Simulacres et Simulation

AGNSW collection Richard Hamilton Kent State (1970) 49.1971
AGNSW collection Richard Hamilton Kent State (1970) 49.1971

Richard Hamilton's 'Kent State': Pop Simulacrum

In 1970, violence erupted on the campus of Kent State University, Ohio. During a student demonstration against the Vietnam War, the Nation Guard opened fire against the protestors. This massacre led to the death of four students, and was quickly televised around the world. Richard Hamilton watched the horrific footage on the BBC from his home in London. ‘Kent State’ depicts the body of a wounded protestor on his TV screen.

In this Art Set, we will be exploring the role of the TV screen in the transmission of images, and in the simulation of reality.

AGNSW collection Bill Henson Untitled 1985/86 (1985-1986) 78.1988
AGNSW collection Bill Henson Untitled 1985/86 (1985-1986) 78.1988

Bill Henson’s photograph shows a woman sleeping by a static TV. This screen has been an integral part of our lives for decades. It brings us a sense of connectivity, community, and comfort. Like the subject of this photograph, many of us feel lonely and disconnected without a television screen to keep us company.

Zoe Alderton is a lecturer and tutor in the Writing Hub at the University of Sydney. Her PhD is in Studies in Religion, where she completed a thesis on New Zealand painter Colin McCahon. Her subsequent monograph on McCahon's relationship with New Zealand religiosity will be published in early-2015.

Zoe has published on a range of topics concerning modern art including The Blake Prize and blasphemy, Outsider Art, Theosophy and Abstraction, and the sacred dimensions of Te Papa. She is currently writing a monograph on the aesthetics of self-harm.

The Simulacra in Art

Jean Baudrillard brought the idea of a simulacrum to a wider audience with the publication of his seminal semiotic text, ‘Simulacra and Simulation’. Here, he argued that modern society has replaced all real meaning with endless symbols and signs. He saw our world as one that was a mere simulation of reality.

We receive this simulated reality (in the form of simulacra) through media such as the televised image. This broadcast simulation of reality provides us with an understanding of our lives, and allows us to comprehend our shared existence as part of a culture.

AGNSW collection Richard Hamilton Kent State (1970) 49.1971
AGNSW collection Richard Hamilton Kent State (1970) 49.1971

‘Kent State’ is a screenprint of a photograph of a broadcast on a TV screen. Hamilton has presented an image that is thrice-removed from its original source. The resulting image is a ghost-like simulation of carnage and chaos. What does it mean for an image to be repeated and broadcast ad nauseam? What impact does a broadcast picture have on our understanding of the world and our relationship with the visceral immediacy of violence?

AGNSW collection Justine Varga On the outside #5 (2007) 188.2010
AGNSW collection Justine Varga On the outside #5 (2007) 188.2010

Justine Varga’s photograph explores the portrayal of Australian identity through the television. She has chosen a sheep and the celebrity Steve Irwin as motifs of our nation. In doing so, Varga asks us to contemplate the reality of these symbols. The international broadcasting of Australian identity often reduces our complexities into marketable symbols. Do all Australians have an abiding connection to this version of our culture? Is this our reality, or an advertiser’s fantasy?

AGNSW collection Nam June Paik TV Buddha (1976) 342.2011.a-f
AGNSW collection Nam June Paik TV Buddha (1976) 342.2011.a-f

Many artists have critiqued and explored the role of the televised image. Nam June Paik is known for his TV-based artworks. ‘TV Buddha’ is a gallery favourite, and depicts a religious statue pondering a live recording of his own image.

Do we need to see ourselves in televised form to know that we exist? What kind of comment does this work make on the relationship between television and icons?

AGNSW collection David Rosetzky Untouchable (2003) 5.2005.a-y
AGNSW collection David Rosetzky Untouchable (2003) 5.2005.a-y
AGNSW collection Gerhard Richter Ema (1992) 14.1993
AGNSW collection Gerhard Richter Ema (1992) 14.1993

David Rosetzky’s ‘Untouchable’ explores human relationships as narrated through actors on multiple screens. He asks us to contemplate our sense of self as mediated by the perceptions that other people have of us. Is our self-representation one of Baudrillard’s simulacra?

The actors in this video burst into a choreographed dance with pop beats behind it, interrupting their stories. Rosetzky uses the flippant stylisation of a film clip to interrupt the seriousness of his actors’ delivery.

Gerhard Richter’s ‘Ema’ is a blurred and atmospheric photograph of his wife. With its allusions to Duchamp’s ‘Nude Descending a Staircase’, Richter’s work acts as a signal back to his predecessor. ‘Ema’ is actually a photograph of a painting, which was painted based on a photograph. None of these replicated Emas are the flesh-and-blood human, but each of them disseminate her image. Is the original Ema the only one who is real? Or does a simulation bring her to life before our eyes?

AGNSW collection Richard Hamilton Kent State (1970) 49.1971
AGNSW collection Richard Hamilton Kent State (1970) 49.1971

Pop Art Simulacra: Kent State in Context

Like Richard Hamilton, many artists have explored the impact of the television and image reproduction. This is a prevailing theme within Pop Art, but also within broader artistic discussions on how we represent ourselves and understand our culture.

As you travel through the Pop to Popism exhibition, you may note cultural icons like brand names, new products, and ideal homes. Hamilton explores a darker side of the Pop Art drive towards replication. There was plenty to critique in the shadow of the Vietnam War and the rise of the military-industrial complex that fuelled it. After riots like at Kent State and the 1968 Democrat Convention, many artists had questions to raise about the sickening violence on the TV screens, and the frenetic processes of capitalism and production that were fuelling an absurd war.

The symbols of quashed rebellions and rioting youth were as seminal to this era as Brillo Pads and Campbell’s soup. And at some moments, they were as ubiquitous.