Portraits and Power
Portraits and Power. People, Politics and Structures is intended to explore the underlying principles in the representation of power in contemporary art. The traditional socio-political definition of power as the exercising of influence or the ability to condition other people’s behaviour fails to account for the complex nature of power and the various (and often hidden) forms it takes in our society. In the present age, the role of images and their influence upon politics, economics and society in general has increased to such an extent that their value is now prominently emerging as a means not merely of representing power – but of affirming it. It is often through images that politicians make their fortunes or ruin their careers; it is by means of well-orchestrated advertising campaigns that companies achieve commercial success; it is often images drawn from television or the media that societies take as their own reference models.
The works on display will serve to illustrate self-referential strategies, as well as different approaches adopted by artists to deconstruct or challenge representative images of social, economic or political power, images capable both of affirming leaderships and of challenging their authority. The starting point for the planning of the exhibition was a comparison drawn between it and the one being held at the same time at Palazzo Strozzi: Bronzino. Artist and Poet at the Court of the Medici. The many and sophisticated works that have contributed to the fame of this Renaissance artist also include portraits of powerful men of his day and most notably of his patrons: the Medici family. Bronzino depicted the Medicis in classical poses and sporting official garments and jewels. The viewer is deliberately divided from the painter’s figures by a distance aimed at eliciting respect and reverence for the latter’s rank. Bronzino’s paintings are not intended to help viewers identify with the subjects portrayed – members of the Florentine aristocracy of the sixteenth century; rather, they serve to legitimize the subjects’ role. These characters are not depicted as mere individuals, but as embodiments of power and physical representatives of authority. Bronzino lends artistic shape to the self-representation of the powerful men of his day and to their political propaganda through art forms – the Medici family providing a celebrated example of the use of art for political aims. The above historical reference represents a starting point for a reflection upon the representation of power today, in the present media and communications society, whereby the relation between artist, subject portrayed and viewer is crucial. Historically, artists have been at the service of the powerful and entrusted with the duty of creating – for different purposes – society portraits, aimed at the extolling and affirmation of the leading character depicted. For today’s powerful people it is no longer so crucial to be portrayed by artists. The artists have been replaced by public relations experts, spin doctors and highly specialized press offices that specifically develop campaigns for the various communication channels. In the communications sector, the public reputation of individuals, institutions and companies plays a fundamental role, so much so that it is always constructed according to the reactions by the public opinion being engaged with. This is as true of politicians as it is of companies and institutions, whose presence in the media is constantly monitored and updated or changed on the basis of regularly commissioned opinion polls. Artistic portraiture has thus become separate from strategically constructed images. On the one hand, the self-referential representation of power has taken on more subtle and sophisticated forms; on the other, the role of the artist in society has changed. The point of view of the artist appears interesting not so much for the way in which people who commission works such as portraits develop a strategy for constructing a public image of themselves, but rather for the artist’s ability to look at reality in a new way by seeking to grasp the mechanisms and dynamics behind the representation of power and by considering power’s relation to society itself.
The questions that have historically marked the art/power dichotomy remain relevant to this day: what is power really? where does it manifest itself and how is it represented? These questions reflect the general issue that concerns all means of visual communication and artistic expression: how to translate into images the complex information and relations that characterize the globalized and interconnected world of today. In modern Western and democratic society, power is no longer the prerogative of single individuals or families, but is rather distributed by sophisticated systems and political and economic bodies that are mutually coordinated. Consequently, artists’ relations to the representation of power are highly ambivalent and varied. No doubt, works are still commissioned, yet free art is chiefly engaged in a critically independent analysis, both on a material and conceptual level. At the forefront are the artist’s gaze and his personal stance vis-à-vis his subject. Artists develop their works based on a vision of their own, as well as an awareness of earlier artistic approaches and iconographic choices. Artists today often employ citation as a cultural technique. They will appropriate and make use of languages and forms others have already employed, while in turn making their own work available as a starting point for future pursuits. By “recycling” pre-existent forms and symbols, artists enter in dialogue with a network of previously defined meanings. The goal of the artist today – as already theorized by Nicolas Bourriaud in his celebrated Postproduction. Culture as Screenplay: How Art Reprograms the World (New York: Lukas & Sternberg, 2002) – is not to develop new forms based on new materials, but rather to work with elements already existent within his cultural circuit, thus establishing a network of meanings and interplay between past, present and future that assigns the public a central role as the receiver and interpreter of these contents. In an age of digital communication and networks, artworks no longer represent a point of arrival and cannot be conceived as being open to only one iconographic reading. Rather, each artwork becomes one of the various elements that contribute to shape the modern cultural process, which is increasingly floating and less and less static and precisely defined. The works included in the Portraits of Power exhibition reflect the above attitude. What the exhibition is offering – almost as a challenge – is a chance to recognize and identify the various possibilities of representing power through different artistic approaches that nevertheless share a common dialogue with the long tradition of portraiture.
To portray power is not merely to witness its existence, but also to de-construct it in such a way as to reconstruct its less evident essence, unveil its hidden mechanisms, and destroy its apparent form. A first section of the exhibition features an analysis of images developed for media promotion of contemporary politicians, and hence intended to reach as wide a public as possible. Helmut Newton’s classic portrait of Margaret Thatcher stands as an example of the construction of a firm and forceful iconic image, seeking as it does to grasp the character of the so-called Iron Lady. Arrayed opposite this is Nick Danziger’s documentary series on Tony Blair, which presents Mrs Thatcher’s successor as a helpful and kind person, assuming no predetermined pose. Annie Leibovitz has instead photographed Queen Elizabeth II by drawing inspiration from classic royal iconography, emphasizing the use of symbolic elements such as the Queen’s crown and her rich official garb, thereby making a break with the rather modern and informal way in which the British royal family normally presents itself. Again within the context of the representation and analysis of the mechanisms of official politics, composer Fabio Cifariello Ciardi offers an instrumental rendering of the inflections and rhythms marking the spoken voices of distinguished politicians in famous and important speeches, thus illustrating the planning behind the rhetorical strategies adopted to persuade voters. Hiroshi Sugimoto goes one step further by focusing on the sheer iconic value of notable and popular politicians, forgoing any attempt to portray real people in order to photograph their effigies in the form of wax statues.
A second thematic section of the exhibition features works by Martin Parr, Daniela Rossell and Tina Barney, and engages with the representation and selfenactment of members of international high society. While Rossell and Parr charge their images with colours, objects and settings that elicit misgivings rather than feelings of reverence on the part of the public, the work of New York photographer Tina Barney presents pictures of upper-class families by bringing out their elegance and formal composure. These three photographers explore upper-class modes of self-representation (and hence of self-legitimization) by emphasizing – in different ways – the development of aesthetic tastes and specific iconographic languages that variously draw upon the traditional representation of power. This iconography of authority is not limited to individual or group portraits, but also includes their setting within appropriate architectural contexts or milieus. It is precisely a study of the “architecture of power” that is the subject of Jim Dow’s series on display. The American photographer succeeds in portraying the interiors of some of the most exclusive private clubs of Manhattan through a broad perspective and a clear and detailed gaze. In a different yet complementary manner, Italian video-artist and photographer Francesco Jodice features an enquiry into what lies behind the façade of power and wealth. In his video DUBAI_CITYTELLERS he describes and analyses the conflicts and contradictions that mark Dubai, a place that has made its way into our collective imagination as a land of wonders, but which is nevertheless based on deep social imbalances and enduring forms of discrimination.
A different approach to power is adopted by Bureau d’études, Trevor Paglen, Jules Spinatsch and The Yes Men. Their works and enterprises offer an analytical gaze on hidden authority structures and those systems and centres of power that seek to avoid being made the object of criticism and transparent information: multinational corporations, business banks, the CIA and supranational inspection bodies. Jules Spinatsch’s works shows the security measures that accompany international meetings at the highest levels in various cities around the world, exploring the theme of the relation between the power of the state and the marks it leaves upon the urban landscape. With a media event, The Yes Men have instead drawn attention towards the chemical disaster caused by Union Carbide in Bhopal, India, in 1984 – without ever really paying for it – and which was running the risk of falling into obscurity. With the aim of providing counter-information to disclose the mechanisms of falsehood, The Yes Men take up and reproduce the media strategies adopted by large industrial groups, thus de-constructing the latter’s public images. Trevor Paglen focuses on the “black world” of the secret operations carried out by American military apparatuses on an international level without public knowledge. Through the use of photographic lenses and cameras of the kind usually employed in astrophysics, his work probes remote and concealed areas where the state operates in secret, transgressing the law. With its World Government map, the Bureau d’études duo provides a visual and schematic representation of the network constellations formed by political, banking and business powers on an international level, creating a critical chart that is both enlightening and highly disturbing.
The relation between images and identity is the central theme explored by artists Rineke Dijkstra, Christoph Brech and Wang Qingsong. The subject of Dijkstra’s photographic series Olivier Silva is a reflection upon what remains of the identity of an individual when he becomes the representative of a military authority such as the French Foreign Legion. Wang Qingsong, by contrast, explores the transformation of Chinese society under the influence of Western consumerism, drawing upon the aesthetics of Socialist propaganda and ironically commenting upon the efficaciousness of the idea of communal power. Christoph Brech shows a detail of the hull of a yacht anchored at the Punta della Dogana during the last Venice Biennale. Its image becomes reminiscent of an abstract painting that alludes to power by concealing the subject’s identity behind an impenetrable façade. A broad perspective on the construction of power by means of images is provided by the work of Michael Clegg and Martin Guttmann. By reflecting upon the role of the artist in relation to power, these two artists de-construct the mechanisms behind the representation of authority, exploring the theme of the traditional commissioning of private works and analysing the symbols and features typically associated with the representation of power. Michael Clegg and Martin Guttmann are also the authors of one of the essays featured in the catalogue of the exhibition and which variously contribute to broaden its reflection upon the art/power dichotomy. Clegg & Guttmann here illustrate their own work (spanning several decades) by describing the conceptual approach they have developed and which is aimed at de-constructing the representation of power and image control. In his essay, American scholar of media and cultural history and politics Stephen Duncombe examines the main positions held in the critical debate on the issue of the self-representation of political power, from Niccolò Machiavelli to Antonio Gramsci, Luis XVI and Barack Obama. Peter Funnell, the curator of the National Portrait Gallery in London, is instead the author of an essay comparing the pieces which the Gallery has kindly lent the Strozzina Centre for Contemporary Culture with other works both present and past.
Like all other exhibitions designed by the Centre for Contemporary Culture Strozzina, Portraits of Power will be accompanied by a programme of lectures held by experts in various fields. The aim is to explore the theme of the exhibition from different vantage points and to invite the public to embark upon a broader reflection upon the issues suggested by the exhibition itinerary. While on the one hand this calendar of lectures offers specific engagements with the contemporary relation between art and power, on the other it investigates the meaning of power in contemporary society, focusing in particular on the question of how and in what way this becomes visible. The first of these two aims will be pursued through the lectures held by Cristina Casero (lecturer in the History of Photography at the University of Parma) and Marco Scotini (critic, curator and teacher at the New Academy of Fine Arts of Milan). The remaining lectures will instead be devoted to the forms that power takes in our society: Alessandro Casiccia (University of Turin) will examine the connection between power and luxury and excess; Vanni Codeluppi (sociologist and lecturer at the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia) will analyse the way in which the capitalist system asserts itself and influences our lives; finally, Marco Belpoliti (writer, essayist, critic and lecturer and the University of Bergamo) and Vincenzo Susca (sociologist and lecturer at the Paris Sorbonne University) will investigate the role of politics and the imagery it creates. The programme also includes a meeting with Francesco Jodice, an artist whose works will be on display at the exhibition, as well as two precious joint ventures. The first will be with the exhibition Bronzino. Artist and Poet at the Court of the Medici: as a guest of the Strozzina, its curator Antonio Natali (also Director of the Uffizi Gallery) will be accompanying the public of the contemporary exhibit into sixteenth-century Florence by guiding them in the discovery of the grand decorative plan of the Chapel of Eleanor of Toledo. The second joint venture is instead intended to renew the partnership between the Centre Strozzina and Festival dei Popoli – the International Documentary Film Festival in Florence. It will feature a screening in the Strozzina’s halls of L’esplosione (The explosion), a documentary by Giovanni Piperno on illegal building in Italy, a manifest and dramatic sign of the rule of money and unregulated business in the country.
Portraits and Power is a project developed by the Centre for Contemporary Culture Strozzina thanks to the expert advice of Peter Funnell (Curator and Head of Research Programmes at the National Portrait Gallery in London), Walter Guadagnini (President of the Scientific Committee of the “UniCredit & Art” project) and Roberta Valtorta (Director of the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Cinisello Balsamo). Their contribution has been crucial for defining the themes of the exhibition and selecting the artists.