New York

Victor Burgin

John Weber Gallery

Photographs borrowed from advertising, movies, or political propaganda that have become part of our collective consciousness are, nevertheless, subject to the porousness and inexactitude of the individual memory. Scenes from Hollywood movies overlap with childhood memories, which in turn are confused with adult reflections and psychological interpretations of early experiences. One never sees an image solely within a given context; it always combines with memories of other images and experiences.

Victor Burgin exploits this fact in a new body of work that alludes to the 1958 musical South Pacific, the 1955 photodocumentary exhibition, “The Family of Man,” and the 1908 essay by Freud entitled “Family Romances.” Each piece juxtaposes a colored silk-screened panel bearing a verbal message with a black and white photo image. The brightly colored word panel is presented in a vertical pagelike format, while the photo panel extends horizontally to the right, giving the image a cinematic quality.

Each of the vertical word panels incorporates a pair of halved globes, printed in black, at the top and bottom of the format, as well as a series of words such as “CLASS,” “SEXUALITY,” and “NATION” presented in tones similar to the monochromatic ground color. The only elements that vary from panel to panel are the colors (always very bright and intense) and the vertically scripted words—“exile,” “refugees,” etc.—that connect the two halves of the globes.

The polemical nature of the verbal panels contrasts with the intensely romantic, albeit alienated, quality of the photo reproductions. None of these images occurred in their present state in the original movie; they are computer-generated composites of separate moments of the film. Each depicts individuals, positioned on opposite sides of the horizontal image, and their frontal presentation and larger-than-life scale imbue them with an intimacy that clashes with their psychological self-absorption and spatial dislocation; we switch from focusing on their narcissism to examining our voyeurism. A generic Pacific seascape, which provides the identical backgrounds of these pictures, is taken from the fleeting image that directly precedes the credits at the beginning of the film. (This latter piece of information is available only in the press release, which also informs us that a similar image appeared preceding the title in the catalogue to “The Family of Man” exhibition.) The generic and universal quality of this beach sunset further abstracts the relationship between the figures; not only are they seemingly unaware of each other but they are jointly lost in this artificial idyll.

A framed text displayed on a wall supplemented the exhibition. As seductively beautiful as the silk-screened pieces, it presents a complicated coding system based on the title “FAMILY ROMANCES,” the letters of which are spelled out vertically down the page. To the right of each letter a paragraph addressing parent/child relations, sexuality, or class/ethnic identification is juxtaposed with a graphic symbol: the globe, the weights of justice, an airplane, etc. In between the paragraphs is the italicized phrase “virtual scenes played between virtual characters in virtual spaces.” This coded mix of words and icons spells out the basic issues of identity as dependent on membership in one’s family, class, and ethnic, sexual, or national group. The connection between psychological needs and political identity animates the seemingly arbitrary connection between South Pacific, “The Family of Man,” and Freud. The essentially repressive nature of the dominant culture clashes with the need of the child/adult to belong to a group. The public and private exist in a complex dialectic, whereby need is bartered for freedom; where the deification of public figures is a weak substitute for parental guidance; and where sexual and racial prejudice conspire against the happiness of the individual.

Victor Burgin’s show does not fall prey to the anesthetizing tactics of so much sincere yet conveniently ineffectual politically concerned art. Rather than exploit the protective insulation of the art world, Burgin lays bare some of the dynamics behind our urge to belong and the conflicts this need engenders.

Dena Shottenkirk