Category Archives: Assignment 4

Reworked and final assignment 4: critical essay: A picture is worth a 1,000 words

karin-mack-1977

Figure 1: Karin Mack, from the series Destruction of an illusion (1977).

Introduction

We are required to write a 1,000 word essay which offers a critique of a photographic image of our choice.

I have chosen a photographic image by Karin Mack from the series Destruction of an Illusion (1977). My interest in this work originally comes from viewing the image whilst visiting the Feminist Avante Garde of the 1970s exhibition held at The Photographer’s Gallery, London (2016).

My personal interest in this image

I see this work by Karin Mack as an intelligent, visually clear yet complex image founded on strong beliefs and purpose, calmly composed in a violent, confrontational manner. It is part of an art movement that was significant not only in artistic terms but also in it’s contribution to a movement of major social and political change.

In a mass media dominated society where we search for the meaning in a photographic world of ubiquitous imagery this is a photograph of substantial significance with a voice that needed to be heard and that continues to have an impact on our cultural development.

The image

In essence the image is of a photograph of a photograph; the original or inner image is of a woman smiling contentedly as she leans against a floral covered interior wall whilst she holds lovingly what appears to be a jar of home-made jam. This inner picture is a photograph, as clearly indicated by the edges of the image, and is fixed to the wall and aggressively violated through piercings made with heavy meat skewers and long nails.

The woman’s appearance comprising of hairstyle, facial expression, dress, cosmetics make-up and location all signify the stereotype of the model happy and contented housewife consistently seen in advertising campaigns, TV, magazines and film throughout the 20th century and a central proposition in the post-war image of the American dream and the prosperity of the western world.

The artist’s intentions

By revealing that the first image is actually a photograph of a photograph Karin Mack uses photography’s inherent sense of artifice to create a metaphor illustrating that the image of the happy and contented housewife is nothing more than an illusion.

Within Destruction of an Illusion (1977) the artist uses this six-image series to complete an aggressive destruction of the photograph. This act of destruction reflects a deep protest and violence and by destroying the photograph the artist destroys the image and illusion of the happy contented housewife.

The wider context of the photograph

Historical context

Post-modernism was influential in the great political and social changes of the 1960s and 1970s and the feminist movement joined the civil rights movement, Parisian student riots and the Vietnam War protestors as they campaigned for a better and more equal world.

In the art world John Berger (1972) in his seminal work Ways of Seeing described in detail how the male gaze had effectively positioned women as the surveyed whilst casting men as the surveyor since the beginning of art history and challenged us to, “Choose from this book an image of a traditional nude. Transform the woman into a man. Either in your mind’s eye or by drawing on the reproduction. Then notice the violence which that transformation does. Not to the image, but to the assumptions of a likely viewer.” (Berger, J. 1972:64)

As part of the subversion of the male dominated history of painting the Feminist Avant Garde movement used photography and film to question female identities, gender roles and sexual politics and their art reflected this period of protest. Artists such as Karin Mack, Martha Rosler, Valie Export, Martha Wilson, Hannah Wilke, Brigitte Lang and many other female artists used aggression, violence and destruction and reclaimed power in their art as they fought for basic human rights and independence for women.

The artist Karin Mack (born in 1940 in Vienna, Austria) had originally been a documentary photographer observing art events in the 1960s but during the 1970s she began to follow more of a personal exploration of her world and through this she became a prominent figure of the Feminist Avant Garde movement of that decade.

Current day context

I first saw this photograph at the Feminist Avant Garde of the 1970s exhibition, The Photographer’s gallery (2016) and in the promotional interview for the exhibition curator Gabriele Schor was clear that this exhibition delivers exactly what is stated in the title of the show, Feminist Avant Garde art produced in the 1970s. This interview demonstrates a deep conviction that the artworks and their artists that make up this movement be genuinely recognised and accepted as a very significant period in the wider history of Art.

In viewing this photograph by Karin Mack we are given the perfect opportunity to revisit and experience the feelings and beliefs of these artists and any thoughts that an artwork could lose it’s authentic meaning once it enters the gallery were quickly dispelled as I viewed the exhibition.

Alongside the work of Karin Mack were artworks loaded with the same intelligence and cold brutal rationality delivered in a provocative, powerful and violent manner. Aggressively deconstructing the conventional images and stereotypes of the housewife, pornstar, fashion model, wedding cakes, ovens, ironing boards, pornstars – literally the kitchen sink – to an audience and society no doubt in shock at the sight.

Whilst at times I felt a deep sense of injustice and poignancy at the exhibition but the relentless anger at this deeply embedded oppression was also inspiring and I began to wonder how the feminist position even to this day so often is conveniently silenced and ignored by mainstream media and culture and society in general.

To illustrate this point we can take the following example; The Guardian newspaper covered the exhibition in two separate articles; Feminist Art of the 1970s: knives, nudity and terrified men. The subtitle read, “A new exhibition of Avant Garde works from the 1970s is a fascinating window into the anger that drove the movement – and a reminder of it’s continuing relevance.” (Guner, F. 3/10/16). This article featured in the Woman’s section.

The second titled Weddings, ovens and Jesus in heels: The savage wit of the Avant Garde feminists. The subtitle read, “From the wearable oven to the all female last supper, this hard hitting and hilarious collection of feminist Avant Garde photographs still packs a punch.” (Cosslett, R. 7/10/16) The second article was featured in the Arts and Culture section.

The clear difference in the language used by the two reporters makes a significant impact upon the narrative and reading of the two respective articles. R Cosslett by her selective, frivolous and light use of words serves only to undermine the artworks, the artists, the exhibition and on a wider level feminism and women in general by her refusal to take the exhibition seriously.

Final thoughts

This final point raised (above) perhaps confirms that there is still much at stake and significant work to be done across society in order to progress towards full and unequivocal equality but this cannot detract from the creativity, intelligence, power and importance of this Karin Mack photograph from Destruction of an Illusion and especially from that of the Feminist Avant Garde movement of the 1970s.

 Bibliography

 Barthes, R (1984) Camera Lucinda. London: Fontana Press.

Bate, D (2009) Photography The Key Concepts. London: Bloomsbury.

Berger, J (1972) Ways of Seeing. (re-issued 2008) London: Penguin.

Bull, S (2010) Photography. Abingdon: Routledge.

Cosslett, R. (2016) ‘Weddings, ovens and Jesus in heels: The savage wit of the avant garde feminists.’ The Guardian (online) 7/10/16 (accessed 2/11/16)

https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2016/oct/07/weddings-ovens-jesus-in-heels-savage-wit-avant-garde-feminist-photography

Gunur, F. (2016) ‘Feminist art of the 1970s: knives, nudity and terrified men.’ The Guardian (online) 3/10/16 (accessed 2/11/16)

https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/womens-blog/2016/oct/03/feminist-art-of-the-1970s-knives-nudity-and-terrified-men 

Exhibitions

Feminist Avant-Garde of the 1970s exhibition, Schor, G. Photographer’s Gallery, London (2016)

http://thephotographersgallery.org.uk/feminist-avant-garde-of-the-1970s

Images

Figure 1: Taken by Allan O’Neill at the Feminist Avant-Garde of the 19070s exhibition mentioned above: Karin Mack, taken from the series Destruction of an illusion (1977).

Research and reflections on assignment 4

As a very first attempt at a critical essay within the field of photography and visual communications this has been a steep learning curve in technical terms and I have learned some valuable new lessons whilst revisiting some old mistakes.

By selecting an image by an unknown emerging artist, which I think was probably un-necessary, I found that there was no substantial critical information to be considered or contrasted. Even the artist’s own website does not carry the image and therefore in hindsight it was difficult to establish a recognised critical path from which a consistent and substantial interpretation could be made. It is very difficult to establish either the context or artist intentions’. This makes any attempted reading fraught with potential inaccuracies and on reflection I think the image ultimately lacks clear intention throughout the image.

The artist has the image as part of a series about communal drinking which I in hindsight did not take as my primary line of enquiry instead focussing on gender roles and what I saw as the power relationship between the two subjects. My tutor’s interpretation was vastly different and we agreed that I could have sought alternative readings of the image and perhaps I could undertake this research retrospectively which I have since via the OCA photography facebook group.

The findings were really interesting not least because of the range but what I did find was that few had picked up on the power play I had seen. A number of my peers had seen an old man not an older man as I had done and most were unclear or unaware of the relationship between the two subjects which from an artist’s perspective is not an ideal situation. I think there is a subtle difference between ambiguity and plain confused.

The big lesson learned here is to take a first impression as exactly that; THE first impression which then needs to be developed, compared, contrasted before a period of deep reflection. And this reflection must involve an interrogation of one’s own context and pre-conceptions and in hindsight I certainly rushed through this part of the working process.

Sometimes my desire to complete an assignment can overtake the sense of finishing when the work is done. Whilst I have made huge improvements in my photography work in this respect I was probably caught off guard with my first essay and felt this was a project where I could make some valuable time up before indulging myself in assignment 5.

It all seems so simple in retrospect but this is very much the learning cycle and making mistakes is inevitable and a necessary part of the process. Interestingly I now see reworking assignments as a fantastic idea and where appropriate an essential part of the process where during Express Your Vision I was far more likely to regard this as a step backwards and a negative effort. Still a long way to go

Assignment 4: Performance against assessment criteria

Assignment 4: Performance against assessment criteria

Demonstration of technical and visual skills

I feel that I have met the criteria well showing a perceptive visual approach well supported by a good use of technical terminology in the deconstruction of the various components of the image.

Quality of outcome

At this stage I am content with the outcome and hopefully I have progressed towards the level where a meaningful approach to reading images and interpretation has been achieved and which can consider the development of a wider range of issues and debates on different levels.

Demonstration of creativity

I believe that in finding an emerging artist within a regional collective exhibition I have demonstrated a desire to move in a direction inspired by my own interests and motivations and in a proactive manner. This has I believe led to a demonstration of a level of creativity in selecting a lesser known artist and stretching the resources already known and available.

Context

This image sits well within the broad subject matter of people living in a contemporary western society and it’s impact; this has been one of my consistent areas of interest throughout this course. The subsequent research and reflection has led to a progression in my critical thinking and knowledge and I believe that this can result in more deeply informed and therefore effective creative work.

 

Assignment 4 – “A picture is worth a thousand words”

costa-brava-copy-1

Figure 1: Untitled by Marta Soul from the ongoing series Ama y bebe (2015-16) 

Introduction

I have chosen an untitled image by Spanish photographer Marta Soul from an ongoing series Ama y bebe, (translated as love and drink), currently showing at the Waterhall, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.

For the purposes of this essay I will deconstruct the image and provide an interpretation of it’s meaning and consider how the image is positioned within the wider context of art history whilst reflecting upon the intentions of the artist.

This is a constructed image of a social narrative depicting a man and a woman simultaneously taking drinks in an outdoor location.

The denoted image

A woman with richly coloured auburn hair dressed in vibrant coloured leisurewear and trainers. She stands on a coloured blanket drinking a bottle of mineral water, eyes closed, head back with a slight bend in her right leg. A bespectacled balding man with a wrinkled forehead, dressed in beige short-sleeved shirt matched with pressed lightweight trousers and brown shoes. He sits crossed legged on fur cushioning in a low comfortable chair drinking from a glass tumbler with eyes never leaving El Pais. His glass matches the ice bucket placed on a picnic table to his side. Bright lighting and greenery including ornamental water feature and cultured shrubbery completes the scene.

The connoted image

The sun is shining and the assumed couple enjoy wealth, comfort and security as we make hay whilst the sun shines. The garden is neutral space as we neither view the couple in his study nor in her kitchen. We see them alongside each other and reflect on whether the space between the couple is a metaphor for the state of their relationship.

The well-groomed younger woman takes deserved refreshments after a gentle jog that she has undertaken to maintain her figure and to offer structure to her carefree existence. He is affluent, sober, middle-aged and always likes to keep abreast of current affairs. In the garden she has her restricted area signified by her blanket whilst he is left to survey the rest of the land from his throne.

He reads a reputable newspaper requiring concentration and he sits sensibly, quietly, closed off and attracts no further attention. The woman is merely a casual jogger dressed in fashion wear not professional athletics kit. As she takes her recovery her body pose is open to the viewer with a whimsical bend in her knee, her presence is seen as frivolous. At the same time, the man’s presence is regarded as substantial as he engages in a work-like task and according to western cultural codes his activity is regarded as the more serious and he is the more important.

The studium of the image is a sober middle-aged professional man married to a younger attractive woman who is kept in her expensive lifestyle by the success of her husband’s career.

However it is the woman’s footwear providing the punctum, reminding myself of a sponsored run undertaken by my younger partner when we first met. The sight of the running trainers brought back memories and a sense of the debates, which at times, surrounded our own relationship.

Intertextuality

The artist plays on our curiosity in the stereotypical relationship between the older man and younger woman that exists in western culture. She is only interested in his money whilst he is only interested in her attractiveness and good looks. The man is always assumed to ultimately control the relationship and holds the real power. The woman is subservient to the man and will often possess a fundamentally flawed character or weakness of some description.

Within this photograph we can recognise the intertextuality in referencing aspects of the essence of this stereotypical relationship from the wider history of western art and culture therefore colouring our experience and reading of the image.

As early as in the book of Genesis and the story of Adam and Eve we can read in the bible, “Unto the woman God said, ‘and thy desire shall be to thy husband and he shall rule over thee’……..the woman is blamed and punished by being made subservient to the man. In relation to the woman, the man becomes the agent of God.” (Berger, J. 1972:48).

In Martin Scorsese’s 1995 film Casino we see how Sam Rothstein the untouchable casino boss meets Ginger the fundamentally flawed hustler seen through the eyes of the male narrator Sam. From this short clip the Director’s intentions to depict the two characters according to stereotypical gender and role profiling is clearly evident. Please access this scene above by following the arrow or following the link above.

david-antoine-laurent-lavoisier-and-his-wife-1788

Figure 2: Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier And His Wife (1788) by Jacques-Louis David

We can also look to European art history for irrefutable evidence of visual stereotypes that perpetuate of the relationship between a man and woman. The painting Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier And His Wife (1788) by Jacques-Louis David demonstrates how the artist essentially uses the woman’s more fragile weaker feminine presence to create empathy and soften the stronger male presence to create a more liberal and forward thinking image and one that the famous French chemist Antoine Lavoisier was keen to promote for himself. He paid the artist an enormous amount of money for the double portrait of himself and his wife Marie-Anne who was a 13 year-old student of the famous chemist at the time of their marriage. (Schama. S 2009:197-200).

Marta Soul and her intentions

Marta Soul’s developing body of work reflects upon people living within western culture focussing on the interplay between image and appearance, values, emotions and behaviour and the resultant social interactions. Her images are contemporary constructed social narratives and explore stereotypes whilst reflecting upon specific issues such as equality, gender and the unsatisfied desires of a consumerist society.

Ama y bebe is an excellent example of her personal approach as she constructs narratives of people drinking together in order to explore her wider interests. In order to fully read this image the viewer must interpret and accept the culturally coded connotations that are offered by the photograph. The artist then with irony in mind, overlays the literal act of simultaneous drinking which acts to stimulate questions about the narrative.

Although drinking is a part of everyday life we rarely see two people take a drink at exactly the same time. In constructing this image the artist invites the viewer to look more closely at the couple and we can speculate on the structure and history of their relationship.

However more importantly we are also invited to explore the universal subject of equality and question the stereotypes and roles played by men and women. We can also reflect on the behaviours, emotions and personalities in general of each of the two subjects and how they might interplay with each other.

This contemporary constructed aesthetic style clearly lacks the confrontation adopted by the early Feminist artists of the 1970s, which focused more aggressively on deconstructing the popular image of the female. (Feminist Avant Garde of the 1970s exhibition, 2016) however I believe that the context of the debate around gender and equality within Western culture has developed and become more complex and this is reflected in Marta Soul’s style and methods of communication within a contemporary society describing itself as enlightened.

This image asks a wide range of deep, important and significant questions and has been made by an intelligent, independent thinking contemporary female artist at the start of her career.

Bibliography

Barthes, R (1984) Camera Lucinda. London: Fontana Press.

Bate, D (2009) Photography The Key Concepts. London: Bloomsbury.

Berger, J (1972) Ways of Seeing. (re-issued 2008) London: Penguin.

Bull, S (2010) Photography. Abingdon: Routledge.

Sharma, S (2009) The Power of Art, London: Random House.

Wells, L. (2009) Photography A Critical Introduction (4th ed.) London: Routledge

Exhibitions

East Meets West exhibition at the Waterhall, Birmingham Museum and Art gallery, Birmingham (2016)

https://allanoneillcontextnarrative.wordpress.com/2016/10/13/exhibition-visit-marta-soul-as-part-of-the-east-meets-west-exhibition-at-the-waterhall-birmingham-museum-and-art-gallery-supported-by-grain/

Feminist Avant-Garde of the 1970s exhibition, Photographer’s Gallery, London (2016)

http://thephotographersgallery.org.uk/feminist-avant-garde-of-the-1970s

Film

Scene from Scorsese, M Casino (1995) accessed online from Youtube.

Images

Figure 1: Untitled by Marta Soul, taken from Ama y bebe series (2015-16) at:

http://martasoul.com/art-works/artworks/

Figure 2: Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier And His Wife (1788) by Jacques-Louis David accessed online AT:
http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/436106