Catalogue entry

P07231 LEI-FENG 1974

Inscribed on back of first print (rubber stamp) ‘Victor Burgin/Lei Feng/1974’, ‘Victor Burgin’ (signature) and ‘Copy <?> B C D E F G H I of nine signed copies’ (rubber stamp with hard-drawn circle)
Nine photographic prints, each 50.8×76.2 (20×30)
Purchased from the Lisson Gallery (Grant-in-Aid) 1974
Exh: Victor Burgin, Lisson Gallery, London, 1974; Arte Inglesi Oggi 1960–76 Palazzo Reale, Milan 1976 (2)
Lit: John Stezaker ‘Lei Feng’ Studio International November 1974; V. Burgin ‘Photographic Practice and Art Theory’, Studio International, July–August 1975; Catalogue introduction to ‘Arte Inglesi Oggi 1960–76’ Palazzo Reale, Milan 1976

The artist gave the following information to the compiler on 8 June 1976.

‘Lei-Feng’ was made in an edition of nine works and is divided into nine sections. ‘I've tended to work with odd numbers...because I don't like to have a dividing line in the middle of the piece... so instead of having two panels side by side... I'd rather have three pieces, the one in the middle mediating between the other two.’

Each section of ‘Lei-Feng’ shows the same advertising image. It is the second work in which Burgin used a photographic advertising image as a sign for a fragment of bourgeois ideology, on an equal basis with written signs. ‘VII (Sept)’ 1973 which is reproduced in Work and Commentary was the first to do this. It presented the fragment of ideology concerned with ‘the perfect nuclear family ... one of the things we're supposed to aspire to’ whereas in the Lei-Feng picture ‘... There's the fragment concerned with personal success’. Burgin feels that ‘Lei-Feng’ is ‘basically more accomplished, clearer’ than ‘VII’. In the catalogue introduction to the Arte Inglesi Oggi exhibition the artist wrote that he used photographs and natural language in his work because 'we learn to use both, we learn to read both, in the normal course of acculturalisation. He told the compiler that advertising images appealed to him because they ‘are used very deliberately in the service of ideology’. Burgin explained: ‘There's a tendency to play down the coding function of photography. Whereas I'm trying to play it up, if you like. So the photograph is presented not as a slice of life but rather as sign’. He told the compiler ‘When you're using advertising type images you're on fairly safe ground ... anything extraneous would be edited out before the picture was taken’. When asked how he chose suitable images for his work, Burgin told the compiler that he saw the Bristol Cream advertisement he adapted for ‘Lei-Feng’ ‘stored it, as it were, remembered it as being particularly expressive of that fragment of ideology concerned with personal success and then had to go back and find it’. The Harvey's Bristol Cream sherry advertisement was created by the advertising agency Collette, Dickinson and Pierce for an advertising campaign during May and June 1972. The advertisement was placed in the following magazines: Sunday Times Colour Supplement, Observer Colour Supplement, Daily Telegraph Colour Supplement, Illustrated London News, Harpers Bazaar, Queen, Vogue, Nova, The Tatler, The Field, The Scottish Field, Country Life, Illustrated County Magazine, Shooting Times, and Somerset, Wessex and Cotswold Life. On other occasions, when looking for an image for the later work such as ‘Hussonet’, Burgin explained: ‘I decided what sort of image I wanted and I would go through countless magazines... I keep heaps of magazines... and from what I had available I would then decide which I wanted to use’. The original advertisement in ‘Lei-Feng’ was in colour and set out with the caption ‘Every bread winner deserves to be toasted’. Burgin totally disregarded the caption to work with the colour image. It was rephotographed in black and white along with a commentary and text. When asked about his reasons for using black and white, Burgin told the compiler: ‘When you use black and white there's more chance you can transcend or at least subvert, that particular moment, the anecdotal. For the same reasons magazines like Paris Match usually shoot film stars or politicians in black and white as film stars as politicians, because as such they belong to a transcendental category, but will tend to use colour when they want to show this or that man or woman in his or her own home’. Burgin told the compiler that his intervention in the original advertisement was ‘very much a movement of contextualisation in the very literal sense of the image being placed within an (other) text’. He added that for each section of Lei-Feng the way the entire configuration was produced was photographic. It used film, so the same disturbances of photo emulsion which produce the iconic image also produce the image which is the written text.

In Arte Inglesi Oggi Burgin explained his decision to use the photograph and text as the guerilla rhetoric with which the socialist artist confronts the antithetical ideologies of the capitalist society which surrounds him. All this ideology is ‘framed, using, characteristically, the photograph and the text’. The text of ‘Lei-Feng’, which comes from a Maoist parable, is completely antagonistic to the image. Burgin told the compiler that he found the story of the soldier Lei-Feng in French translation in VS, 1, 1971 (Milan) ... there was a text by Eco in French about Chinese comic strips and he quoted the text of Lei-Feng. ‘I used that as a basis for the captions. It wasn't a straight translation. The text was longer and had more detail ... My text was written so that each section would advance the story by one increment as it were’.

Subsequently when Burgin found the English translation of Lei-Feng at a bookshop in Camden Town he discovered that the worker Zhang-si-de had died in a charcoal making accident rather than a coal mining accident. Burgin told the compiler: ‘In English culture the miner is of course a very heroic figure... very much the symbol of the working class... so I wish I'd got the French right’.

The antithetical relationship between the Maoist worker and a successful model relates to subsequent statements Burgin has made about the role of the socialist artist in a capitalist society (see preface to Arte Inglesi Oggi). When asked if this theme had any personal significance for him as an artist, Burgin told the compiler: ‘Looking back, I'm quite sure that it does because obviously... one of the essential conditions of being an artist in our society is... to gain a public you have to be an individual personal success’.

In the commentary section of ‘Lei-Feng’ Burgin gives an account of semiotic analysis while making explicit references to the image and text. He explained to the compiler: ‘I happened to have been drawn towards semiotics... as a means of assessing the meanings of the work.’ He sees that ‘there is no getting around having to do semiotics to the best of one's ability’. Although he sees himself as an amateur, it could perhaps be a saving grace because ‘haute semioticians tend to be preoccupied with the archaeology and epistemology of the science and are not always of enormous value to the man “on the shop floor” actually producing messages, for example the artist’.

When asked about the ‘Lei-Feng’ commentary, Burgin explained: ‘I basically structured the piece around Hjelmslev's distinction between the expression plane and the content plane of language. The first four sections concern issues mainly associated with the expression plane, plane of the signifiers, the substantial elements of the sign... the last four sections relate to the content plane, the plane of the signifieds, of ideas if you like. The middle section, which is by far the weakest section, tries to link the two’. The artist told the compiler that the final section alluded to ‘some personal concerns of that time, ones to do with semiotics’. He was concerned that ‘semiotics could never be an independent, objective sort of science, but would always be tainted and corrupted with the meanings of another system... this other system would already carry ideology’. This raised questions about his use of semiotics.

Since doing ‘Lei-Feng’, Burgin has abandoned the idea of including a semiotic commentary with the image and text. Pieces such as ‘Hussonet’ have no commentary. Instead Burgin has extended his enquiry into semiotic practice, particularly in relation to art and photography, in periodicals (see for example, Studio International July/August, 1975). Referring to the time when he did ‘Lei-Feng’, he said ‘I wasn't quite sure that the image and the text would be more than just glanced over. I was worried that just captions and image wouldn't be contextualised in the way I intended, so I wanted to provide some sort of guide for contextualisation, whereas now I see... it's up to me to use the text and the image in such a way that I'm going to be quite sure... it's going to be contextualised, initially at least, in this way rather than that; and that if there isn't going to be a theoretically sophisticated type of contextualization, for example in terms of semiotic science, then I'm just going to have to accept that...’

Burgin told the compiler that he was now trying to do something for the general public. Given this growing interest in making his work accessible, it seemed one should ask him if he saw himself as a social realist as he defined the term in his writing. He told the compiler that ‘Yes’, he thought he was although, he added: ‘I have difficulties with the expression “social realism” obviously, because it's so historically loaded’.

Recently, Burgin has started taking photojournalistic shots for his work. With reference to this and the problems involved he told the compiler: ‘right at this moment I have mixed feelings. I no longer like advertising photography very much, on the other hand I don't really want to have to take my own pictures... but it seems inevitable that I shall have to’.

This entry has been approved and edited by the artist.

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1974-6: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1978