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Guillermo Cid: In 1965 you completed your painting studies at the Royal College of Art, London, and went on to study philosophy and fine art at Yale University. What led you from painting to your practice of photography as a ‘politics of representation’?
Victor Burgin: By the 1960s I had come to see painting as a practice of significance only to the art market, with little other relevance to contemporary society. Moreover, it seemed to me that there was nothing left to invent in painting, as all of the significant innovations had already been made. Photography, on the other hand, is encountered throughout everyday life and plays an important role in the formation of the ideas, beliefs and values according to which people live. By working with photography I was able to engage with this fundamental aspect of the socio-political process. When I say ‘photography’, of course, I mean that association of words and images, that ‘scripto-visual’ discourse, ubiquitously encountered in the mass media.
GC: That juxtaposition of text and image has been a constant characteristic of your work. What is it about this combination that interests you?
VB: ‘Text’ and ‘image’ here refer to the physical things we see with our eyes: photographs and printed words. But the physical and the optical are simply the support for the imaginary. I think of the work as taking place, as it were, in the gap between the image and the text. When I say ‘the work’ I mean not only my work in producing the assembly of elements on the wall, or the material elements themselves, I also mean the work of the viewer/reader who produces the ‘work’ in her or his imagination. The work is essentially virtual, a shifting complex of associations in the mind of the viewer. In a very approximate sense, the elements on the wall are analogous to a musical score that has to be interpreted by this viewer/reader.
GC: How would you say your understanding of the relationship between text and photographic image was worked out in Hôtel Latône?
VB: Hôtel Latône differs from the works that immediately precede and follow it in that it was conceived from the outset to be reproduced in book form. The work was made in 1982 for a solo exhibition of my work at the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Calais, and the museum expressly invited me to make a work that they could publish as a book (Edition du Musée de Calais, 1982). In the book version of the work the images appear on the right-hand page, with the text in both English and French on the facing left-hand page. My works usually take the form of a series, and I try to make each individual section read, as it were, ‘vertically’, independently, before one passes on to the ‘horizontal’ relation of the section to the adjacent panels. In Hôtel Latône this process operates more quickly. I feel that one is shuttled to the end of the line more quickly than usual, but then one has to go back to make sense of what one has just read, which is one of the reasons the series begins and ends with the same sentence: “It is Tuesday.” Hôtel Latône makes more of a line through space than my other works.
GC: The imagery in Hôtel Latône ranges from interior shots of cabins and televisions to scenes of urbanity. Could you discuss your source imagery and what it was about these images that you felt operated as a group?
VB: Artists of my generation travelled a lot, they still do – it came with what Lucy Lippard called the ‘dematerialisation of art’ in that inaugural late 60s moment. Steel, bronze and stone, huge canvases heavy with paint, such things were the ball and chain that made the studio a prison factory. We left all that behind and went travelling. Retrospectively, it seems that the imaginary space of Hôtel Latône – the space between images as much as within them – is a trace of the fragmented and heterogeneous space of that peripatetic life-style, punctuated by hotel rooms, with their inescapable wall decorations and TVs.
GC: How do you feel conceptual art has developed since the making of Hôtel Latône?
VB: It hasn’t. ‘Conceptual Art’ is an expression we should understand as analogous to, for example, ‘Analytical Cubism’. Conceptual art emerged and developed over a period from the late 1960s to the early 1970s, much as Analytical Cubism did between about 1907 and 1914. If the expression ‘Conceptual Art’ is not understood in strictly historical terms it becomes meaningless, or it can mean anything – as any form of art involves an idea, and all too often a bad one. I’m reminded of the blues singer Big Bill Broonzy. He was asked if he would call what he played ‘folk music’. He replied: ‘Well, I ain’t heard no horse play the guitar'.
Post-War & Contemporary Art