post on spectatorship and gaze, 16 & 17 Nov 2010

Sturken and Cartwright’s introduction to theories of spectatorship and gaze has an interesting section concerned with discourse and power (p 104). The gaze is integral to systems of power; this to me conjures up images of government, army and weapons. In these examples we may be the spectator and the components of the image (even if inanimate missiles) look back at us so that their gaze becomes the power in the relationship. Alternatively we, the spectators, may hold the power and the gaze if the image presents the masses as subservient to the direction of the government’s policies. 

This manner of power control can be termed biopower (pp 109 – 111). Modern society often functions in this way so citizens are willing to work/fight/reproduce in exchange for public health/education/housing. The system is also reinforced by binary pairings (p 111) where one half of the pair is dominant and denigrates or subjugates the other. Examples of this are male: female, masculine: feminine, european: native. There are many references to this in 18th and 19th century art; they reinforce gender and racial stereotypes. Often the subjugated half of the pairing comes to accept the role imposed and this is reiterated by themes in contemporary film, electronic games and other popular culture. This is particularly evident in our Eurocentric and Western dominance, as a hangover from the patriarchal colonialist era.

Even today, newscasters refer to the binary pairings of the developed/developing world, denigrating the latter by words alone.

My thoughts were still on this when I watched Alan Yentob’s Imagine, focussing on the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, late last night .Yentob alluded to the West/East binary pairing as a comment on China’s repression of its people. Weiwei’s work is about the power of authority and the anonymity of the people. Particularly poignant was his sound piece of the reading out (by his collaborators) of the names of those who died in an earthquake, but had not been named by the state. His current piece, Sunflower Seeds in Tate Modern (image below) addresses issues of poverty and mass production and the associated loss of culture. But it has a subtle and powerful subtext of the uniqueness of the individual. Weiwei says ‘liberty is what makes art unique’;  liberty is also the cornerstone of humanity.

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