Though Duane Hanson and François Sagat couldn’t be more different in almost every way as artists (time period, medium, subject, and place in the art community), their work seems to have a similar question at it’s root: what is the meaning of artifice in it’s relation to value? Both artists work plays with finding a solution to this question that, though at first seems to offer only whimsy, upon deeper viewing says more.
Duane Hanson (1925-96) rose to fame as a part of the mid 60’s pop art movement. His life-size wax sculptures were always studies of the non-celebrity, though throughout his working life the dramatic nature of his subjects drastically changed. In his early career, Hanson’s sculptures mostly portrayed everyday people caught in the middle of adrenaline charged and often historically notable circumstances. These included tableauxs of race riots as well as the Vietnam war. As his work developed though, he began to exclusively create sculptures of everyday people doing everyday things (reading the paper, going grocery shopping, cleaning, etc). Of course, in the act of capturing these moments and putting them on display in a gallery, Hanson imbues these normally unremarkable moments with a sense of extreme importance.
At the same time, these wax sculptures also appear to also be commenting on and deriving value via the only other comparable use of wax as an artistic medium: the modern day wax museums. It is impossible to view these sculptures and not immediately read “celebrity” into their characters. It is exactly this relationship to celebrity and artifice that gives these sculptures (and the images of them) power.
(*It is hard to begin a discussion of François Sagat’s photography without first divulging that his most notable claim to fame so far has been his performance in numerous porn films. Interestingly, this knowledge both offers a deeper understanding of his work (as it largely comments on the human body and desire) while also initially prompting many viewers to dismiss his art as porn in and of it’s self. This is of course extremely reductive. There is a thin yet powerfully divisive line set by society between art and pornography. Most contemporary art lovers would agree that any evaluative system that immediately dismisses art simply for being sexually evocative is only damaging to the art community as a whole. Anyone who thinks otherwise is clearly to stupid to be allowed to make judgements about art in the first place*)
As a subject in his work, French multimedia artist François Sagat most commonly uses his own body. Through costume, lighting, and digital manipulation Sagat subtly tweaks his own image. Sagat has not chosen the easiest path for himself as a photographer. Artists have been creating similar work for decades, so it is easy to compare and judge his wrok agaist that of his forbearers. In addition to being part of a well established and hard to break into photographic tradition, Sagat also has to combat viewers first reading of his body.Resoundingly, this is to see it as model-ish/overtly sexual/fake. This is compounded by the fact that most viewers of his work are already aware of is career in the gay porn industry. These factors make it even more astounding that Sagat does seem to exceed on many levels.
In one of his newest series of images (pictured above) Sagat finds an ingenious and provocative way to not only debunk this preconceived reading of his photography, but to also use it as a tool to give the work a deeper meaning. In each of the photographs, we find Sagat staring away from the camera and into a full length mirror. The reflections we find staring back at him is anything but natural though. They have been digitally altered so that his face and penis are erased from the image. In doing so François Sagat has taken away the exact things that has made him both desired and judged.
Sagat creates an artificial self image to displace the other artificial image of him that has been created by the spectator. Paradoxically, through making himself more visually generic he has also made himself more important.
Hanson and Sagat make strong arguments towards the belief that all human value assignments in regards to individual worth hold there strength in artifice. If societal value can so easily be added or subtracted via the use of simple visual trickery, what makes that value worthwhile in the first place? This is both empowering and disheartening in that the art seems to say that at once we are all equal, but that that sameness holds no intrinsic worth.