The Politics of Material in Art

Nosing through my favourite daily, I came across, hidden right in the corner and described in not even 30 words, a ‘news’ on art. Famous and quite ‘unpopular’ (of course) Ukrainian artist Daria Marchenko, along with a fellow artist Daniel Green, has created a portrait of Donald Trump by using one cent and five cent pieces as primary materials. It is nearly eight foot by six foot in structure but goes on to scale much further heights in symbolic commentary. 

Titled ‘Face of Money‘, this work which represents a political figure as the only subject of the artwork, succeeds similar work by the duo titled Face of War, a portrait of Vladimir Putin made up of bullets derived from Ukrainian soil. 

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Marchenko & Green : Face of War

Despite its apparent representational meaning, and something that has been musing artworks across genres and mediums, the politics is essential here. This is because it’s not just the politics of the subject matter that we are dealing with here; it’s also the politics that underline the use of the material, or should I say, the ‘play’ with it. The politics of the figure represented in the artwork is closely intertwined with the politics of the material used for the creation of the artwork. Is this Bolshevik Constructionsim? No. 

The politics of the material is evident in the representational meaning that is ‘constructed’ through the artwork. I call it ‘constructed’ meaning because the intended understanding of the material is not just divorced from the existent meaning of the same, but there is imposition of a new meaning on the material, which sums up to further construct a meta-meaning. Marchenko and Green are not just making portraits of the most despised political leasers of today, they are making them with bullets and currency coins. And, in doing so, they become the author of a process which itself is immensely political in nature – construction of knowledge. 

What is this ‘meta-meaning’? How does the artist becomes the author of a constructed meaning? Well, if ‘looked at’, both the portraits use the incongruous marriage of art and mundane objects in order to create a meaning which is above and significantly different from both the material used and the art practiced. In terms of the practiced art, the creation of the meta-meaning divorces the art from its representational, muted and aesthetic meaning, and uses it as a mere tool to signify the meta-meaning – a protest, a commentary, an engagement. However, in terms of the material, this process of alienation and subsequent imposition of meaning becomes much more apparent and fascinating. 

In Face of War, we do not see a much ‘radical’ alienation of meaning when it comes to the material; even though it was quite radical in itself to ever imagine an object of destruction as a subject matter of an object of creation. However, in Face of Money, we see a much more rigorous re-imagination of material meaning, leading to a much furthered alienation and a much ‘constructed’ representation of the meta-meaning. The currency coins, material used in Face of Money, is a mode of exchange, prosperity to some, destitute to other. Even though much has been written about the role played by money in our lives, and the same has contributed to the ‘extended’ meaning of the same, it was quite novel of Marchenko and Green to understand currency (different from just ‘money’ because there is a deliberate use of US currency only) as a mode of political exchange. According to the daily  wherein I came to know about this new work, this was conceived last summer when Mr. Putin ordered the US to reduce its diplomatic footprint in Russia by 755 employees and Trump thanked Mr Putin saying it would allow the US to ‘save a lot of money’. Hence, we can see how the artists have re-imagined the US currency and created a meta-meaning where the currency becomes a tool of political exchange of ‘convenience’, neglecting the social, emotional and economic repercussions of the same. 

Material is not the only object re-imagined in this meta-meaning of Face of Money. One can also see this as a process of toying with Neoclassicism, wherein royals embraced the subject matter of the art for the same was ‘commissioned’ by them for their own grandiosity. Here, we can see Marchenko and Green ‘bringing back’ the style and altering the intended meaning in order to create a deeper and much more profound understanding of the artwork. We can see the same process being used by many contemporary artists across the mediums, for instance, Shadi Gahdirian, an Iranian art photographer who in her collection Qajar re-imagined the traditional Qajar style of Iranian photographer and used the same style to construct a novel meaning. 

Just as the ‘commission’ of art gets democratic, decentralized, disobeyed, we see the protest surfacing. The Speech becomes satire; the Character, caricaturing; and the meaning of what is power and the powerful, well, looking down at the Powerful from eight feet high. 


The Construction of Meaning in Photography

‘Photograph… a record of a reality refracted through a sensibility’

– Victor Burgin (1986)

Shadi Ghadirian and her range of artistic photography vocalise two of her most personal identities: Iran and womanhood. However, as expressed in her collection Miss Butterfly (2011), and in various films that struggle to sieve through the web of state censor board,  personal and public are not significantly distinguished and demarcated spaces for Iranian women. However, it is not the politics of her subject matter that is the only fodder for one’s fascination; if one may look closer, or deeper, it is her process that fancies. 

In her frames, Shadi Ghadirian captures the duality of contemporary existence in Iran; imbued in life’s contradictions and an innate desire to be understood. This duality can be seen as a struggle, if not a conflict, between tradition and modernity in the prevailing sense of representation in Iran. To Shadi, this duality in representation is more apparent in the representation of women. In her collection, Qajar (1998), Shadi uses the style of traditional Qajar photography, famous in the 19th century Iran, and twitches the construction of meaning by invading the traditional space with an object that signifies modernity.

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Shadi Ghadirian : Qajar

The duality represented in Qajar answers well to the understanding of a ‘photograph’ as provided by Roland Barthes. Instead of its artistic composition, Barthes was more focused on its construction of cultural myths on a mass scale. In Mythologies, Barthes asserts that a photograph is a coded, historically contingent, ideological speech which is amenable to scientific study  and semiotic analysis. In Qajar, we can see Shadi substituting the surface understanding of the picture with a larger ideological and political meaning which is represented through well coded symbols that carry certain political meanings in themselves. Therefore, the use of a traditional style (Qajar) as a space where little objects of modernity are placed, alienates the meanings earlier associated with these two elements and conjoins them to construct a new political meaning. Interestingly, the women in these photographs maintain the facial features and aesthetic sense that was prevailing during the Qajar period. In such a frame, an object of modernity seems like an inevitable reality to which women in Iran might have dealt with in an operational sense but not in a cultural sense. 

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Shadi Ghadirian : Qajar



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Shadi Ghadirian : Qajar

Apart from construction of duality in representation of Iranian women, we see another very fascinating feature in Shadi Ghadirian’s photographic process: The symbolisation of the subject matter. 

Photography for Shadi is as symbolic as it is real. So much so, that when the urge to surface the reality, which has been brushed aside for so long, becomes irresistible, the symbols become the voice that speaks on behalf of reality so silenced. It is when the language of reality becomes too hard to gather, that the symbols become the mouthpiece of  one’s truth. 

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In Miss Butterfly, we see the frames depicting meanings that are drawn not from the referrant herself, but from the space in which the referrant is placed. In addition to this, the interplay or engagement created between the referrant and the object (in this case, the web) alienates both the referrant and the engaged object from their own meanings and reduces them to become mere symbols of a political message. 

Miss Butterfly was inspired by renowned Iranian playwright Bijan Mofid’s piece about a butterfly’s ill-fated pursuit to encourage her fellow insects to escape captivity of a spider’s web and go see the sun again. In each of the images from the collection, women are shown weaving or unravelling webs attached to the frames of light (an exit). They seemed at turns overpowered by the narrow staircases and rooms or dwarfed by the stately homes in which they are placed (Nagree : 2006). More than anything, it is the overpowering darkness that reflects the most upon the reality of the lives of these women. 

Shot in black and white, the women in these frames are symbols of multiplicity of layered meanings. One such layer is the public-private divide in the lives of Iranian women. The images show women wearing the headscarves even in the private space within a domestic setting. Some critics argued that the same was deliberately done by Shadi to comply with the guidelines of the state censor board. One might not see this distinction as relevant within the religious context but the same does come across as a constructed meaning from the direct reading of the photographs. 

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Shadi Ghadirian : Miss Butterfly 


Unlike the meaning usually associated with photography theorists, the pictures in Miss Butterfly are much alienated from the actual reality of the referrant. Such alienation is much evident in the poetic construction of the frame where the object which symbolises captivity is enlarged from its usual/normal size. Moreover, the careful selection of space and source of light, also work towards alienating the referrant (women) from their actual historical context; hence reducing them to mere symbols of general understanding of oppression. One may say, Shadi Ghadirian in Miss Butterfly, becomes the author of the photograph; metamorphosing the reality into well construed ideology and representing the same through intelligently placed symbols.  

We can see this well thought of placement of incongruous objects to create meaning in her other acclaimed works such as Like Everyday (2000) and Nil Nil (2008) as well. In all of these works, the ideological motive becomes a vantage point from which objects (including humans) are seen through preconceived meaning. 

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Shadi Ghadirian : Like Everyday 



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Shadi Ghadirian : Nil Nil 

It is through her well choreographed process, that Shadi Ghadirian imbues movement in stillness. Since the subject matter of her photograph is not the historical fact or abstracted reality but a political meaning, the pictures escape the socio-temporal existence and remain relevant till the political objective is achieved. Therefore, the referentiality and indexicality of Shadi Ghadirian’s  photography is not reflective of the world represented in the photograph but of the world ‘out-there’; that is, the world outside the photograph but yet so near. 

This subject matter, however, runs contrary to the classical understanding of photography which considered a photograph to be stillness; so much so that some considered it to be a death. Christian Metz in his Photography and Fetish (1985) argues that photography operates as a figuration of death. Metz says ‘photography is an instantaneous abduction of the object out of the world into another world, into another kind of time… photography by virtue of its stillness ‘maintains the memory of dead as being dead.’  In common parlance, photography is compared with shooting; the camera becomes a gun.

Shadi Ghadirian, on the other hand, is bringing alive the voices of the dead and the denied. With every frame and image, she challenges the ‘still’ nature of her medium of expression by constructing meanings that remain relevant, existent and omnipresent. Shadi’s camera is not a gun; it is not a flag of peace either. More than anything, it is a mirror; reflecting what ever movement and the moved fails to see through his own naked eyes. 

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