Monthly Archives: October 2012

Reading Images

Human beings are not natural born hunters. Unlike say; the tiger or the lion we are not born with sharp teeth and claws. Our senses of smell, touch, taste or hearing are neither heightened or enhanced from birth. Sight is probably the most developed sense in humans, and the majority of us have the privilege of being born with the advantage (or mayhap disadvantage) of being able to see the world exactly as it is. A cat may be able to see in the dark and be able to detect movement with a higher sensitivity than a human but it cannot perceive the the full spectrum of colours in the world as they are meant to appear.

Humans are not meant to be natural born hunters, in fact in the objective food chain we are more often than not considered prey and an easy one at that. But that’s not to say that humans are not predators either. Predation is by definition the act or practice of plundering or marauding (1). Whilst there are numerous forms of predation that human beings engage themselves in on different scales of aggression and/or violence, the type of predation I am referring to at this time is visual predation. Even Freud considered the pleasure derived from the act of looking to be a regular instinct in the development of a child from childhood and hence the impulse to ‘hunt’ for images to ‘devour’.

The female body is quite often the chosen prey for this sort of visual predation from both sexes not just the male and I’d like to now focus on some images from my favorite photographer Zhang Jing Na as an example of visual consumption and the reading of images.

But first a short introduction, Jing Na was born in Beijing in 1988, she moved to Singapore at the age of 8 and it is there where she found her passion and talent for photography and she has produced fashion editorials for magazines such as Harper’s BazaarElle and Flare. As her range of work progresses and evolves her clientele now includes companies such as Mercedes BenzCanonPond’sOgilvy & Mather Advertising and Wacom.

Redemption by Zhang Jing Na (2007) (Image Copyright)

of the Night: A Dream Of You by Zhang Jing Na (2008) (Image Copyright)

Porcelain by Zhang Jing Na (2011) (Image Copyright)

Zhang Jing Na’s is famously known for her distinctively ethereal, tranquil, emotive, dreamlike and sensuously charged portraits of young beautiful women. In each of the images the centralised female figure is depicted in various submissive poses and every element inside each image including the environment, the costume (or lack thereof), make up, props and of course; the direction of their gaze as well as their facial expression are used to highlight and enhance their femininity. The overall effect is each graceful image is both haunting and mesmerising.

In Ways of Seeing, John Berger observed that ‘according to usage and conventions which are at last being questioned but have by no means been overcome – men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at’ (Berger 1972).

The female form is a favourite among all artists be it male or female to explore and experiment with. But while the subject matter is the same, the execution and final image produced is significantly different depending on whether the artist is male or female. Women are vain yes, and for the most part we enjoy admiring our own beauty and being admired in turn. But we also enjoy admiring each other. As a woman I am attracted to the images of these beautiful women as they are portrayed very differently from the atypical portrait of a woman taken by a man. Women may enjoy being admired but not all women enjoy being portrayed as sex objects no matter how flattering or subtle the sexually suggestive pictures may be. The big attraction that Zhang Jing Na’s work has on me is how her subjects be it man, woman or object are portrayed with grace, elegance and respect. Her female models are occasionally bare or nude and are often posed in sensuously and can be interpreted as a show of submission of the female object. But I feel that this is a submission born of compliance. The subjects willingly yield to Jing Na because they are assured that she will not use her position as the photographer to exert dominance over their femininity. They know that she will make the most out of their beauty and not just of their physical body shape. She has a talent for showcasing not only the physical beauty of woman but of the inner humanity as well and that the end result are images transcends the norm and transforms her subjects into earth bound angelic and ethereal beings.

Postmodern Artist: Jeff Koons

Jeff Koons, who was born in 1955 is a controversial American modern artist from New York. He is known for his exquisitely crafted paintings and sculptures reproducing kitschy or banal objects using materials and ideas from popular culture to make his art.

One of his most controversial and personal collections is perhaps his deliberately provocative Made in Heaven series from 1990 to 1991 (1)(2). This collection features himself and his then future wife Ilona Staller (otherwise known as Cicciolina), an Italian porn star having sexual intercourse in various positions. The series itself is predominantly made up of huge explicit paintings, photographs and sculptures that leave nothing to the imagination.

One opinion of this series is how the combination of Koons’s fascination with sexuality, the readymade object, and the Baroque interest in Greek and Roman gods, suggests a pagan, pre-Christian view of physical love without shame or boundaries. (3) Unsurprisingly the original opening was criticized severely by art connoisseurs and in the press. Koons challenges the conventions of people’s artistic taste and I suppose this was his way to encourage his audience to make their own decisions about what is acceptable. My opinion on this series still falls within the range of ‘acceptable’ but each piece of art skirts deftly (no pun intended) between the lines of fine art and pornography. Yet despite the blatant sexuality and explicitness, I was surprised by the intimateness and tenderness depicted in the art work and conclusively I felt more like a voyeur intruding on a private moment than one observing works of high art- albeit outrageously subjective high art that is in turns spiritual and gaudy.

Bourgeois Bust – Jeff and Ilona from his Made In Heaven series (1990) (3)

Koons is typically described as a ‘post-modern’ artist and has openly rejected the distinction between low and high art. and his work also illustrated some of the challenges of health promotion in the early 21st century. Many of the health problems of Europe’s richer nations are directly linked to overconsumption. One example is cigarette smoking, in his work Koons transforms a fictitious brand called ‘New 100’s! Merit Ultra-Light’ into a eerie glossy advertisement.

Jeff Koons’ “New 100’s! Merit Ultra-Lights” (1)

I’m not a great admirer of Jeff Koons work but I do find his mocking and self-deprecating approach to art quite interesting. The original work that caught my eye was a large metal rabbit, eloquently titled “Rabbit” from 1986. Koons took a readymade inflatable rabbit and casted the object in stainless steel, playing on the tension between weight, material, and transcendence. It is not itself a mass-produced object, although it represents one and in principle could itself be mass-produced. He claims to be merging high and low culture, turning a bunny such as one would give to a child as a worthless, throwaway toy into a sculpture of highly polished stainless steel thereby giving monetary value and interest to an object that were it not created by Jeff Koons – a famous artist- would not have much value at all. Monetary or otherwise.

Jeff Koons’ “Rabbit” (1986) is considered an icon of Postmodernism (Image Source)

Postmodernism in the Arts. Reinvention Once Again

Welcome to today. In comparison to the past, life has become even more contextually complicated than before. And almost everything is dissected and then viewed in shades of grey. Very little is found within the spectrum of simple and straightforward.

No longer do we have beautiful objects to admire. I think that these works involve a kind of response that depends neither on laws of perception nor on a feeling of beauty. Postmodern art, it seems to me, works in an altogether different way.

Where Modernism was born in the age of rapid progress and industrialisation, Postmordernism came about when the massive production of goods went on a decline and more emphasis took place on the service industry. Social and economic value shifted from the literal object to the immaterial representation.

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Modernism: A Radical Break From The Past

Every once in a while; Everything changes.

Especially when the world is going through a rapid stage of industrialisation. And even more so when there are so many wars going on right alongside.

And during a time of external – sometimes – chaotic change, a massive reorganisation of thought, attitude and behaviour happens. This period I’m referring to in particular is called Modernism and it was one historical movement that we covered in our last lecture.

If I may interject with my own personal opinion at this point; I dislike change. I may be aware and accepting of the fact that changes big or small are inevitable and often necessary yet it is hard to make peace with the major changes in one’s life that often come about- and not in the way you plan or hope.

Modernism marks a revolution of change in art and it’s history. From the late 19th Century and well into the 1970’s there was the breakaway of traditional thought and cultural views. Modernists within the arts and science community rejected almost everything that was once valued in the past and re-established their own intellectual philosophies.

Modernism had it’s own set of goals and aspirations that the movement was determined to realise. The ideal goal of a society stripped of past restrictions and over reliance on religion to act as a divine barometer and dictate one’s worthiness as a human being. Artists, scientists and philosophers turned the tide and paved the way towards what they believed to be a more organised, rational and utopian society.

Artists began to express themselves through the abstract, focusing on the concept of human thought and perception and expressing that exploration in art form. As opposed to simply painting a pretty picture with no obvious deeper meaning. They wanted to explore the inner workings of everything and how human thought and rationale, the human body and the external influences could affect the surrounding environment or even the whole world.

Modernism was a time when people experimented and explored the different ways on how they, either as a single individual or a group can influence change through the written word and through art in it’s many shapes and forms.

(Source) (1) (2) (3)

Image (Source)

As Bob Dylan said and then immortalised in song; The Times They Are A-Changin’ (1964)

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Fascination With The 3-Dimensional Zoetrope

Another topic that we covered in our lecture last Thursday that interested me were the numerous devices invented to display animated images like the Folioscope (otherwise known as the flip book) which was the first form of primitive interactive media that I was exposed to. I was surprised to discover that it had not been patented until 1882. The Thaumatrope (1825), Phenakistoscope (1832) and the Zoetrope (1834) predated it.

Whilst there were many devices that was mentioned during the lecture. I was interested in the zoetrope in particular and especially in the video of a 3-Dimensional zoetrope that was presented.

A traditional Zoetrope is basically a device that spins so the viewer can animated images and or/objects with the aid of visual isolators which enables the human eye to ‘catch’ the animation in progress instead a blur of spinning images.

A zoetrope is most often found in the form of a spinning cylindrical barrel contraption (or toy as some would argue) that contains a series of artwork inside; each contextually and sequentially related but differing slightly from one other. The Zoetrope is then spun quickly so the illusion of animation can viewed through the cut out slits at the sides that act as shutters.

The aforementioned 3-Dimensional zoetrope was created by Pixar Animation Studios and it featured the characters from the Toy Story universe. Interestingly enough, it was itself inspired by a sculptural Zoetrope built by Studio Ghibli of the characters from the much beloved animation My Neighbour Totoro from 1988.

The 3D zoetropes presented differ from the traditional zoetrope in a few ways. The ‘images’ themselves are in fact 3D sculptures of each animated character and are not confined within a cylindrical barrel or drum. Multiple character sculptures are placed in sequence on a rotating disc. When the mechanism is rotated and spun at high speed, a strobe light is used to make the sculptures persist and ‘stick’ to the human eye.

Giving the appearance of movement and animated life.

This to me, is definitive proof that an idea, however simple; will never fail entertain, inform and mesmerise audience when executed wholeheartedly.

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