Article by Jeff Ko
In today’s society, we are bombarded with images and information.
There is so much to be deciphered that we end up either becoming numb by the constant stampede, or passive and only able to semi-absorb images in the one dimension they falsely set themselves in. In the midst of all this commotion, Roland Barthes (in relation to dilemmas such as those mentioned) coined the term ‘myth’ – a concept used to deconstruct these situations, breaking down the illogical social perceptions that have been ingrained in us.
One of Barthes most poignant ideas is that myth, like behavior through socialisation, is a man-made phenomena: “One can conceive of very ancient myths, but there are no eternal ones; for it is human history which converts reality into speech, and it alone rules the life and death of mythical language.”
Myth, like language, is ingrained in us through repetition and, finally, naturalisation.
Barthes’ theory of myth has evolved from his readings of Saussure, who himself had earlier begun to deconstruct language, stating it was applied rather than inherent to objects. He argued that “this is demonstrated by differences between languages and even by the existence of different languages”.
Saussure also claimed it wasn’t only language that was applied but also behaviour, “signs of politeness, for instance, although endowed with a certain natural expressiveness are nonetheless fixed by rule. It is this rule which renders them obligatory, not their intrinsic value”.
Similar to Deconstruction, Minimalism is a reductive concept with a premise that sits comfortably between the thinking of Barthes and Saussure. It is “an artistic movement which sets out to expose the essence, essentials or identity of a subject through eliminating all non-essential forms, features or concepts’.
Minimalism was born out of Modernism in the early 1960’s, almost in opposition to Modernism and Pop, and their flamboyant need to over-embellish. This contrast is still explicit in today’s society when you consider the use of public space – from billboards to public art. Advertisers are constantly forcing myths and manipulating images. Using repetition and over-exposure, it tones down our ability to read and enquire, and our senses become muted.
In respect of this numbing, Barthes stresses that myth exists on two planes: one of initial understanding or visual logic, and one of deeper thought, possible intentions and conflicts.
Minimalism is possibly a successful place for these theories to reside, without any overly-contrived aesthetic.
Robert Montgomery works in the public domain, creating billboards and other advertising platforms. Using a minimal aesthetic and execution of either black and white or lights, he writes poetry. Montgomery never signs his work; an anonymity which greatly contrasts the brashness of advertising and the constant urgency for brand visibility.
His work is not merely a poetic gesture but asserts its position and breaks down the stereotypes and myths guarding advertising. He quickly deconstructs a stereotype, making transparent the experience of the viewer, the industry and those seeking to maintain the myth, ‘and in all the pictures now the famous people have already begun to look lost and lonely’.
Santiago Sierra is an artist who works conceptually within the realms of Barthes and aesthetically through minimalism. Sierra, like Barthes deconstructs modern-day myths. Sierra is a controversial artist, dealing with issues such as immigration, prostitution, addiction and economy explicitly, taking concepts to extremities while maintaining a consistent aesthetic.
A recent project titled ‘1,000 Black Posters’, showed Sierra pasting 1,000 black posters all over the city of Viterbo as a part of Cantieri d’Arte (a public art project). Instead of employing the tactics of Montgomery, Sierra – in the most minimal of gestures – pasted blank black posters in a range of locations from walls, to billboards, doors and landmarks. The project sought to ‘represent the complaint of a blackout of communication and today’s political and social situation’.
Absolutely rejecting the language of advertising, the black posters sit hauntingly, referencing death or mourning for our current situation. The scale of this display also works in its favour, honing us in with its accessibility but not overshadowing us or creating grandiose statements. Instead, it subtly makes us aware of ourselves, thereby causing us to engage.
These interruptions in our everyday landscape are what ignite wonder and questioning. Barthes describes a typical Basque house in Spain, his awareness of its ‘common style’ and of it being an ‘ethnic’ product, however it is not until he is in Paris and sees a singular house of the Basque aesthetic that it actually speaks to him, of ‘the very essence of basquity’.
Barthes explains, “This is because the concept appears to me in all its appropriative nature: it comes and seeks me out in order to oblige me to acknowledge the body of intentions which have motivated it and arranged it there as the signal of an individual history, as a confidence and a complicity: it is a real call that the owners of the chalet send out to me”.
In other works, Sierra nods at Saussure and Barthes. The titles are reduced to the simple actions, ‘3 cubes of 100cm on each side moved 700cm’. Though activity is referenced in the title, the description then informs that the people moving the cubes of concrete are ‘six Albanian refugees, without the right to work’. The withholding of this information is crucial, firstly allowing us to view purely, to see the action and aesthetic, and only then delve further.
But by Sierra declaring the action and the people but not declaring their context, it deconstructs, causing us to ask questions. Here Sierra is physically stripping men of their ‘identities’ and then re-applying them; he presents them as nameless and then defines them by their social condition. Sierra’s work isn’t explicit in declaring concepts but subtly provides information, and therefore concepts are decoded.
In conclusion, Barthes theory of Myth has grown from Saussure’s writings on language. With ‘Myth’ Barthes is attempting to deconstruct our world and the everyday realities that exist without much penetration. Like Barthes’ need to deconstruct our learnt behavior, Minimalism – born out of a rejection of Modernism – had the same intentions. Minimalism sought to absolutely reduce art to only that which is necessary or relevant in order for the actuality of concepts to exist. Both complimenting each other, they have created a new space in which we can think and converse with more clarity than before, leading to more resolved theorising and works of art.