CACS Case studies: Representation

Background for this post is here, rest of the series is here.





The image of an idea or thing. At its most basic, representation means two things: (i) creating something that can stand for another thing—this is the sense in which a metaphor, to give only one example, is a form of representation; but it also applies to representative politics in which an elected person stands for their electorate in a particular political forum; (ii) creating something that is in at least some sense equivalent to another thing, most often because it resembles that other thing. For example, a photograph is a representation because its image closely resembles the actual object on a two-dimensional plane, but it is also (obviously, but this point is often forgotten) not the same as that other thing. Critical theory, particularly the post-structuralist modulation, has taken a keen interest in representation because of the central problem of the relationship between the thing and its representation. Cultural Studies has also taken a keen interest in the problem of representation, recognizing that it is central to the kinds of political questions surrounding identity it is concerned with.

(Buchanan 2010, 405-6)



Borrowed from music, where it refers to the relationship between themes (e.g. the relation between the famous ‘da-da-da-dum’ in Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and its subsequent exploration), this term is used by Edward Said in Culture and Imperialism (1993) to describe the relationship (in what he calls the cultural archive) between narratives set in metropolitan centres, or at least in the countryside, of the dominant colonial nations such as England and France, and the colonies upon which the great powers depended for their wealth. His key example is Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park (1814), which is about an estate owned by the Bertram family whose wealth derives from sugar plantations in Antigua. But as Said notes, there is almost no mention of Antigua in the novel, despite the fact that in a structural sense the story depends on it because without their holdings in the colonies the Bertrams would neither be so rich as they are, nor obliged to spend so much time away from the estate, thus opening up the narrative possibilities the novel explores. Said’s strategy, then, is to read the novel in the light of this structural dependency and read the forgotten other back into the text.

(Buchanan 2010, 98)


A method of argument based on the idea of two people in dialogue each putting forward a proposition that the other counters and by this means arriving at an ultimate truth. The word originates in Classical Greek philosophy—its invention is sometimes attributed to Zeno, but it was Socrates and Plato who popularized it as a means of obtaining truth by a process of asking questions. German Enlightenment philosopher, Immanuel Kant rejected this method as sterile, as producing nothing but illusions. In contemporary critical theory, however, it is the names G. W. F. Hegel and Karl Marx which are most often associated with the dialectic, each one credited with having reinvented the concept. Central to Hegel’s notion of the dialectic is the constant presence of contradiction: as Hegel points out, identity contains its opposite, namely difference, inasmuch that to be one thing something must also not be another thing. His best known demonstration of this argument is his essay on the relation between the master and the slave in Phänomenologie des Geistes (1807), translated as Phenomenology of Spirit (1977), in which he famously argues that because the master is conscious of the need to dominate the slave he is enslaved and therefore not fully himself. For Hegel, history can be understood in the same terms as a constant progression from the abstract to the concrete, mediated by a process he referred to as negation. To become a true master, the master must negate that part of himself which is enslaved, but in doing so he does not thereby become whole; on the contrary, he merely becomes deficient in a different way, so the negation itself must be negated. Hegel called this process Aufhebung which in German means the superseding, surpassing, and cancelling out of what was. It is generally translated into English as sublation, but this isn’t wholly satisfactory. Marx felt that Hegel got things around the wrong way and described his own version of dialectics, also known as dialectical materialism, as a standing of Hegel back on his feet. His complaint was that Hegel treated the real world as merely the phenomenal form of the idea, whereas for him it is the real world that gives rise to ideas. However, like Hegel, Marx gives a central role to contradiction, which in its empirical form of class struggle is the motor of history. Marx wanted to show that capitalism is simultaneously the best and the worst thing that has happened in human history and that it is only by grasping its dual nature that it can truly be understood. In Marx’s view, capitalism created tremendous productive capacity, enabling necessity to finally be conquered, but did so at the price of the monstrous exploitation of the many by the few. Marx saw his dialectical method as a ‘scandal to the bourgeoisie’ because implicit in it is the view that its recognition of the present state of affairs is also a foretelling of its inevitable destruction. In his development of dialectical criticism, Jameson insists that this sense of scandal must be preserved.

(Buchanan 2010, 128-9)





Diego Velázquez 1656, Las Meninas (The Maids of Honour)

Su and Joshua present two very different ways to look at and think about this image in this week’s lecture, by looking at it through the double lens of Foucault’s reading which breaks into the hidden details of the painting (your set reading for this week, down at the bottom of the page) and by exploring the use of objects within the image. This double reading of the painting acts as a ‘dialectic’ lecture, where two different ideas are given to draw you closer to understanding the argument (Buchanan 2010, 128).

(If this reminds you of Benjamin and his double opinions on mechanical reproduction, you are on the right track. Read ‘dialectic’ in your Dictionary of Critical Theory and think about what Benjamin may have been doing by seesawing between opinions. I promise we may stop talking about Benjamin somewhere around week 13.)

How Velázquez approached representation in this painting, and how we understand it through Foucault, Joshua and Su, will help you build up a toolkit to look at and think about the following case studies. The reading might be at the bottom of the page, but it is recommended you read it before getting too deep into looking at the alternative case studies. Foucault is going to give you a road map for thinking about meaning in artworks.

Konstantinidis, George. 2012. “Diego Velazquez – Las Meninas.”

Explore all the links, tangents and connections on this website.


Yinke Shonibare 2001, The Swing (after Fragonard), Mannequin, cotton costume, 2 slippers, swing seat, 2 ropes, oak twig and artificial foliage, Unconfirmed: 3300 x 3500 x 2200 mm, TateModern, London.

Yinka Shonibare, MBE ‘The Swing (after Fragonard)’, 2001
© Yinka Shonibare, courtesy Stephen Friedman Gallery, London


Coming back to the ideas of reproduction that we touched on in last week’s case studies, British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare gives us another reimagining of an iconic artwork, The Swing (Les hazards heureux de l’escarpolette) (1767) by Jean-Honoré Fragonard. This large installation piece shows us a headless female figure, caught in the highest moment of a swing, clad in the extravagant attire of the eighteenth century. She is so caught up in this moment of flight that her shoe has been flung off her extended left foot and is suspended in its own moment of flight in front of her. The fabric of the woman’s dress is bright African prints, lending a new opulence to the figure. The Tate Gallery notes on this installation say “By dressing one of art history’s most famous French coquettes in African print, Shonibare reminds us that identity is a construction,” (

This work is a wonderful opportunity to think about the key concept ‘contrapuntal reading’, where we ‘read the forgotten other back into the text’ (Buchanan 2010, 98). The Foucault reading for this week talks a lot about the heads, eyes and glances of the figures in the Velázquez painting (main case study), but with this work we have lost that pivotal point of reference and identification because the subject is missing her head. Thinking about the historical and cultural circumstances of the original work, what might Shonibare be alluding to by removing this head? What ‘forgotten other’ are we being asked to think about with this decapitation?

There are, however, several other differences between this work and the painting it was based on. Using your online research skills, find the original image and identify the other main differences between the two works. Think about the possible meanings of the biggest differences if you actively look for the ‘forgotten other’ in this work.

Oscar Wilde 1891, “The Birthday of the Infanta”, A House of Pomegranates, Moffat, Yard and company, New York.


In this short story by the master of the Gothic form, Oscar Wilde, the Infanta is a young princess who is only allowed to play with other children on her birthday. On her 12th birthday, a hunchbacked dwarf who has been sold to the king is made to dance for her entertainment. Thinking that the Infanta’s laughter and delight at his dancing means she has fallen in love with him, the dwarf searches the castle to find her. During his search he encounters a misshapen freak who copies all of his moves, and is confused until he realises it is a mirror. In this moment he realises that the Infanta’s reaction was not love but mockery. The Infanta and other children find him after he falls to the floor, kicking and screaming. Thinking this is more entertainment, they laugh at him, applauding as he rolls on the floor and finally falls still. When a servant tries to rouse him, they realise that he has died of a broken heart. The Infanta responds to this news with the chilling final line of the story: “For the future, let those who come to play with me have no hearts.” Almost as well known for his lifestyle (Wilde was eventually imprisoned for his homosexuality) as his writing, the author was not one to shy away from representing difficult topics. This is as true in his ‘fairy tales’ as his longer works. His short stories often began as tales told at dinner parties and Wilde stated he did not write these stories for children, saying: “I had about as much intention of pleasing the British child as I did of pleasing the British public,” ( As an analogy, a form of writing which aims to ask moral questions, “The Birthday of the Infata” uses the mirror to show society an ugly image of themselves.

Our travelling concept for this week, representation, talks to us one thing that stands in for another thing (Buchanan 2010, 405-6), so think about this while you read “The Birthday of the Infata” here:  This story was written 235 years after Velázquez’s paining but contains similar subject matter, the mirror, the princess and the dwarf who waits on her amusement. Think about what these two character archetypes could mean and what extra layers of meaning they add to the texts when juxtaposed with the mirror.

Version 1.0 2011-2012, The Table of Knowledge, Merrigong Theatre Company and version 1.0 co-production


The Table of Knowledge from Sam James on Vimeo.

This play deals with subject matter that is close to the heart of Wollongong, the town planning scandal exposed in the 2008 ICAC enquiry into a local planning system soaked in greed, corruption and bribery, sprinkled with a coating of sexual misconduct, fraud and outright professional chicanery and played out in early morning meetings around a plastic table at a local kebab shop.  Version 1.0 created a script taken almost entirely from the words of the key players in the drama, pulled from transcripts of the ICAC hearings and planning documents, to create a real life drama. The production focuses entirely on the key figures of this drama, the town planners and property developers, with Lego pieces and blueprint sketches standing in for this story’s ‘forgotten others’, the people living day to day with the planning decisions made by this cabal. Everywhere in Wollongong, you can see the planning outcomes of this real life drama in large buildings that stand out from the landscape, giant improbable constructions approved and built on the whim of the characters in this play. As a practice in sheared back representation, this play is a masterstroke of things standing in for other things, as you will see from the promotional video above. A complicated and detailed story is unpacked with only a handful of players and the simplest of props. The audience is left to fill in the details for themselves as the performers present the words and metaphorical representations of actions. To represent a key moment in the debacle, town planner Beth Morgan’s emotional breakdown in the ICAC hearings, version 1.0 showed her climbing onto a thin tower of Lego blocks, and balancing there precariously while she blew up a red balloon to the point of bursting before calmly returning to answering questions.  This one moment told a story of unrequited love, heartbreak and passion, with nothing more than a flimsy shred of rubber.

Thinking back to last week’s case studies, in particular DJ Spooky and Negativland, watch the video from “Table of Knowledge” and use your visual analysis skills to work out the meaning behind the props and staging in this play. Look at the two yellow balloons and see if you can work out what they are standing in for.

Eve Sussmann and The Rufus Corporation 2010, 89 Seconds at Alcazar.


89 sec single clip from Simon Lee & Eve Sussman on Vimeo.

In our first alternative case study for this week, Shonibare showed us a two dimensional painting re-represented as a three dimensional sculpture, and here Eve Sussmann and the Rufus Corporation show us our main case study for the week converted to the three dimensional form of video. Sussman’s 89 Seconds at Alcázar, 2004, is a High-Definition video tableau inspired by Las Meninas. The video is a revisioning of the moments leading up to and directly following the approximately eighty-nine seconds in time when the royal family and their courtiers would have come together in the exact configuration in Velázquez’ painting. To make 89 Seconds at Alcázar, the artist assembled a team of thirty-five which included an architect, set designer, choreographer, costume designer, actors, actresses and a film crew. While the actual shooting of the 360° video using a Steadicam was done in four days, the project took over three years to realise. Like the Foucault reading, this work takes a new view of the original artwork, unpacking even more layers of possible meaning and digging deeper into the subject. In talking about the original painting, Sussman said: “This painting is very interesting because within the psychology of the characters it has an almost photographic quality, Velázquez was able to capture these psychological moments and emotions within his characters that you don’t really see very often… it predates photography by more than two hundred years but is able to do almost a snapshot like thing with the way he conveys a psychological moment” (video linked below). This contrapuntal reading of Velázquez’s painting encourages us to think about the missing movement and action implied in the original work, asking us to look at the psychology and motives of the subject as the forgotten others.

Watch this interview with Sussman and read the production notes here Think about the layering of performance, design and technical skill that went into representing the different elements of the work and what it can mean to translate a two dimensional artwork into performance.

Michel Gondry (dir) 2002, “Kylie Minogue: Come into my world”, Parlophone/Mushroom/Capitol.

The video clip for Kylie Minogue’s 2001 dance-pop song features a steadily increasing number of duplicates of the singer, wandering in a Mobius strip-like trip through the same intersection in Paris. The interplay between the lyrics, where Minogue asks you to ‘come into’ her world, has been cleverly unpacked by director Michel Gondry, representing the world she is inviting you into as a chaotic mass of swirling bodies, near misses and every increasing images of the artist.  The website Critical Commons claims that it is hard to know whether “Gondry is celebrating or mocking … the repetition and reproducibility of pop culture” in this music video ( The almost meaningless (and yet inherently meaning-laden) mirroring of Minogue is layered with and enhanced by the repetitive beat of the music, and saturated in the inevitable cultural associations that are carried by both the performer and genre of music.   Could Gondry be representing Minogue here as a selfie before selfies became ‘a thing’? Is the production crew, director, and cast of 50 extras just a giant selfie stick to allow us to see this multiple reflection of Minogue? Who might be the forgotten other if we attempt a contrapuntal reading of this text?

Thinking about the ‘tricks’ played with this representation of Minogue, look back over the alternative case studies for this week and see if you can now recognise any similar representational tricks by the creators.


Foucault, M. 1973 “Las Meninas” from The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences NY: Vintage Books, 1-15.


Peter Greenaway The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982) British Film Institute

This film is a light-hearted look at the games that can be played with representation. You won’t need to think too hard about this movie but keep your ‘seeing’ brain switched on. There are some representational tricks played here to drive the message of the film, if you keep your eyes open (hint – think about colour coding, opulence and the overdramatic).

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.