The first image in this facsimile of Between, the British artist Victor Burgin’s 1986 retrospective of and commentary on the previous decade of his own work, is Sir Joshua Reynolds’s portrait of playwright David Garrick caught between the muses of Tragedy and Comedy. It functions as a visual epigraph (prose ones are from Freud, Joyce, and Barthes) telegraphing the substance of the pages that follow.
In summary, life’s task is not to arrive, but to examine the passage. That goes for everything, Burgin implies: what happens as the eye moves from one panel in an episodic work to the next; the interplay of word and image within each frame; the progression of the artist’s concerns and forms over time; and time itself, as it pulls us like the tide away from the fixed shore of work created in what seems now a distant land. Complex though this portion of the 20th century was, and sophisticated as Burgin’s eye on social issues remains, the shit show vortex of today makes it as quaint as a Currier and Ives.
At once a theoretical manifesto and a hybrid form of artwork — a re-presentation of exhibited pieces that are themselves a hybrid of photography and text, contextualized with artist statements and bits from interviews and letters (in which the artist responds to responses of his work) — Between is a welcome reissue. That it remains unclassifiable, and inimitable, more than three decades after its publication is testimony to its value. A new generation can now become acquainted with an important body of work by this difficult thinker and pioneering postmodernist who was nominated for the Turner Prize.
Burgin himself resides between two occupations; he is not a critic but an artist whose process critiques the act of making art and the marketplace in which it is transacted. “My decision to base my work in cultural theory, rather than traditional aesthetics, has resulted in work whose precise ‘location’ is uncertain, ‘between’: between gallery and book; between ‘visual art’ and ‘theory’; between image and narrative — ‘work’ providing work between reader and text.”
If that sounds challenging, it is.
In a video timed to the book’s November 2020 re-release, Burgin gives an overview of his career as an artist and writer, including the theoretical texts that informed his work beginning in the early 1970s. Freud and Lacan figure heavily, as does the semiotics of Barthes. He also cites Juliet Mitchell’s Psychoanalysis and Feminism as especially galvanizing. Marxism is the obvious wellspring of much of Burgin’s visioning; the first piece reproduced here is titled “ThinkAbout It” (1976/2011), which consists of a halftone image of Rodin’s “The Thinker” juxtaposed with a text discussing the mechanics of “conspicuous expenditure” that ends with the exhortation “Class consciousness: think about it.”
Before 1976, Burgin worked mainly with appropriated advertising imagery, then moved on to utilizing documentary photographs in posters exhibited in sequences or occasionally on the street. A poster from that year, displayed in the streets of Newcastle upon Tyne, is reproduced here. “What does possession mean to you?” it asks, responding, “7% of our population own 84% of our wealth.” The quote, from The Economist, is accompanied by an attractively sportif white couple embracing in an advertisement for — what? That we don’t know is part of the message; the sexualization of commerce later became a central theme in Burgin’s work.
A transcript of vox pop interviews conducted by local radio hosts is also included. The public response — no one really got the question, or even understood they were on the losing side of the wealth ratio, it turns out — adds nuance to this relatively simple polemic. The watcher becomes the watched.
A new level of subtlety, or difficulty, was achieved when Burgin moved on to using his own candids taken in the street in his photo-text work. He discusses the doubts (to capture people covertly, without their permission or even awareness, resulted in a “moral degradation”) that led him to abandon the practice entirely, as he became convinced “people should be allowed to go about their lives without being appropriated as camera fodder.” This helped prompt a shift to employing studio shots. These emphasized the increasingly cinematic and poetic nature of his progressions — images displayed in multiple series of diptychs or triptychs with narrative texts whose connective tissue is all but invisible.
Art does not communicate in the manner of a walk/don’t walk crossing sign, he maintains, nor does meaning reside in it “like a lump of cheese in a wrapper.” He quotes from his letter to a collector who had apparently caviled about the nebulous quality of these works: “Why make things so difficult for the viewer? We are a consumer-society, and it seems to me that art has become a passive ‘spectator sport’ to an extent unprecedented in history. I have always tried to work against this tendency by producing ‘occasions for interpretation’ rather than ‘objects for consumption.’”
At times the occasion for interpretation feels like the event on the calendar you forgot to mark, only the next day to realize you missed it completely. All the external directions are left out, so it’s up to the viewer to forge the linkages. The post hoc glosses in Between are thus appreciated, if belated. I could have stared at the series entitled Olympia for a lifetime without making the associations — to E.T.A. Hoffmann, Freud, Coppélia, and what the site of a tragic theater fire in Vienna has to do with any of them — Burgin outlines in four long pages.
But it is also possible to approach the work without this map and arrive at an appreciation of its layered richness by relying on, yes, the subconscious to perform what he considers the “transformations and transpositions . . . the metaphorical and metonymical processes” that render it simply mysterious and beautiful.
There might be no more apposite time to republish a book about existence as bridge, as becoming but never quite become, about neither here nor there. About, finally, always being a distance from perfect understanding but on our way, on our way.
Between by Victor Burgin is published by MACK Books and is available online and from indie bookstores.