2010 Operation Beefeater
Operation Beefeater: of man and his nature
It is obvious that our sensory experience is not limited to awareness of colors, sounds, odors, and other qualities, but includes many operations which cannot be the activities of the special senses. Daydreaming, remembering, and the perception of a thick, red, juicy, steak are obviously impossible to any one special sense. It is a basic fact of human behavior that we react not only to a single stimulus but to patterns of stimuli.
Our perception of the world as composed of objects (tree) rather than mere sensory qualities (green, large) demands further investigation.
Magnus Sigurdarson, 2010
How does one go about explaining what is before them? Is it male, white, tall, bearded? Or simply guard, Beefeater? What sensory mechanisms lead us to objectify what we see as simply a Beefeater? Moreover, what are the implications of this labeling system that we have adopted as a society? This is the dilemma Magnus Sigurdarson, an Icelandic artist admittedly obsessed with the idea of identity and the cultural connotations attached to owning “an identity,” presents before us in his latest photographic series.
Magnus teamed up with photographer, Paul Stoppi, for this body of work in which they set out to, “explore the space between disguise and anonymity.” They took a revered symbol of prestige and authority and injected him with a concentrated dose of absurdity. The Beefeater took to the streets of London, the very city he is meant to be solemnly serving, and became part of the hustle and bustle of quotidian life. We see him waiting for the tube, talking on his cell phone in an “I really must call you back” manner, making his daily commute pike-in-hand, and finally sitting down to a steak dinner, all the while dressed in authentic uniform. Magnus breathes life into a static symbol of authority, and reassigns his cultural role to that of a living, breathing, cell-phone chattering allegory.
The driving force behind Magnus’ visual verbiage is to experience “the other.” Operation Beefeater challenges viewers’ notions of “the other” through the social tension, unexpectedness and awkwardness of the images. As he states in his piece Diagnosis of the Obvious – Project Mass Media of 2004, where he used 36 tons of local Norwegian newspapers to build a giant, collapsing wall that he then sprinkled with 120 thousand seeds of a foreign Alaskan Lupine that actually flourished; “If we take for granted that there is something called ME then there must be this other thing called YOU. Moreover, in order for YOU to understand ME and ME to understand YOU, I have to become YOU and YOU have to become ME. If this is not attainable we may have a catastrophic situation on our hands.” Yet in order to experience the “YOU” or the “ME” we must leave behind preconceptions, and this is the real challenge. Regardless of where one hails from, everyone knows that a Royal British Guard should not pick his nose, because our socially formulated notion of this persona does not register a Beefeater as a person, but rather an object. This tendency to objectify others through labels is what impedes us from ever bridging the “YOU versus ME” barrier. Magnus masks the melancholic nature of his photographs with quirks and smirks that highlight not only the absurdity of the images, but the absurdity of taking on such a task as trying to understand “the other.”
Magnus’ images are invitingly bright and playful, but the subject matter is much denser, inevitably making his viewers question how comfortable they are with themselves. This exchange between artist and viewer is fundamental to his work; it is in fact the unifying link of all his pieces. His goal is to entice both intra- and inter-personal communication. In his video installation, I’m so much better than you of 2005 Sigurdarson’s head takes center stage between two Chinese hand puppets in what appears to be a traditional Chinese puppet show. The artist repeatedly states “I’m so much better than you…I’m way better than you are,” and does so as the puppets attack him more and more aggressively. The video is about the catastrophic situation Magnus made reference to in Diagnosis of the Obvious – Project Mass Media. He invades a traditional Chinese custom in a failed attempt to understand another culture, conceals his failure by proclaiming his own cultural superiority, with the abundantly obvious result that the “other” retaliates.
Magnus has dedicated his career to exploring identities. Though his works are inherently melancholic and nostalgic, his goal is not intellectual enlightenment; but rather to provoke us to acknowledge those behaviors (whether they e superiority, repulsion, or bafflement) that the process of failing to understand “the other” uncovers, as well as the dangers of this failure. Along the way, in his pursuit to open our eyes, he also explores himself.
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