first character is a mysterious woman calling herself the “Red Queen” who appears in Marvel comic books.

Red Queen – dominatrix in X Men comic books by Marvel

She is simultaneously available, (scantily clad, volumptuous figure, open red lips,posed with hand on hip, red hair flowing onto her shoulders), and at the same time unattainable (mask, bodice clamped shut with buckles, whip in hand). This symbolism all points to the dilemma of the Oedipal Complex. The woman (mother) is loves me and appears available but in truth is not. The whip coloured in red is the threat which prohibits such a relationship. It symbolises the threat of castration. In case we are in any doubt about her intentions the words  ‘That’s right me….now scream worm!’ make her intentions absolutely clear.

The Black Widow is a character from the Ironman comic book series. This is a contemporary image of movie star Eliza Dushku playing the role.

Eliza Dushku as the Black Widow

This image is completely festooned with phallic symbols – the gun and numerous the towers,  which appear to come from the Kremlin. The Russian theme adds a cold war sense of menace to the scene. As does the Black Widow’s black costume and her enormous gun. The image has the same available/yet not available tension of the previous image. On balance though I read her pose to be threatening and again the symbolism seems to suggest that castration (or  loss of phallus) might be the nature of the threat.

Project Author? What author?

The title of this project is interesting and very relevant to the subject matter. ‘Project Author’ with a capital A suggests the Modernist view of the author – ‘a privileged creator of meaning and authority in the work in question’. “What author’ with a small a presents the contemporary/post modernist view – this implies ‘The Death of the Author’ as Barthes has it with meaning being largely derived from the reader/viewer’s interpretation.

The first issue for consideration within this project is to consider whether the work of two contemporary artists (the notes suggest Cindy Sherman and Sherrie Levine) are better explained as a result of my reading of Michel Foucault’s essay What is an Author? and Barthes’ essay The Death of the Author.  I have decided to look at the two suggested artists.

Cindy Sherman’s seminal work was her Untitled Film Stills, 1977–1980. This  is a series of photographs which of Sherman acting out the role of various female characters from anonymous Hollywood ‘B” movies. Interpretation of what the characters represent is left to the viewer. To me the images include characters such as the bored and sexy housewife, the innocent and vulnerable secretary, the battered wife and such like. Sherman is said to have stopped producing the images when she ran out of cliches. I have looked at her work in the past and had generally thought it to be about the way in which women are presented as a series of stereotypes in the movies. I had perceived the work to be largely about gender and identity. I had thought that Sherman was illustrating how identity, and in particular female identity,  is unstable and constructed and how we are driven to consider in terms of media driven preconceived norms. What occurs to me now is that Sherman might also be acknowledging the ideas put forward by Foucault and Barthes. By presenting a series of cliche identities for women in the movies she is demonstrating how (to quote Barthes) “text is a tissue [or fabric] of quotations,drawn from innumerable centers of culture”. Sherman’s stereotypes have become so because they have been recycled by numerous authors and writers of film scripts over time. In this sense it can be seen as a direct challenge to authorship.

In the case of Levine I think I have always considered her work as a direct challenge to the concept of the author. Her work is largely based on appropriation which directly challenges the originality of work by artists, authors etc. By rephotographing the work of other artists she is confronting directly the originality of art and proposing that art is an amalgam of influences from a huge array of sources.

The project also calls for me to consider ‘If the birth of the reader is at the expense of the author is there still any of Benjamin’s aura left?’. In a previous post,  I have defined Benjamin’s aura to be ‘something which a work of art loses because of the removal of its uniqueness in time, place and history’. At its heart ‘aura’ is about the sense of wonder that something engenders as a result of its unique and imposing presence. In a physical sense I best understand this in terms of the feeling I get when I look at a wonder of nature – a great mountain, a monumental waterfall etc. These are things which are unique in terms of place, time and history. So the question is how does my understanding of the ideas of Foucault and Barthes influence my sense of awe about an original piece of art. Well I know and accept that the work may well have been constructed from ideas gleaned from myriad sources and that is may well have been defined by cultural conventions prevailing at the time it was produced. So I would certainly question the originality of the content. However, I still feel drawn to admire the artist’s skill and intellect. This could be about their mastery of the media in painting or sculpture or about their synthesis of ideas in more conceptually based art and literature. I am beginning to wonder if I have become so conditioned by the [Modernist] norms that I am unable to see beyond these but I genuinely do feel a sense of awe when I stand in front of a great work of art. I think this sense of an ‘aura’ may well derive from the sense of place and time associated with the work, in the same way that looking at an historical building or artefact causes one to reflect on its history. On balance therefore I do believe that there is something left of Benjamin’s aura, but I feel my explanation of why is somewhat inadequate.

The next question posed in this project is ‘Does any of this explain or validate the un-regulated nature of the internet’. There is no doubt in my mind that the content one sees on the internet demonstrates very clearly how ideas are recycled and in this sense it is a clear demonstration of Foucault and Barthes’ thinking. As to whether it explains the lack of regulation of the internet I am not convinced. I think this is due to the fact that the internet us a world-wide ‘space’ and there is  no body in a position to regulate it. Many individual countries have tried to suppress it but people in these countries have found ways around such local censorship.

The final question posed is ‘Does this invalidate the interest in the artist’s or creator’s intent at the time of making?’. From a personal perspective I am always interested to find out what the author was intending. I will generally read artists statements and have some frustration with artists such as Richard Prince who claim never to comment of their work. So does this mean that I am forced to look at the work within the narrow confines of the artist’s direction. No it does not. I feel free to form my own views. I read a comment from Peter Haveland an OCA tutor on this topic recently which I think summarises very well how I would view this issue now –

“Once a work has been finished and moves out into the world it has an existence all of itself, rather like children having left home, and whatever the maker intended and however well that intent was realised, a whole range of other factors come into play. Not least of which is the variety of knowledge and experience that each viewer, reader, listener etc. brings to the work. Then there is the passage of time and the new things that have happened since it was made added to which we have the new situation of the image (or whatever), for example the meaning of a painting made to hang over a fireplace (Rubens’ Samson and Delilah for example) in a specific private house may well be changed by being hung in a gallery amongst other works. The maker’s intentions cannot take these things into account and so although it is fascinating and often enlightening to know what the maker was getting at the real artistic value of the work can be independent of this”

Project Myth is a type of speech

This project called for me to read (several times) Roland Barthes essay Myth Today  and to consider a number of questions:

  • Who was Minou Drouet and why does Barthes cite her?
  • Consider Barthes reference to a bunch of roses and a black pebble and find other examples of elements signifying passion, emotions,or other objects or events from images I know.
  • Myth changes the real into the ideological. Find an example of an image which exemplifies this.
  • Consider carefully the passage on meaning and form “The meaning is always their to present the form; the form is always there to outdistance the meaning’. Annotate and artwork to illustrate my thoughts on this passage.

Minou Drouet was a child prodigy who published a book of poems Arbre Mon Ami (Tree my friend) in 1957 – the year Barthes published Mythologies. There was much controversy at the time as to whether Drouet wrote the poems herself or whether she was assisted by her parents. I suspect that Barthes refers to her because her poetry transformed real objects into myths. Trees took on a meaning beyond that of the tree. I also wonder if Barthes considered Drouet herself to be a myth, signifying the idea of the child genius. It is also clear that the Drouet affair was a major news item at the time Barthes was producing his work and this may have been a current affairs issue which intrigued him.

When considering how elements within an image can signify passion, emotions etc I thought about the way in which portrait painters have incorporated elements within their works to present a broader picture of their subjects. Holbein’s The Ambassadors is an excellent example of this.

The Ambassadors by Holbein

This image incorporates a multiplicity of references. The globe signifies the international nature of the role of the subjects, the lute and the books testifies to the fact that they are cultured men and the skull signifies the inevitability of death. It is a memento mori (Holbein has disguised this such that when the painting is viewed from the front it appears as a slash across the mid bottom of the frame, but from the side it is revealed as a skull).

Magnum photographer Rene Burri’s iconic photograph of Che Guevara has come to stand for so much more that just a ‘Cuban with a cigar’. It signifies revolution and opposition to western capitalist imperialism. It is now a strong idealogical statement.

Che Guevara by Rene Burri

To understand what Barthes means by “The meaning is always their to present the form; the form is always there to outdistance the meaning” one needs first to understand the terms he is using. He defines ‘meaning’ to be a sign which has become the signifier in a myth and ‘form’ to be the signified. So in the case of the above photograph this means that the ‘Cuban with a cigar’ becomes the ‘meaning’ within the myth and the ideological concept of opposition to western capialist imperialism is the ‘form’. The combination of the two Barthes called the ‘signification’. When Barthes refers to ‘The meaning is always there to present the form’ he is stating that the ‘Cuban with a cigar’ is a signifier in a myth. By ‘the form is there to outdistance the meaning’ he is saying that the ‘form’ takes on a meaning beyond the original concept of the ‘meaning’. In other words the ‘form’ in the myth goes beyond ‘Cuban with a cigar’ to stand for the idealogical concept of opposition to western capitalist imperialism.

Project: Structuralist analysis

I have annotated two portrait paintings.

The first is Gainsborough’s portrait of Mr and Mrs Andrews, which represents the subjects within what appears to be there country estate. The second is Velasquez’s portrait of Philip IV in brown and silver.

Both portraits are formal portraits and are constructed to showcase the wealth, power and influence of the sitters. They have a  number of features in common which might be regarded as portrait conventions.

The poses of the sitters show them in role. Mr Andrews as protector of his family and estate, Philip IV as statesman and protector of the nation. In both portraits the subjects engage confidently and directly with the viewer, indicating their status. Their expressions are quite serious demonstrating that they are not to be regarded lightly. The environments in which they are shown are directed at illustrating their status – a great landscape in the case of the Andrews and rich fabrics and furniture in the case of Philip. The paintings have detailed elements which are intended to be signs telling more about the subjects. Mr Andrews is carrying a gun and has a hunting dog beside him. Mrs Andrews is in a pose which a woman would adopt when nursing a child. Philip holds papers in one hand and a sword in the other.

One gets the impression that these portraits are intended to present  the subjects both literally as a naturalistic representation and perhaps more importantly symbolically as individuals of power, influence and wealth.

PDF files of my annotations can be found here:

Gainsborough Mr and Mrs Andrews annotation

Velasquez Philip IV annotation

For the second part of this project I have reviewed two portrait photographs – one formal and one informal. The idea is to determine what features the two have in common. The formal portrait is from Rineke Dijkstra’s Beach Portrait series. The second is an informal portrait of a friend’s son. Here are the portraits:

Beach Portrait by Rineke Dijkstra

Informal portrait of friend's son by Keith Greenough

The aspects in common with these two photographs are as follows:

  1. Both show a young boy
  2. Both boys are looking at the viewer
  3. Both are full body portraits
  4. Both have water in the background
  5. In neither portrait is the boy smiling.

The key points of difference are as follows:

  1. In the formal portrait the boy is posed standing full square to the viewer whereas in the informal portrait the boy is captured midway through climbing onto a wooden platform
  2. In the formal portrait the boy has a neutral expression whereas in the informal portrait the boy looks a little surprised and is exerting himself.
  3. In the formal portrait the boy is the key point of interest in the frame with no other distractions whereas in the informal portrait there are many other elements in the frame – the wooden platform, red lettering,  a notice leaning against the platform, white bars jutting out into the water and what appears to be the end of a pier reaching out into the water.
  4. In the formal portrait the boy looks a little awkward and self conscious whereas in the informal portrait the boy seems natural and unselfconscious.
  5. In the formal portrait the boy seems to be ‘on display’ almost as an ethnographic study. In the informal portrait what I see is a snapshot of a boy at play.