SIGNS AND SIGNIFIERS OF BEING BRITISH – WHAT IMAGERY CAN SAY ABOUT OUR CULTURE?
SIGNS OF THE TIMES
As regular readers may know, I am rather interested in societies and cultures – particularly how they can be represented visually and then subverted. I find it interesting what people choose to photograph or make art about when looking at representing their country or local area and how their chosen subjects are riddled with the visual language of that culture.
Sometimes these signs and messages are really obvious and it is impossible to miss their reference, but when it gets really interesting for me is when their references are subverted in someway or the history of a culture is used within an image to suggest all manner of message and meaning.
CREAM TEAS & THE ENGLISH COUNTRY GARDEN
Behold example number 1 – a normal photograph of a normal holiday scene. You know the situation – you are camping in the country and venture forth on a walk along the river. You happen across a cafe selling cake and it would be rude and impertinent not to enter the establishment and partake in the fine English tradition of afternoon tea. To commemorate the occasion, you take a quick snap of the wares you are soon to enjoy.
Take this image outside of the personal context and display it to others, however, and meanings come forward to them too. The classic tea pot reflecting the fine summers sky, a plate of scones and Jam can mean but one thing – cream tea. Behind the table is a hint of a traditional cottage garden.
The photograph screams of everything that we associate with an English summers day and it takes on the meaning of representing summertime as well as the traditions and history of our tea drinking heritage! Give this image to a critic and no doubt they could bring into it colonisation, slavery (thinking tea plantations here!), Indian rule, Gandhi, perhaps the potteries and so on. Of course, you are probably thinking I am being excessive – but these meanings are what you would get taught on an art degree! Whilst we may then be quick to dismiss such readings into a photograph or any piece of art – there is always a truth in these signifiers and always a value in at least acknowledging them.
DESIGN CLASSICS – THE
Now please cast your eyes onto example number two, which should be situated to my right >
A phone box – the humble red, classic phone box. Again an everyday sight – perhaps not so much these days since they have been replaced by more modern booths and generally superseded by the mass ownership of the mobile phone, but what greater sign of British design is there than the red phone box?
Alongside the London Bus or black cab, it is probably one of the first things many people around the world might identify as being British and is still a predominant sight in the capital. This in itself is interesting, the decision by the London councils to keep the traditional boxes because they have become something that visiting tourists might expect and look for. Growing up in this country, no doubt we are desensitised to the image of the phone box because we have seen it so much – but go to London and you will see countless visitors photographing themselves in front of them.
Objects like the red phone box feature on many toursit souveniers and it is the branding of a place in this manner which can be really interesting to explore. The photogaph here can again be looked at in a different way. The phone box is shabby and unclean – the door missing and the floor piled with litter. It looks dirty and tired and run down.
Presenting an image like this can then start to take on a wider meaning about the state of British society – broken Britain as illustrated through a shabby version of one of the iconic symbols of the country. You can tell the photo is taken in London from the stone work and hints of the architecture in the background and a phone box in poor condition sitting in the streets of London becomes a sign of the current economic and political climate.
READ MORE INTO THINGS!
Whilst these two examples are exaggerated and I have picked two photographs and run away with the potential meanings they might contain, it is an interesting illustration into how the visual symbols of a place can be used and then exploited to create a metaphor or illustration of another point. Whilst I think analysis and critique of art can be taken to far – it is also this deep analysis of imagery and culture done by critics which is a valuable part of the art making process and enables us to reflect upon our surroundings in a more interesting and informed way.