The Art of Appropriation: Mishka Henner, 'Precious Commodities'

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Appropriating images – Death of the Photographer? Appropriation art is a practice that involves borrowing or reusing existing elements within a new body of work. Postmodern appropriation artists argue that the notion of an ‘original’ artwork is flawed and some theorists and art critics would also support this point. By reappropriating existing works, artists are able to place the work within a different context and in doing so, open up new dialogues surrounding the piece.

'Fountain', Duchamp. 1917.

Marcel Duchamp is considered to be the first artist to exhibit appropriated art or ‘ready-mades’, the most famous likely being a porcelain urinal signed ‘R. Mutt’ and titled ‘Fountain’. It was initially submitted as a sculpture for the Society of Independent Artists exhibition in 1917 but was rejected by the selectors committee. This was momentous in changing the associations the viewer has with a particular object or work and in turn, subverts it as the audience is forced to rexamine it within a new framework. An anonymous article for The Blind Man, which is presumed to have been written by Beatrice Wood sums up why Duchamp’s piece managed to shift the art world’s importance of physical and technical craft to intellectual interpretation.

“Whether Mr Mutt made the fountain with his own hands or not has no importance. He CHOSE it. He took an article of life, placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view – created a new thought for that object”[1]

When observing appropriated art or images, the central debate is often concerned with the notion of authorship and originality. The practice of appropriation often supports the point that authorship is an obsolete and misguided concept. Roland Barthes is a key figure in this discussion after his work ‘Death of the Author’ was published in 1966. “The explanation of a work is always sought in the man or woman who created it… (but) it is language which speaks; not the author”[2]

Described by some as a ‘modern-day Duchamp’[3], Mishka Henner is an exhibiting artist at the Open Eye (1st March – 5th May) whose work is created by recontextualising imagery that has been taken from sources such as Google Earth, Google Street View, YouTube and Bing Maps.

Levelland Oil Field and Feedlots (2012-2013) is a new body of work being shown at Open Eye Gallery for the first time in a solo exhibition titled ‘Precious Commodities’.

Feedlot, Texas (2013) pigment inkjet print, 102x102cm

Exploring the US oil and beef industries, Henner has created striking, large-scale inkjet prints, which have been taken from satellite imagery that is readily available on free software provided by Google Earth. On a first glance, it’s hard to believe that these are photographs have been taken from the web as the colours and texture of the pieces resemble something more like an abstract landscape painting. However, after closer inspection, learning how Henner has produced these works, and also what they represent in terms of America’s capitalistic cattle feeding lots and Texas oil fields. These images become far more interesting, and in some cases – rather disturbing. Henner describes the Internet as an ‘untapped resource’for collecting data and information which can ‘unearth details about the society and culture we live in’. By investigating oil farms in particular, he is effectively presenting aspects of the landscape that represent issues that drive so much of our economy and culture.

The reappropriation of the images opens up an interesting dialogue, which questions the originality and authorship of these images and in turn allows us to wonder how relevant this is in our ‘Death of the author’ theoretical society. When questioned about this technique, Henner states that he likes ‘surrendering control’, and sees himself as just ‘joining the dots’. However, this body of work is much more than a presentation of satellite images. He has made important decisions with size, scale as well as how he’s stitched these images together, making us question exactly what we’re looking at.

As a volunteer front of house assistant, I’ve had the privilege of witnessing people’s first reactions to the work, many of which are taken a back when they realise the source of the images. Many of them question the surreal painterly quality of the photographs, and ask if it has been edited in any way. Other visitors request the coordinates so they can locate these satellite images by themselves.

Gallery 2, Open Eye Gallery.

Having had the opportunity to work in the gallery a few times since Henner’s work was previewed in March, it has allowed me to spend full days mulling over the works and I still find something new in them every time I visit the gallery. I am drawn to the Beef and Oil pieces in particular, because I’m intrigued by the juxtaposition between images that are both aesthetically pleasing as well managing to embody a darker and more disturbing subject matter. By pushing the boundaries of what is considered ‘photography’ and showing us something that is already there – and readily available to view he gently

captures our gaze and in doing so, forces us to recognize these global issues. Henner has an exceptional skill at successfully tackling these hugely important social concerns in a quiet, unassuming way.

[1]http://www.toutfait.com/unmaking_the_museum/fountain.htm

[2]http://www.studentpulse.com/articles/546/appropriation-in-contemporary-art

[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mishka_Henner

visual artsHelen Stead