Victor Burgin’s Between collects interviews and occasional writings around a double handful of Burgin’s photo/art projects from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s. The book originally appeared in 1986 and was out of print for a couple of decades until Mack reprinted it in 2020. As someone interested in art history & theory (I hold a master’s degree in same from Stony Brook: if you know, you know), as a conceptual art-o-file, and as a fan of work that mixes image and text, it was a no-brainer.
Since every other review I’ve seen—going back to David Campany’s review of the original in Art in America—essentially opens with a quote from Burgin, about his work and what he means it to mean, I guess I will too:
My decision to base my work in cultural theory, rather than traditional aesthetics, has resulted in work whose precise ‘location’ is uncertain, ‘between’: between gallery and book; between ‘visual art’ and ‘theory’; between image and narrative – ‘work’ providing work between reader and text.Burgin, Victor. Between. Mack, London, 2020. p. 6
Ok. That out of the way, and before I go any further, I thoroughly enjoyed the read—it wasn’t particularly light, but it wasn’t Lyotard or Wittgenstein either—and Burgin’s way of pairing text and image, and his way of sequencing things, and I hope I absorbed enough to use some of his techniques in my own work one day. It’s really great stuff.
If you’re unaware of Burgins work, he essentially made little-s street photography, then printed bits of theoretical text on top. A famous early example asks “What does property mean to you?” It then shows an attractive 1970s couple embracing, followed by what should be a startling figure, but isn’t really: “7% of our population own 84% of our wealth.” Maybe it was more illuminating to passersby in 1975, and sitting here in 2023, I’m too educated, too cynical, and too filled with latent, largely ignorant little-m marxism to feel much of anything about it. I figured things were worse today… That said, December 2022 figures from the Federal Reserve show the United States figure to be better, with 10% controlling just 68%….* How progressive this modern world is! How equitable we’ve become!
Anyway. Most of Burgin’s work in the mid and late 1970s gave a largely Marxist-lite economic critique of things, with which I deeply sympathize; he shifted to feminist theory in the late 1970s and further into Freudian psycholanalytics (also “lite” or lite-adjacent) the 1980s. This move largely either echoes or prefigures a similar shift in Art programs in the United States (if not elsewhere). It was all part of PostModernism, and the shift in the academy paralleled or prefigured capitalist recuperation of these concepts around the same time, such that all are largely mere meme-fodder these days.
Pro-tip to cultural revolutionaries of the future: keep your theory out of the academy! I won’t go into it any further: Sous les pavés, la plage!
Reading through all this, I really was struck by how far we’ve come as a society. While all recent revolutionary movements (in the present moment, think #blacklivesmatter and #metoo) have always already been recuperated—this is advanced capitalism, after all—such movements did indeed open some room for conversation, nudged the society a itty-bitty bit towards justice. Not far enough, by any stretch or measure; mere baby steps, at best, and really feeling mostly like one step forward and three back, but still forward progression over the past forty years.
Go us, I guess.
And really, though, the theory portion just depressed me. 1) we still have such a long way to go; 2) after all my study and thinking, and with the pieces of paper to prove it in acid-free cardboard sleeves in the closet, I function as a low level manager for a data & financial services company and half-arse my way through running a blog that maybe 120 people visit per day. Have I already wasted my life? Am I still in progress of wasting it?
Allahu alim, and may God guide me to better.
Anyway. I deeply appreciate and admire Burgin’s art and especially his sequencing. One piece, Gradiva,** tells a story from the perspective of a woman and a man across 8 panels. The first four tell the woman’s side; the last four tell the man’s in reverse. As Burgin writes (I’m paraphrasing here), the goal was to present something like the classic movie trope where the lovers run triumphantly towards one another, in slow motion, on a beach or some equally romantic place, as the music swells, while also pointing towards the gulf that exists in most all human relationships. Following Lacan’s claim “Il n’y a pas de rapport sexuelle” (there is no sexual relation), Burgin suggests that romantic partners*** come together based in fantasy: I project an image on the other; the other projects an image onto me; neither of us are actually what the other imagines, and it is this gulf between fantasy and reality that relationships dance around.
It’s all hooey, of course… or equal parts gospel and hooey, and I’m a believer.
But the work is magnificent. Honestly. The book is full of both excellent capital-C, capital-A Conceptual Art photography and period-appropriate theory, and it’s great that Mack reprinted it and made it widely available, and for a fairly reasonable price to boot.
Beware, though: Between isn’t really a photobook, not really. It’s more a theory book. But it has a fair amount of Burgin’s work from the period, and a ton of his thought, both in writing and interview form, and (for me, anyway) it was well worth the money I spent on it (full publisher’s price, I’m sure, as I bought it direct from Mack: let no one accuse me of being a shill). Your mileage may vary.
*The same charts have the bottom 50% controlling just 3.3%… better than the years following the 2007 housing crash, but essentially unchanged for the last 40 years.
** The full sequence can be found in pages 52-58 of Amanda K. Ackerman’s 2016 MA Thesis “Victor Burgin’s Gradiva: Feminism, Antiquity, and Conceptualism.” at the School of Art/ College of DAAP at the University of Cincinnati.
***Lacan, and Burgin (at the time of Gradiva) spoke only of women and men; they were working in a period where LGBT wasn’t a thing, let alone LGPTQIA+. Insofar as I’m writing in 2023, I account for more people, and what Lacan/Burgin claim for women & men can be said about any romantically involved couple, really.