Stezaker’s collage Insert combines a postcard with a film still. It shows a scene in which a man and a woman meet in an office illuminated by brilliant sunlight. Superimposed on the centre of the still, the postcard depicts a large wave violently crashing into the sea wall in front of a row of Edwardian apartment blocks. A caption on the upper right corner of the postcard indicates that the scene is ‘Splash Point, Eastbourne’, a small town on England’s south coast. The postcard fills the space between the two film protagonists, extending from the back of the woman, who stands in the foreground of the film still facing away from the camera, to cover the whole of the man’s left side including his face. Concealing his facial expression, it takes the place of the segment of narrative normally provided by the still, replacing it with an allegorical representation of an exchange between two people, now provided by the details of the combined images. The man stands at his desk, his right hand balled into a fist on a book on his work surface. The tension in his hand is echoed in the slight bend of his body. His fist aligns with the sea wall on the postcard, making a physical connection with the wall that takes the force of the wave’s momentum as it thrusts from the centre of the woman’s back to smash against the wall.
The structure of Insert, in which a coloured postcard showing water covers part of a black and white film still from a British film from the 1940s or 1950s, is common to a group of works Stezaker created at the end of the 1970s, such as The Oath, 1978 (T12341) and The Trial, 1978 (T12342) and takes its name from this structure. The artist has commented:
The ‘inserts’ came about as a natural coincidence of my two main collections of images: post-cards and film stills. Initially I thought of the postcards as representing a spatial anchor to the temporal image of the film moment. Indeed the first were entitled ‘Here and Now’, though the postcard ‘inserts’ tended to subvert this spatial/temporal union by themselves being ‘images of time’: firstly railway trains on perspectival tracks and then water-waterfalls or waves (as in the two Tate examples).
(Letter to author 26 October 2007.)
In Negotiable Space I, 1978 an approaching train appears to emerge from the hidden chest and head of a recumbent figure lying on a psychoanalyst’s couch below a portrait of Sigmund Freud (1856-1939). The postcard image of the train is moving in the direction of the listening psychoanalyst, indicating a dynamic movement of energy between the psychoanalysand and his analyst. In The Trial, the crash and spray of a waterfall suggest the unconscious and uncontained content of the courtroom drama staged in the film still.
A student at the Slade School of Art in the late 1960s (1967-73), Stezaker was inspired by the Situationist International, in particular the seminal text Society of the Spectacle by Guy Debord (1931-94) first published in English in 1970. For Stezaker cinema, like the urban environment described by Debord, offers a constant flow of imagery. Combining a film still with a postcard is a means of temporarily halting the flow. Stezaker shares with the Surrealists a preoccupation with the unconscious, symbolised in Insert and The Oath by the sea, a Jungian archetype and the most universal symbol of the unconscious. During the 1970s, Stezaker was influenced by the notion of archetypes as symbols of the collective unconscious developed by psychoanalyst Carl Jung (1875-1961) and outlined in his book, Man and His Symbols (New York, 1964). Stezaker’s printed, found images – cut into or combined with others – question relationships between archetypes and their copies, stereotypes. Unlike the Surrealists, for whom images offered a window into a symbolic world of the unconscious, Stezaker uses the medium of collage to reveal the repressed – bringing to light an invisible content hidden behind the conventions of representation. In this way he draws attention to the processes of creating symbols and constructing meaning inherent to photographic and film mediums. In Insert, Stezaker’s intervention offers an allegorical visualization of an exchange of momentous energy between the two characters, providing a poetic analysis of the still from an unknown film.
Mark Coetzee, John Stezaker: Rubell Family Collection, exhibition catalogue, Rubell Family Collection, Miami 2007.
John Stezaker: Marriage, exhibition catalogue, Karsten Schubert, London 2007.
John Stezaker: Film Still Collages, exhibition catalogue, F.G.G. Frankfurt 1990.