Exit Theory: Thinking Photography and Thinking History from One Crisis to Another – John Tagg

British Art Studies Issue 4, published 28 November, 2016

John Tagg’s invitation to respond dropped into my email inbox while I sat with coffee in New York after seeing two separate exhibitions by the British artist and writer Victor Burgin. A good coincidence.

A Chelsea gallery was presenting two recent video pieces by Burgin (http://www.cristintierney.com/exhibitions/victor-burgin-midwest); another gallery, on the less salubrious but upcoming Bowery, was showing the eleven panel work UK76, now forty years old. (https://www.bridgetdonahue.nyc/exhibitions/victor-burgin-uk76/). All the works combine image and text.  The video projections comprise scrolling photo panoramas and/or camera movements through computer generated interiors, intercut with texts. These works consider mid-century modernist architecture (by Mies van der Rohe and Frank Lloyd Wright) through its complex and often suppressed relation to politics and history. Modernism as autonomous, as a ‘fresh start’, is a dangerous myth.  This is the gallery press release:

“Prairie […] describes the history of ‘The Mecca’ apartment building, built in 1892 and destroyed almost sixty years later when Mies van der Rohe undertook a redesign and expansion of the Illinois Institute of Design. Combining images and descriptions of van der Rohe’s Crown Hall with those of former Mecca residents, Prairie unearths an erased history, revealing the close links between memory and space.

“In Mirror Lake, Burgin contrasts the history of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Seth Peterson Cottage, located in what is now Mirror Lake State Park, Wisconsin, with that of the Winnebago culture and tribe, which was forcefully relocated from that same area to Nebraska in the late 19th century. Burgin’s work positions such architectural sites as the crystallization of our wishes and fears about the past, present, and future. The forgotten stories he illuminates, whether real or imagined, underscore that the built environment is not an isolated, physical construct, but rather a shifting perception layered with many different cultural histories.”

UK76 was/is a photo-text work, pasted directly to the wall. Eleven large scale photographic images borrowing the typically mid-1970s rhetoric of black and white documentary, reportage and street photography are overlaid with words derived from or mimicking advertising, cinema publicity and fiction. Back then, text within the frame did seem something of an affront to the aesthetic norms of art. It was also technically quite tricky to achieve, believe it or not. For his newer works Burgin spent around 18 months teaching himself how to use industrial strength CGI programs.  In the new works and the old, the calculated tensions between image and text do not resolve into easily consumable messages. The technical, aesthetic and formal differences are as stark as the continuities over four decades. Some things have changed for Victor Burgin and some haven’t.

As John notes, the most radical photographic gestures can be bought, resold and bought again in the free market of contemporary art. “[E]ven these once intransigent works could be readily absorbed,” as he puts it.  Be that as it may, the important distinction is between art that is made with the auctioneer’s easel in mind, and art that isn’t. The only thing the bourgeoisie cannot hang on its walls, wrote Terry Eagleton somewhere around 1990, is its own political defeat.

Although I didn’t live through it as an adult, it seems clear to me that the moment in 1970s that John Tagg describes so well was indeed remarkable, and its implications profound. I came to that moment when I studied photography film and video at the end of the 1980s. I soon realized that the positions that had been staked out, in writings and in images, in implicit or explicit opposition to everything from the unconscious of patriarchy and the persistence of colonial attitudes, to neo-liberal economics and the hegemony of its art market, were positions that were going to remain pertinent for as long was those ills were around.

I don’t see the current interest in that 1970s moment as a simple curatorial repackaging and sanitizing, nor as the last gasp of the artists and academic that contributed to that moment and now look to ‘retirement’. Yes, on some level the works are dated and can be subsumed into art history and social history, but only the willful are blind to their contemporary pertinence (willful blindness being no more or less common now that I imagine it was in the 1970s when that work reached its first small but vital audience).

Perhaps the single greatest challenge of critical engagement is vigilance, the need to keep returning to certain hard-won lessons, but each time formulating them differently, because the ‘same old problems’ do not circle around: they spiral around, never quite repeating themselves. I sense that spiraling vigilance in Burgin’s art and writing since the 1970s. Nothing ossified, although it’s quite clear that for a long time the art world and the academy did associate Burgin very closely with the ‘1970s moment’.

It is a daily challenge, as a teacher, to help students to grasp the history of critical resistance, to feel a part of its various ruptures and the continuities. When I show students the work from the 1970s I don’t show it as a ‘high point’, necessarily. I try show it alongside either what those artists and writers are doing now, or what younger and older figures do with a similar spirit. So, Hannah Höch with Alexis Hunter, with EJ Major. The Worker Photography movements of the 1930s with Jo Spence, with LaToya Ruby Frazier. Martha Rosler with Mark Neville. Ernst Friedrich with Bertolt Brecht, with Broomberg & Chanarin. Siegfried Kracauer with Allan Sekula, with Ariella Azoulay or Esther Leslie. It is messy, of course, and full of problems, but it does sidestep the unhelpful fetishizing of the 1970s.




  • Copyright © 2024