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Victor Burgin Critical Essay (2011) by Winnie Mangwende


Question: Artist and Camera: Discuss the work of a Conceptual Artist who has also chosen to use photography. Explore and explain the rationale behind their decision in relation to at least three of their critically considered photo-works.



Conceptual Artist Victor Burgin known for his written and visual work is among the pioneer's of conceptual art movement. Artists started Conceptual Art movement in the mid 1960s, part as a reaction against formalisation as articulated by New Yorker and Art Critic, Clement Greenberg. Avant-Garde and Kitsch 1939 essay, proclaimed that avant-garde and modernist art was low culture catering to the demands of the majority and should be viewed not as ‘Art’ but as opposite of art. A rebellion pursued, from these conceptual artists.  Earlier on, Dadaist Marcel Duchamp, a French artist in the early 20th century had set a landmark when he established the idea of the found object being nominated by the artist as Art but influential critics like Greenberg still held traditional views of art which meant that they could elevate those they championed and those they did not find in favour were either deplored or ignored. Working with photography using both written and visual work soon became the respectable pursuit for a number of artists [Terrence Wright, 1999:31], as the artists rebelled against the institution embroiled with traditional views of critics, a movement began, notably Victor Burgin was among the pioneers of this movement.


Looking at some of Burgin most critically acclaimed photo-works,


The Poster; Possession from appropriated image work done between 1973 -1976,

The bridge; 1984,a set of sequential images that crosses the gap between a painting by John Everett Millais (1851) and Alfred Hitchcock's 1958 film Vertigo

Night in the office; 1986 a seven photographic installation piece inspired by the painting, Office at night by Edward Hopper 1940.


Victor Burgin was born in 1941 in Sheffield; he studied painting at the Royal college of Art in London from 1962 - 1965 and continued his studies at Yale University in 1967. Trained as a painter, Victor Burgin explains his turn to photography as a political act, part influenced by Cubism which was revolution of modern art by challenging traditional forms of art paintings and embracing ‘new ways of seeing’ mirroring changes in modern age and technologies of the 20th century with the desire to explore the link between the gallery and the everyday environment. Victor Burgin, from his bibliography on the European graduate website where he is a Professor of Media Philosophy and History of Consciousness, is a staunch advocate to literature in practice. Influenced by theorist and philosophers, Victor Burgin has written many essays and referrers regularly to the likes of Sigmund Freud and Roland Barthes both in his writings and visual works.


Possession was poster work commissioned by the Scottish Arts council, to advertise a contemporary art show for Robert Self Gallery. Victor Burgin was give this work as he was already working with ‘Appropriated image’ [Burgin, Between 1986 p12]. The images were sourced from advertising mediums. With left wing politics ideology, images were reproduced with text that was different to the original source. The ideology was to remove the thinking behind the way images were seen by fusing images and text to send a message that class was ‘a failure of consciousness’ [Victor Burgin, Between 1986 p9]. The work was not well received within the Scottish Arts Council in Edinburgh, its hard to see what they expected commissioning a conceptual artist. Bladwin and Ramsden suggested that Conceptual art may yet to be seen as "an exotic avant-garde variety of amateur art," a critical practice that may somehow provoke the downfall of the artist'. [Conceptual Art. Theory, Myth, and Practice, Edited by Michael Corries 2004. P.1]. This did not deter the artist and on the next tour of the show in Newcastle 500 posters were printed and posted all over the city streets. People were asked for their opinion through a survey and it was discovered that only one in seven understood what the poster said let alone implied. The relationship between the image and text had not worked well outside the interior of an art establishment. Victor Burgin concluded that the poster was not as successful as he would have liked it to be. He admits not to possess knowledge in advertising but he did  a survey to ‘encourage others on what could be done in that direction. He concluded If he had an advertising background maybe his work would have been more successful so he decided he would not be doing similar work again.


Leading to the photo works The bridge and Night in the office, Victor Burgin had taken an interest into issues of feminist writings that he applies to his photo works, using paintings of women. A trained painter, Victor Burgin conceptual work involves paintings, which are a reconstruction (The Bridge) or deconstruction (Night in the Office). The need to make the reference clear in a single photograph necessitated a relatively high degree of fidelity to the original painting [Burgin, The Separateness of Things]. Through his thought process he regularly refers to theorist and philosophers to explain the process to final image.


The Bridge was made from bridging the gap between a painting and a film still. With a film still, Burgin explains how a fragment subtracted from a whole, ‘achieved a sort of representative autonomy’ [Burgin; the end of Art Theory, p113]. The bridge is a sequence of stills that are a narrative representative of the movie, superimposed with origins from the painting. The two most notable images from this sequence was made by the model taking the pose of John Everett's image Ophelia, styled as the movie still actress in Alfred Hitchcock's 1958 film Vertigo. The first image was taken near an actual bridge but to simulate water cellophane was used, an idea taken from 1930s fashion photographers like Cecil Beaton. In both images the models have the same pose with but taken at different locations, in a studio with the bridge and water imposed on a wall and the other on Location. To accompany the exhibition there is text. The text is a word play with subliminal references to aid the conscious. One of the text accompanying an image on The Bridge is Silent lie, if we look the painting Ophelia is dead, in the movie Vertigo Detective Scot longing for a woman belonging to another man is his silent lie. Using photo text is his way of bridging the language of ‘High Art’ literature and mass media language. Victor recognises the need to simplify to those not familiar with the assuming ‘High Art’. Victor Burgin’s work is not confined to the gallery walls; it extends to the street as seen in his early 1976 poster work possessions, he makes it accessible to all.


Night in the Office is made up of seven Photographic installation based on a painting Office at Night by Edward Hopper in 1940. Victor Burgin in 1986 re-read the painting by Hooper from a point where the last 15 years had seen a move in the women's movement from the political framework to a more generalised women's framework. We see from his view as a heterosexual male de-construct the painting. He notes that he actual notices the female more than the male in the office. The women an object of desire, that can easily lead the man astray, but Victor Burgin’s aim is to transform the role of the woman from object of curiosity to that of subject of curiosity – to transform showing into knowing, exhibitionism into epistemophilia from essay, the separateness of things. The women in Hooper’s painting is modestly dressed in her 1910 dress which is tight that it shows her curves, her bust and bottom are very prominent in the image from the way she is standing. The image is de-constructed by giving the women a position of power, dressed modestly in a 1940s power suit and making the women the boss in the office. The woman is dressed in a modest suit, with a 72 inch long skirt. From the seven-piece photographic instillation piece the women is seen with in items from Hooper’s painting, Office at Night. Every image is accompany by symbols that signify what the women is doing, Example  ( ) symbolise another person on the phone while the symbol of the eye might be interpreted as watching if someone is listening. Victor Burgin sums it up vision and audition, voyeurism; in his essay the separateness of things. The colours are used figuratively of the four colour system of signage. For this work, Victor Burgin is interested in space in the office, in the final image we see the women moving out of the office space, to another room, a room painted by Edward Hopper in 1963, Sun in an Empty Room, concluding the series.



Victor Burgin is a conceptual artist whose main photo works have been inspired by paintings and wide reading works of philosophers and theorist. He uses this as a guide to constructing his images and photo works. He is forward thinking and aware of the political situation when he creates his work, as seen in Office at night, where he puts the women in a position of power, although the work is over 20 years old, women are still challenging the ratio of man and women in high powered jobs in the work environment. In his later years, Victor has moved to moving image, and developing work as commissioned. In his book in The End of Art theory, He challenges today’s conceptual artists of not having depth in theory to back up their practice, but are revolving to the aesthetics of the works they produce. The very thing they fought to overcome as pioneers of conceptual art.