Burgin: Possession (1976)

The artwork Possession was created by the multimedia artist Victor Burgin in 1976. Burgin came up with the concept for Possession while he was an art professor at the Central London Polytechnic, about to move to the US to teach at Yale (Buckman 221). The first edition of the work was displayed at a gallery exhibition in Edinburgh, UK. Later that year, under a commission of the British Council, 500 copies were issued and posted along the streets of Newcastle upon Tyne (“Possession”). The image was developed through a mixed media process of text and photography juxtaposition, and reproduced by the method of duotone lithography (“Possession”), an offset printing technique. Possession measures 47 x 33 inches and it is intended to be displayed vertically as a poster.

Victor Burgin, Possession (1076). The British Council Visual Arts (Public Domain)

Burgin’s career started in the 1960s and he is still actively working with art theory and producing installations (Campany 204), thus his body of work can be enclosed within a range of several artistic components of what became known as the Postmodern and Contemporary Art (Gardner and Kleiner 787). Harrison and Wood (883) agree that his work is framed within the boundaries of Conceptual Art, but the artist himself denies the title in his book Components of a Practice, affirming that the early stages of his work were conceptual indeed (Burgin 38), but from 1970 on he admits shifting to a “verbal rhetoric” approach that narrowed his relations with a “Post-Conceptual” (50) relationship with the artistic field. Burgin did not approve what he considered to be an elitist approach of the Conceptualists, denying to be framed within what he calls the “hermeticism of Conceptual Art” (38). Burgin had experienced the American Minimalism of the late 1960’s by the sculptures of Donald Judd and Robert Morris while studying in the US (Harrison and Wood 883), and his first works were indeed certainly influenced by them, however he expressed little interest in the built volume – “I wanted to go beyond Minimalism and do away with the physical object entirely” (Burgin, 16). By 1976, when Possession was created, both Burgin (ii) and Clarke (204) can agree on the fact that he is a photographer, even though his works touch the edges of many different media throughout his several explorations of form and significance. Burgin’s position as part of a specific artistic style or movement is debatable, however Gardner and Kleiner’s definitions of “Conceptual Art”– “the ‘artfulness’ of art lay in the artist’s idea, rather than in its final expression” (824) – and “Social and Political Art” – “investigating the dynamics of power and privilege” (830) seem to fit within Burgin’s body of work accordingly.

In Possession Burgin plays with the liaison of a centered photograph and two different text fields: one question and one magazine citation. The relationship between the two actors depicted in the work builds up on sexual tension (both woman and man are good looking and well dressed, with a body language suggestive of intimacy), whereas the relationship of the photograph with the upper and lower text fields creates a completely different significance. The image then slowly reveals its layers of criticism and provocation, where the word “possession” can simultaneously mean sexual, physical possession (of the woman over the man), psychological possession (of the actors towards each other), or financial possession (in the sense of economic domination). According to Wombell and Mah, Burgin’s criticism comes from a period where “gender and sexuality, racism, work, poverty, and social exclusion” (17) were central subjects of intellectual analysis, accompanied by the “growing omnipresence of the mass media” (12). Burgin himself describes this work as an exploration of “the intersections of sexuality and politics” (38) along with US77 and UK76 (1977), a series of prints that mixed “photographs and texts to point up the persistence of social and sexual contradictions behind the facade of the conventional advertisement” (Harrison and Wood, 883). Advertisement is, indeed, one of the most impacting appropriations of Possession, when Burgin borrows the traditionally capitalist approach of commercial posters to promote a political demonstration. Alone, both texts and image can have a prosaic meaning. Burgin’s work relies exactly on the communication of these elements, and the several layers of significance and meaning built upon the exchange of codes between observer, society, and artwork.

Possession was displayed as a poster, the 500 copies fixed to the walls of public spaces throughout Newcastle upon Tyne, UK. There are several photographs in Burgin’s Components of a Practice depicting the posters on train stations and sidewalks, giving the artwork a ubiquitous dimension, almost banal, again building upon the advertising media appropriation. “The specificity of the gallery is different from that of the street (…) so the forms and contents are allowed to be more complex” (Burgin, 46) – explains the author. Since the initial urban exhibition, the British Council Visual Arts holds Possession as part of its collection, however it is classified as Public Domain on the organization’s website, reinforcing the work’s character as an expression of “criticism of art institutions” (Wombell and Mah 22). Moreover, agreeing to display his artwork on the open street can also be seen as a political statement – by attaching the very roots of Possession to the public realm, Burgin wanted it to be “inseparable from its immediate context, and therefore could not become an object of exchange” (Burgin 44) – a tendency of denying any capitalist speculation in his artwork since the early 1960s.

Considering the small size of Newcastle upon Tyne, the scarcity of documentation of the original exhibition (besides the author’s pictures in his own book and other writers’ descriptions in other publications) the real notoriety of Possession as a renowned artwork (Gibbons 31) was not clear until historians and art critics started to look back at the production of the late 1970s. Possession, 1976 and the other prints released a year later are now considered a fundamental piece of Burgin’s position as “one of the most consistently influential artists and art theorists of his generation” (“On Paper”) and a predecessor of the utilization of an artwork to raise political and social awareness in Britain. Throughout my initial research about the artist I was inclined to approach another work series of Burgin, Office at Night (1986) as seen on Clarke’s The Photograph, but further exploration of his work brought Possession to my attention. The aspects of the artwork that appeal me the most are its subtle and wise subjectivity, the different layers of meaning built upon the interrelations between text and photograph as a strong social-political commentary, and the subversion of the advertising mechanisms – it looks like a corporate promotion, but it transmits a significance that is diametrically opposite to how it looks. Possession displays a strong economic and social criticism, and main codes utilized are a reflection about how the same inequalities Burgin was criticizing back in 1976 are still present today and even more evident.

Cited Works

·Buckman, David. Artists in Britain since 1945. Vol. 1, Art Dictionaries, 2006.
·Burgin, Victor. Components of a Practice. Skira, 2008.
·Campany, David. “Other Criteria”. Frieze Magazine, May 2013, pp. 202-207. https://goo.gl/RXYMfk. Accessed 15 May 2017.
·Clarke, Graham. The Photograph. Oxford, 1997.
·“Economic Milestones of the Year Ahead”. The Economist, 2016. https://goo.gl/5QU8B8. Accessed 17 May 2017.
·Gardner, Helen and Fred S. Kleiner. “Modernism and Postmodernism in Europe and America, 1945 to 1980”. Gardner’s Art Through the Ages: the Western Perspective. 14th ed., Wadsworth, 2013.
·Gibbons, Joan. “Art Invades and Appropriates”. Art and Advertising. Tauris, 2005.
·Harrison, Charles and Paul Wood. Art in Theory 1900-2000: An Anthology of Changing Ideas. Blackwell, 1992.
·“On Paper – Victor Burgin”. Richard Saltoun Gallery, 2013. http://www.richardsaltoun.com/exhibitions/28/overview/. Accessed 16 May 2017.
·“Possession – Everything Must Go: Art and the Market”. The British Council Visual Arts, 2009, https://goo.gl/tU3BMJ. Accessed 15 May 2017.
·Wombell, Paul and Sérgio Mah. The 70s, Photography and Everyday Life. La Fábrica, 2009.