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Victor Burgin - Biography

Victor Burgin (born in Sheffield, England, 1941) is Millard Professor of Fine Art, Goldsmiths College, University of London, and Professor Emeritus of History of Consciousness, University of California, Santa Cruz. Burgin studied painting at the Royal College of Art in London (1962-65) and continued his studies at Yale University (M.F.A., 1967). Victor Burgin is one of the most distinguished teaching artists of our time, whose cross-disciplinary work bridges media, culture and art. Former Chair in Art and Architecture, The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, New York, and Professor of Art History, UC Santa Cruz, Burgin served as visiting professor and artist-in-residence in many countries. In 2005 he received an Honorary Degree of Doctor of Sheffield Hallam University.

In 1986 Victor Burgin was nominated for the Turner Prize and his photographic and video work is represented in such public collections as Museum of Modern Art, New York; Corcoran Gallery, Washington DC; Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; The Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; The Tate Gallery, London; The Victoria and Albert Museum, London; and the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris. Victor Burgin is the author of Thinking Photography, Between, The End of Art Theory: Criticism and Postmodernity, In/Different Spaces: Place and Memory in Visual Culture, Shadowed.

Victor Burgin came to prominence as an originator of conceptual art in the late 1960s when he was also part of now historical exhibitions such as “When Attitudes Became Form” (1969) and “Three Perspective on Photography” (1979). Trained as a painter, Victor Burgin explains his turn to photography to be a political act. Nevertheless, although not easily recognized, Victor Burgin claims that one of the major influences on him and his approach to the world comes from one of the important movements in painting, cubism. Often, his work has been categorized as expressing an unusual combination of conceptual rigor and poetic elegance.

Victor Burgin's work has always emphasized the role of the spectator in reading and interpreting works of art, believing that the meaning is never simply 'there', but is always produced. His own work plays with the numerous readings generated between images and their surroundings in combination with the viewer's unconscious beliefs and phobias. In the 1970s, Victor Burgin's signature black and white photographs combined documentary style imagery with texts in the manner of advertisements from glossy magazines. In this period, Victor Burgin's interest was in the questions of the construction of the subject in a patriarchal and media dominated society, wanting to show how mobile and provisional masculine sexuality is actually structured. Following Jacques Lacan, Victor Burgin believes that his concept of misrecognition of the self through the agency of the image is of fundamental importance to both art-making and identity politics. Simultaneously, he persistently insists on an important task of decoding the hidden meanings in ideologies that create representations in the cultural and commercial domains. According to this, the communicative intention can be reversed by the form of the text, the context in which it is produced, or the mind of the reader.

Victor Burgin's works from the early 1980s made explicit his interest in psychoanalysis where he explored the central Freudian themes of coincidence, doubling, loss and desire, with references to fetishism and voyeurism. In the 1990s, he turned towards digital video, making photography and film his primary medium until the present. Victor Burgin's focus turned to the relationship between space and the unconscious, history and psychoanalysis, while in his most recent videos he deals explicitly with architecture, narrative and absence. For instance, in his Voyage to Italy (2006), inspired by an unusual photograph of Pompeii by Carlo Fratacci (1864) found in the archives, he links the questions of destruction and preservation found at this archaeological site to the essence of the creation of photography. In a similar manner, the photograph for Victor Burgin becomes the ruin of the world, where the ruin acts as an archive of the past.

In one of his most influential theoretical works, Thinking Photography (1982), Victor Burgin demands a new photography theory that must be interdisciplinary and must engage not only with techniques of photographic production but, more importantly, with processes of signification. As a result, he sketches an important mode of photography theory which conceives the photograph to exist as a set of codes whose meaning depends upon the ideological context in which it, as well as the viewer, participates. His project is to develop a materialist analysis of photography in which semiotics is one starting point, but, as Burgin states, is not sufficient to account for the complex articulation of produced relations. He is interested in the politics of representation and the links between the image, interpretation and ideological discourses. Victor Burgin extends this system to the socially generated ideology that colors individual consciousness, and therefore the most fruitful approach to analysis is to be found in the conjunction of semiotics and psychoanalysis. The final task is to remove the ideological mask from the photograph which makes us believe it is a veridical report of reality. Perhaps the most suitable model for the operation of photography for Burgin is considered to be advertising. Nevertheless, the photograph is always engaged in selling – not only the object depicted, but the whole world of meanings entangled in it.

Victor Burgin

Victor Burgin is a Professor of Media Philosophy and History of Consciousness at the European Graduate School in Saas-Fee, Switzerland, where he teaches an Intensive Summer Seminar.