On The Disappointed and Offended (Tribute to the Tribune)
and the art of reinventing an image
Originally published in Magnus Bärtås, works –2000, Gävle
That an artist takes an image from one context and inserts it into another
may seem a fairly uncomplicated undertaking. But in point of fact, recycling
an image in this way represents a challenge to the categories that underlie
human perception. Using categories as signposts we find our bearings in
the world. Without a practical, intellectual and emotional organization
the world around us would not only be impossible to cope with but also
incomprehensible. And it is precisely here, in our desire to create structures,
that contemporary art finds its most interesting function. It is in this
context too that the "recycled image" produces a peculiar rupture
in the order that we accept as given.
A considerable part of Magnus Bärtås's production deals with
images that have been plucked from one context and conveyed to another.
In his work this transfer is consciously made visible. The different significances
that the pictures have accrued along the way are stored in the works and
are impossible to ignore. The viewer's mind is thus set in motion by a
world of images that does not just recycle a motif but also reinvents
Magnus Bärtås started working on The Disappointed and Offended
aka Tribute to the Tribune in 1994 and the project is still under development.
The point of departure for the work is the artist's interest in the Swedish
tabloids' portrayal of people who feel themselves wronged in some way.
The reasons for this may be as varied as maltreatment by the authorities,
discrimination at work or indignation about cheating or misbehaviour in
sport. Some of the people consider themselves to be victims of true conspiracies
while others can be defined as legal suicides with a special feeling for
justice. Common to all these cases is the individual's sense of frustration;
the conviction that she or he has been subjected to someone else's wickedness,
misinterpretation, revenge or ignorance, or has suffered an unreasonable
degree of bad luck. Given a small amount of empathy an outsider can understand
that such people experience a Kafka-like chaos; finding themselves part
of an incomprehensible process in which the outcome is highly uncertain.
It is the portraits of these wronged people and the accompanying narratives
that form the basic material of The Disappointed and Offended. The work
consists of some 500 small portraits of faces or, more properly, impressions
of portraits. The impressions are produced with the help of candle wax
that is dropped on selected photographs from the newspapers. The printing
ink on the paper adheres to the wax and when the slightly irregular roundel
of wax is lifted, the result is a soft-focus mirror image of the picture.
These portraits are then hung on the walls in various formations. The
faces on the wax roundels cast indignant glances at the viewer from their
new position as works of art.
Narrative texts are also part of the work, brief sentences that describe
the core of each of the portrayed people's stories as presented in the
press. This provides an endless list of wrongs that the people portrayed
have been subjected to - hundreds of compressed descriptions of the evil
that they have suffered. They are like a mantra or an endless reversed
spell with an obvious poetic dimension. Like "the woman who had to
strip for the customs officers when they searched for ecstasy tablets,
the pensioner with cancer who by mistake was arrested for threatening
to kill the Prime Minister, the smoker who had his pay cut for the six
minutes it took him to smoke a cigarette, the railway employee who heard
on the radio that she had lost her job."
The Disappointed and Offended is a work in which, as we have noted, it
is evident that the images have been borrowed from another context. The
intention is that the viewer should be conscious of the transformation
that has taken place and the transfer is thus a part of the work of art.
Of decisive importance is the fact that the pictures and the narratives
have signified different things at different stops along the way. The
material rides up and down on the interpretative see-saw, constantly shifting
in significance. And perhaps it is precisely this quality – of constantly
changing appearance – that is the very essence of the recycled image
in contemporary art.
What, then, has happened with the pictures and narratives on the way from
newspaper story to Bärtås's work of art? How has he recycled
them, reinvented them?
To begin with, The Disappointed and Offended challenges the boundary between
private and public. Each individual destiny forming a part of the work
has passed this frontier on its way from the private sphere to the public
domain of news reporting. Here, on the other side, the story becomes a
public matter in printer's ink. From the newspaper version of a case the
story is then moved on to Bärtås's work of art. At the same
moment that picture and narrative are inserted into the work the character
of the public aspect that has already been achieved is changed. It is
transformed into art. The significance of the picture – or rather
the viewer's interpretation thereof - swings backwards and forwards between
the categories of "private" and "public" and, more
intricately, between the definitions "art" and "non-art".
Here the concept of time is also of a certain importance. The portraits
with their narratives have undergone a metamorphosis from a highly temporary
existence to a much more lasting state. Newspapers and their content are
ephemeral and the stories of the people portrayed are a short-lived consumer
product while art is generally seen as belonging to eternity. It is highly
probable that the first face that Bärtås chose, with its attached
narrative, has long been forgotten by both readers and reporter. Who remembers
"the man who became critically ill after taking Losec" or the
"woman who was fired because of her fatness"? In The Disappointed
and Offended they are still inviting the public's attention.
The work also points to the boundary between "chaos" and "order".
The specific cases deal with the individual's feeling that the times are
out of gear and often with the sense that it is up to the individual to
put things right, like Hamlet and his vengeance. To receive publicity
for one's cause on the pages of a newspaper is an attempt to create order
in the chaos that one sees as created , or at least sanctioned, by society
or the times – in short, to put everything right again. Here, too,
there is a tension between the "individual" and the "group".
In the media version, the private individual is presented with his or
her individual indignation. Bärtås, on the other hand, places
each of them in a group, in a context. In the work the people portrayed
balance between being regarded as individual cases and as representatives
of one and the same problem. Frustration blooms best in isolation while
a group can raise it to the level of struggle and commitment.
Over the years Bärtås's work has changed. In the years since
1994, when the project was begun, the focus has been displaced, his approach
has shifted. Initially the work was critical of the portrayal and the
exposure of frustrated people (who ran the risk of actually making fools
of themselves in public) and questioned the value of these stories. The
portraits and narratives became an elegy to absurdity, an ironical list
of things to which people devote their time and energies and at which
the press rejoices. The viewer of the work was offered both an entrance
to empathy and to repudiation.
But at a certain point Bärtås turned things upside down. He
changed his mind - a guess is that this was a gradual and reluctant process
- and his perspective became another. The title of the project changed
from The Disappointed and Offended to Tribute to the Tribune and the rupture
was a fact.
In this version the work has become a celebration of the media, the channel
that allows the ordinary person's voice to be heard. Personal destinies
or commitment that the work had previously treated as absurd or trivial
when trumpeted forth in the press become tiny, individual expressions
of a democratic spirit. Every testimony is important, every instance of
indignation or frustration that is made visible is an impression of the
human right of thinking and feeling what one likes.
The remarkable thing is that the work of art remains as it was but that
it assumes a completely different significance from its new title. Thus
Bärtås has recycled the pictures - both from his own point
of view and from that of the public. To revise one's previous position,
like Bärtås, without changing the work itself except with regard
to its title, requires strong nerves. In such a situation, confidence
in the artist and the work of art is seriously called into question and
undertakes a balancing act between trust and mistrust. But Tribute to
the Tribune clearly retains both its credibility and its importance in
this new guise. The artist is again prepared to reinvent the picture and
so the viewer is again prepared to believe in it.
Characteristic of the world of images that Bärtås's work communicates
is the recycling, the reinventing of the image itself. Here there are
no formal criteria for what can be used, what is suitable. A cutting from
a tabloid can be as interesting as an aerial photo or a postcard. Everything
of value he saves in one of the studio's numerous sorting systems - card
index, registers and files - to be brought forth again when it is time
to continue the conveyance from the original context to the new one. Magnus
Bärtås's artistic work illustrates the potential of the recycled
and reinvented image in contemporary art and his remarkable ability to
make use of it.