New York

Victor Burgin, UK 76 (detail), 1976/2016, eleven ink-jet prints, each 40 × 60".

Victor Burgin, UK 76 (detail), 1976/2016, eleven ink-jet prints, each 40 × 60".

Victor Burgin

Victor Burgin, UK 76 (detail), 1976/2016, eleven ink-jet prints, each 40 × 60".

Victor Burgin is an artist who has persistently sought a kind of penetrating cultural analysis in his practice, whether you consider his wide-ranging, often-difficult theoretical writing, or the conceptual photography and video work for which he is also known. The target of that analysis has often been media itself, from his early efforts to reimagine advertising and photojournalism to more recent experiments with virtual worlds and three-dimensional rendering. Coming to prominence in the 1970s, Burgin is part of a generation of Conceptual artists with a special orientation to critical documentary—he’s closer in spirit to Martha Rosler and Mary Kelly than he is to such first-generation Conceptualists as Lawrence Weiner and Joseph Kosuth—and likewise has been guided by certain sustained political commitments in much of his output. His work, however, is occasionally less lucid than one might expect from documentary art, and reverberates with something weirder and more fugitive. UK 76 is one such work, and it was presented this past September at Bridget Donahue, marking the forty-year anniversary since the piece was made and first shown. Simultaneously, Cristin Tierney Gallery, also in New York, presented two of Burgin’s more recent videos: Mirror Lake, 2013, and Prairie, 2015.

UK 76 is composed of eleven black-and-white photographs, each overlaid with one or two short paragraphs of text. The pictures stalk a broad though not overreaching range of styles: Images of anxious crowds and pensive industrial workers could pass as highbrow photojournalism; pictures of suburban homes gently motion toward English landscape painting; a slightly obscured female nude meanwhile imparts a feeling of intimacy, even voyeurism. The texts accompanying the images, on the other hand, are much more frenetic. They troll the contemporary long-form ad copy of their time, drawing readers in with intrigue and formulaic pronouncements. HE PRESENTS HIMSELF AS THE GOODS AND VALUES OTHERS TO THE EXTENT THEY ARE IN DEMAND reads one picture. At other moments they ape a kind of lobotomized Marxist manifesto style: CLASS, IN TERMS OF THE DOMINANT IDEOLOGY OFTEN BEING, FOR GOOD MEASURE, AN ‘OUTDATED CONCEPT.’ This isn’t the sharp agitprop of Barbara Kruger or the resigned truisms of Jenny Holzer. Burgin’s texts don’t seek to prick so much as they invite the reader into a dysfunctional logic with the false promise of familiarity; they shuttle through worlds of customary discourse in madcap meanderings, demanding to be read and inhabited rather than simply seen.

The work at the gallery was produced to the same specifications as it was in its original showing: Printed on an adhesive substrate that was pasted directly on the gallery walls, the pictures were intended to last the duration of the show and were destroyed at its conclusion. This of course puts them more in line with billboard-advertising images than with art photography. It’s also worth noting that, for their time, the prints were substantially larger than most photography being shown in galleries, brazenly approaching a scale in which the grain of the photos was aggressively manifest. This defied the ’70s preference for fine-grain art photography, while further aligning the work with the commercial image and evincing a kind of irreverence that was unlikely to have been lost on Burgin’s peers.

In some regards, UK 76 exhibits a strange self-awareness in terms of its place in history. As the insertion of its date into the title suggests, the work is self-consciously embedded in its moment. It draws on the codes that culture uses to talk about itself, and manufactures samples of what could be the political mood of the nation. Yet rather than dilute the impact of the work’s formal attributes, time seems to have strengthened it. If the advertisements that fill today’s still-proliferating glossy magazines have scaled back the blocks of text that once adorned them, today the pairing of image and text first brings to mind the internet meme. Kruger’s work, of course, walked a similar path a few years after Burgin’s UK 76. But Burgin’s image-texts in particular remain distinct because they often stay one step ahead of any precise political statement or critical vantage. Memes get their traction by privileging affective impact over discursive sensemaking. They emerge from a kind of media sphere that operates fervently just beneath the incentives of capital. Perhaps Burgin’s work is so intriguing today because it tells us something about advertising’s dispersion into culture.

Boško Blagojević