Deconstructing An Image ESSAY



“Voyeurism in popular

culture and its effects

on Design.”












In this essay I will be looking at an installation within the Decode exhibition that took place in the V&A from the 8th December 2009 to the 11th April 2010. I will attempt to deconstruct the meaning behind the installation and explain the motifs following it and the associations that the audience are expected to make with it. I will attempt to follow the themes of voyeurism and show how audiences have changed due to social boundaries. I will be looking at, and using as an example, The Venetian Mirror, by Fabrica.

“Voyeurism in popular culture and its effects on Design”

When I looked at the Venetian Mirror, I instantly was reminded of human nature in regards to voyeurism and looking into a window that slowly tells a story that slowly changes. The Venetian mirror is, firstly, an outstanding piece of art, its large screen; designed to look like a mirror, that slowly changes to the image of the person that sits in front of it, blurring out anything, or anyone else that maybe be standing around observing. This makes the piece a very personal experience for each and every viewer, which can be viewed by anyone near by. There is a large spotlight that beams onto a chair, which the participant sits on; this blocks them out from everything else that is happening around them, again enforcing that personal experience with the installation. It was this thought, that anyone can see you in this mirror, that anyone can watch your personal experience, which made me think of the concept of voyeurism, I want to explore where we encounter it and why all of us are so interested at looking in on someone else’s life. It is classical art, that I feel, is a very good example of voyeurism within traditional art forms; the human figure was used so very often in paintings and statues. The statue of David for instance, by Michelangelo, is a famous example of how 15th century artists used the naked form, also there are many paintings of the naked form, “In one category of European oil painting women were principal, ever –recurring subject. That category is the nude. In the nudes of European painting we can discover some of the criteria and conventions by which women have been seen and judge as sights.” [Berger 1972: 47] Littered throughout the art world there are naked forms being portrayed, what is the difference between these naked figures and actual nudity in the public forum? Why is one acceptable and the other frowned upon? John Berger [1972: 8] states, “We only see what we look at. To look is an act of choice.”  I interoperate this as art can be viewed differently to anything else, as it has a certain amount of perceived respect and cultural importance to be documented.  Public displays of nudity are frowned upon, these views formed mainly from religious laws and ways of life. It was particularly bad at the turn of the 19th century, where sculptures had to give their works the names of Greek Gods and Goddesses, slightly changing the proportion of the work so that it was not interpreted as wholly human, and therefore not offending anyone. [See Fig 1 for examples]Fig 1

The styling of the Venetian Mirror is very impressive, its frame compiled of broken bits of mirror, reflecting distorted images back to the audience of themselves, reflecting their bodies broken and skewed.  This, to me, is a physical representation of how society views voyeurism today. It is something that is controlled by the media to the masses; the thought arrives of how we as a population are forced to believe that a person should look a particular way, and act a particular way. The biggest culprit is the celebrity culture that has evolved over the last few decades. People are encouraged to look to the celebrities to find content and goals to aim for in appearance. As we all scrutinize and poke at their lifestyle, we in a sense, are being more voyeuristic than ever before. As mediums change audience have gained new levels of interaction and power to view the lives of others. We see paparazzi chancing celebs, trying to get that naked shot, that up skirt view, the perfect beach body, and the ugliest one.

It seems that these voyeuristic images are pumped into the brains of every person around the world, but when did this become acceptable? A large part of the change was, in my view, Pop Culture, the Andy Warhol’s and Damien Hirst’s, in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s created a new world, one where boundaries could be pushed and exploited. A notable artist was Jeff Koons, whose pornographic images and posters were totally shocking and outrageous. In my personal opinion one of Andy Warhol’s most shocking pieces was his 35-minute film, Blow Job. It was work like this that has opened up popular culture, making the explicit more acceptable, it was Warhol himself who said, “Sex is more exciting on the screen and between the pages than between the sheets.” – Andy Warhol [Moffat  2007]Fig 2

In fig 2 I have shown an example of work which echo’s the Pop Art style, but putting a contemporary twist on it. I particularly like this because it plays on the conventions of what is acceptable and what is not, taking 80’s pornographic footage and turning it into a humours satirical piece that pokes fun at the conventions that society lays down.

The technology behind the Venitian Mirror is very advanced, I was very impressed with the presentation and use of technological devices to maximise the experience of the mirror to the audience. This is a physical representation of the advances that have been made over the last 60 years in communication technology and the ways in which we as viewers experience the world around us and gain access to the things we want to see. The Internet being one such device, has revolutionised the world, as we know it, offering anything and everything to an audience and opening new ways for people to watch one another. This new openness, by audiences, to more shocking and voyeuristic images has increased the desire in designers to create ever more shocking and edgy designs.

Fig 3Fig 4

Fig 3 and 4 are examples of design that represents this step into a more relaxed culture where audiences are becoming less and less shocked by the images that we see around us. Another medium, which has influenced audiences and the general public, has been television, especially in the last decade with the plethora of reality TV shows. Big Brother is one show in particular in which the audience is encouraged to ‘secretly’ view the people on the inside living their lives. We have also seen an increase of shows that look at the private lives of celebrities, giving the viewer access to the truths of their secret lives. People became mesmerised at the thought of being able to have access to this world, Roland Barthes summarises “Thus, beneath a ‘living’ and ‘natural’ outward appearance, the western actor maintains the division of his body and, consequently, the food of our fantasies.”  [Barthes 1977: 171]

When I look at the Mirror I am reminded that there are two distinct audience types, Men and Women. The distinction between the genders is noted because socially woman have far more pressure on them to constantly look ‘good’ and keep up with the tends. This is something that the Mirror brings to the surface, because I viewed it as a neutral space where the facial features of the person were blurred and couldn’t be easily distinguished, this meant that any person could sit in front of the Mirror and not worry about looks so much as details and style. This does raise though the subject of women within society and the pressures that are placed upon them. Women have been exploited by men for their bodies and looks, i.e. pressure to look good constantly. “One might simplify this by saying: men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves.” [Berger 1972: 47] For along time this has been very true, even when we look at advertising, we often see that

pressure being exerted on women to look as good as they can. Often we see a perfect looking woman, rubbing soap onto her perfect skin, when in reality no one is that perfect and the advertising agencies are creating false perceptions that women try and keep up with, yet never will be able too, as the goal they are trying to reach in unattainable, “Although advertising sought to attract female viewers, it did not simply generate positive images of women. Rather, advertising images were complex representations of the anxieties and desires concerning new identities for women…” [Lavin 2001:51] Yet in the design world we see designers such as April Greiman and Marlene McCarty who use naked images of women and themselves in their work, see Fig 5. Surely this sends the wrong message? That women are happy to have men view them in a specific way, or can these pieces of design be viewed differently, much like the classical art that used the naked form, the work is just a repercussion of the freedom that was forged in art, offering the artist a pallet on which they could create anything.  This is summarised by Liz Mquiston “Bodies were beautiful, sex was beautiful, and the imagery of the underground ‘peace and love’ era was full of both” [1993: 136]

Fig 5

Anyone can sit in front of the Venetian Mirror, this parallels with the thought that through new technologies anyone can be famous, through Youtube for instance. This same concept applies to design and the fact that everyone can now be designers, as programs such Photoshop are readily available on everyone’s computers, everyone seems to be able to design as they want and upload it to the internet for all to see. What does this mean for the profession, as more and more people create art and design, as they want it, containing anything they want it too. Much like the celebrity culture we have nurtured and the Big Brother TV shows, where anyone can be famous for 15mins, I feel that it still takes a designer to design and create. When we look at the concept of 15 minutes of fame it really applies to the Mirror, as the audience constantly changed, and a new person was given the chance to sit in front of it. In conclusion I would state that voyeurism has changed incredibly from the classical art we know, to the place we are at today in regards to art and design. It is clear that social perception of nudity and the naked form have become more acceptable, and as audiences become more accepting of the naked form I feel that it will become more and more commonly used as a source of inspiration for design, as media and TV shows bring audiences more and more shocking images I feel the design world will be forced to respond in the same way, as clients ask to grab peoples attention, we will have to conjure up new ways to stimulate the audience. The Venetian Mirror for me is a great example of something that uses the idea of voyeurism in a neutral way that doesn’t offend but still has the same meaning, giving the audience everything they want, yet holds their attention because it is new and different.


Fig 1.  Classic art examples. Berger, J [1972: 126-127] Ways of Seeing, London: Penguin Books

Fig 2. SFW XXX for Diesel. D&AD [2009: 554] D&AD The best advertising and design in the world, Germany: Taschen

Fig 3. The Sex Beat girls flyer McCarthy,C [2008: 66] The New Art of The Club Flyer, London: Thames & Hudson

Fig 4.  The Bosnian Postcards Glaser, M, Ilic, M [2006: 35] The Design of Dissent, Massachusetts: Rockport

Fig 5. April Greiman Does it make Sense [2008] [04/05/2010]


Berger, J [1972] Ways of Seeing, London: Penguin Books

Moffat, C [2007] The Prince Of Pop Art [online] [04/05/2010]

D&AD [2009] D&AD The best advertising and design in the world, Germany: Taschen

McCarthy,C [2008] The New Art of The Club Flyer, London: Thames & Hudson

Glaser, M, Ilic, M [2006: 35] The Design of Dissent, Massachusetts: Rockport

Barthes, R {1977] Image, Music, Text London: Fontana Press

Beale, L [2008] A collection of Images to Inspire [online] [04/05/2010]

Mquiston, L [1993] Graphic Agitation, Social and political graphics since the 60’s London: Phaidon

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