V is for Juxtaposition

| May 4, 2014

Juxtaposition is a powerful semiotic device – positioning one symbol in opposition to another causes their systems of meaning to interrogate each other, and through the contrast, a heightening of their symbolic meaning can occur, and a third meaning often comes into relief.

Take for instance this photo taken at the southeast corner of Central Park. The statue is of Winged Victory leading General Tecumseh, with a palm symbol representing peace in her hand. Across the street, a panopticon-like NYPD surveillance unit  lords over the area. It draws out a stark contradiction between the two symbols. If winged victory has brought us as a nation to this peaceful utopia, why does it resemble a surveillance state?

The next two images are of juxtaposition in signage. In the first, we have a sign marking a street in Karl Marx’s name in the foreground, with a Wal Mart in the background. Each of these symbols has its own power, but in contrast, we see that while Marx and his philosophy still elicit an historic reverence, mass consumerism and big-box capitalism has ascended to dominate the global social order.

In the following image we see a public service message raising awareness of childhood obesity, and immediately below we see a sign for McDonald’s which advocates a “shopping spree” of the most unhealthy food available. The juxtaposition itself signifies the general incoherence and contradictions between what the health industry knows is unhealthy for us, and business interests whose welfare thrives on the consumption of their commodities.

This next series features a juxtaposition of famous European masterpieces with the ubiquitous corporate logo of Nike – the swoosh. For me, this points out that the most ubiquitous symbols of the modern age are the markers of corporate marketing. A symbol like the swoosh is a cypher for whatever the consumer projects on it.  In any given day, through any given medium, we see the swoosh affiliated with many of our modern heroes. That’s what advertising does – it takes the corporate identity and attempts to lure the consumer into projecting their aspirations, their wants and desires onto that product by affiliating the corporation with that which the consumer admires/desires. So here we see iconic paintings each with their own meaning, and the swoosh appropriates the prestige of the original image, like a sponge.

In this next set of images, we see the juxtaposition of playful/pacific/docile symbols (a pink knit blanket, toys, a butterfly and porcelain ware) juxtaposed with image/symbols of warfare.  The pink veil on the tank in particular is an effective device for drawing out the extreme violence inherent in a war machine.

Lastly, we have alternate universes of beauty posed against each other – one frail and battered, the other confident, decadent, and self-satisfied.  On the left, a classic image of an Afghan girl (Sharbat Gula) from a 1985 National Geographic magazine.  The girl was a refugee of the Afghan war (the other one, where the Afghan resistance was our allies against the Soviet invaders), and she had never had her photo taken. Her intense piercing gaze caught the western imagination and the image became inscribed on the collective conscious of our society – perhaps a symbol of innocence lost in the wake of brutal warfare. Next to her, we have the image of Paris Hilton, the signifier of the most vacuous narcissist decadence Western society is capable of producing. The juxtaposition of these two cosmologies – the dispossessed refugee girl and the vacuous heiress serves as a marker for the vast inequalities between the two social contexts.

And as a final juxtaposition, we have the original photograph of the Afghan girl juxtaposed against a picture of her from 17 years later. According to the National Geographic feature, Gula hadn’t had her photograph taken since. The juxtaposition in this case serves to signify just how little has really changed for the Afghan refugees of the 1980s, but now the flags of the invading army are different colors.

And lastly, from Ranicere’s chapter on the Pensive Image, I brought in one of Dijkstra’s images juxtaposed against Botticelli. Upon looking at Dijkstra’s images and Ranciere’s notions of indeterminacy and pensiveness, there seemed to be a continuity in the form and composition of Botticelli’s Aphrodite Emerging from the Sea. The juxtaposition brings to the surface and magnifies the contrasts between the overt and implicit objectification of the young female body – the two images represent wholly different epitomes of youth and beauty.