Victor Burgin / Then and Now

Three looped videos and a photo series exploring the relationship between real and virtual spaces


Fields of Knowledge
  • Aesthetics / Media
  • Artistic legacies
  • Philosophy / Theory

Organizing Institutions

Slought, University of Pennsylvania Department of the History of Art, and the Bryn Mawr College Program in Film Studies


Homay King, Kaja Silverman


Mellon Distinguished Achievement Award, and The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts

Opens to public





4017 Walnut St
Philadelphia, PA 19104

On the web


Slought is pleased to announce Victor Burgin / Then and Now, an exhibition of work on display from September 13 to November 6, 2016. The exhibition includes a photographic series, US 77 (1977), and three digital projection works, Prairie (2015), A Place to Read (2010), and The Little House (2005). An opening reception will take place on Thursday, September 15, 2016 from 6:30-8:30pm and will feature a public conversation with the artist and curators Kaja Silverman (University of Pennsylvania) and Homay King (Bryn Mawr College).

Victor Burgin is a highly influential artist and a renowned theorist of the still and moving image who first came to prominence in the late 1960s as one of the originators of Conceptual Art. In the 1970s his work consisted mainly of large framed photographic sequences, involving printed texts either juxtaposed with or superimposed on the image. At the beginning of the 1990s he turned towards digital video, but video from the point-of-view of photography – for example, Burgin is particularly interested in the relation between stasis and movement. As the historian and critic Stephen Bann has written, "this progressive exploitation of new technologies is itself fairly uninteresting compared with the remarkable consistency of the underlying themes and propositions of his work." Throughout Burgin's work there is a constant attention to the space 'between' the viewer and the object – to the 'real' world as seen through the prism of narrative, memory and fantasy.

The loop that Burgin builds into many of his gallery video works, such as those on view at Slought, solicits from the viewer not so much a sense of uncanny déjà-vu, but a feeling similar to that of re-reading a favorite novel and discovering things in it that one had not noticed before. Our successive encounters with the images form strata, allowing us to sift through sheaths of citations. As Burgin puts it, the ideal viewer of his work is one "who accumulates her or his knowledge of the work, as it were, in 'layers'—much as a painting is created." Burgin's practice operates, to borrow a phrase from Gilles Deleuze, to provide "a story that no longer has a place...for places that no longer have a history." The task of both artist and viewer, then, is to provide the time and space for these sites' pasts, presents, and futures to be brought back into connection.

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Read more by Homay King about the works in the exhibition:

US 77 offers what appears at first glimpse to be a deconstruction of American mass media imagery. Photographs of city life, the open road, and spaces of transit populated by advertising billboards, automobiles, and other quintessential signifiers of 1970s American popular culture are accompanied by commentary and wry, Duchampian titles ("Four-word Looking," "Police of Mind"). The work accomplishes in images something similar to what Roland Barthes' Mythologies did in prose. On closer look, though, the images open onto interpretations other than straightforward ideological critique. Combining precise formal composition with a documentarian's impulse toward capturing daily life, they suggest William Eggleston's Guide or Robert Frank's The Americans, had these photographers cropped their work to draw closer attention to the mass-produced images within their images. In US 77, Burgin unites two seemingly contradictory impulses: on the one hand, a documentary record of mass cultural ephemera, fashions, and pictorial forms of a bygone "now" on the brink of expiring; on the other, a finely calibrated photo-essay that stands with one foot slightly outside its own time and place.

Prairie is an example of Burgin's recent looped video works made partially with 3D-modeling software and featuring digital reconstructions of architectural spaces. In Prairie, this space is Mies van der Rohe's Crown Hall at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago. An apartment building called The Mecca, built in 1892, once occupied this site and was torn down in the early 1950s to make way for the new campus. Burgin's video moves loosely backwards in time, as if excavating the site. Fragments of a story gradually emerge, a tale of two peoples displaced from the same site: the inhabitants of the Mecca, including the poet Gwendolyn Brooks, and, previously, the indigenous Inoca, who inhabited the land before it was seized by settlers for farming, made possible by the invention of the iron plow. These inhabitants are not made visible in the work, but invoked through surrogates: computer-generated figures resembling dancers or statues, a bit of stock footage from an old western, patterns of decorative ironwork that a resident might have seen in the atrium of the Mecca. The work functions as a kind of memory palace through which we and the silhouettes of these prior occupants endlessly wander.

A Place to Read likewise features a computer-generated building, the Taslik Khave, a coffee house and garden in Istanbul designed in the 1940s by Sedad Hakki Eldem. Overlooking the Bosphorus Strait, the building combines modernist angles and materials with Ottoman forms of the 17th century. It was torn down in 1988 to make room for a large Swissôtel with a parking structure and rooftop tennis court. Burgin's three-dimensional reconstruction of the destroyed coffee house is astonishingly photorealistic, yet the computer-generated "camera movements" by which the space appears are marked by a certain airlessness. The images alternate with intertitles that tell a fragmentary story, combining references to the 17th-century travelogues of Evliya Çelebi, a dystopian science fiction book, the death of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, and a woman reading in a coffee shop on the shores of Lake Geneva. These stories, the artist notes, are all rooted in documented fact, but they have been displaced from their original orbits and recombined such that their narrative levels intertwine. What has been lost with the destruction of the Taslik Khave? A Place to Read implies that it is not only the building itself, which ought to have been slated for historic preservation. It is also the thoughts and conversations that might have filled this building, the things that might have been written and read there, that we are instead left to imagine in this virtual rendering.

The Little House (2005) begins with a signature Burgin shot: a slow panning motion over a still image of a landscape. A female narrator speaks in voice-over, describing elements of mise-en-scène: marble statues, promenades, grottos, labyrinths, and an interior decorated à la chinoise. But they do not match what we see, a California-modern residence with exposed wooden beams, glass windows, and a concrete floor. It is Rudolph Schindler's Kings Road House in Los Angeles, designed in 1921 as an experiment in communal living, inspired by a camping trip in Yosemite National Park. The text in the initial portion of the voiceover, in turn, is Burgin's elaboration of a passage from Jean-François de Bastide's 1758 libertine novella La Petite Maison. This is the first of several odd juxtapositions in The Little House; later, we see a woman reading from a copy of Chairman Mao's Little Red Book. Temporal and spatial layers accumulate pan by pan, as if projected one atop the other. As in the other works in this exhibition, a chorus of images come together: emissaries from the past, fabulations projected onto walls and paper, and stories that may or may not exist on the same plane, creating a virtual "open floor plan" within which one cannot help but freely associate.

"What we call 'the present' is not a perpetually fleeting point on a line 'through time,' but a collage of disparate times, an imbrication of shifting and contested spaces."

— Victor Burgin, Brecciated Time


Seminar 1
Burgin's Career as Artist and Writer
with Victor Burgin, Kaja Silverman, and Homay King
Tuesday, September 13, 3-5pm

Seminar 2
The Computational Image Space
with Victor Burgin, Kaja Silverman, and Homay King
Wednesday, September 14, 3-5pm

Both programs at the Physical Lab in the Morgan Fine Arts Building, University of Pennsylvania