Batman, Dr. Manhattan, the Silver Surfer: if the characters used in Alex Whitlam’s ‘Heroes’ series themselves are not immediately recognisable, their origins in comic book culture most certainly are. The use of imagery from popular cultural contexts especially that of comic books is by no means new in art history. From Pop Art’s incorporation of the mediascape of American mid-century modernity through to the postmodernist pastiche and critical re-presentations of 80s late-capitalist visual culture, the use of existing imagery has become simply another tool for creative expression. The nuance occurs in the way particular artists put these images to work.
American artist Richard Prince has made a career out of presenting images from popular culture, minimally altered, as his own. In a 1977 essay, Prince wondered aloud why “certain records sound better when someone on the radio station plays them, than when we’re home alone, and play the same records ourselves.” This observation indicates that Prince’s interests in the popular cultural object is less about authorship and originality as is often claimed, but more about the location of meaning.
The most personal relevance a listener takes from a popular song, may in fact be shared by any number of other listeners. Consumed collectively, the popular culture object is both the most individual site of personally specific meaning, and the most generalised and public of all meaningful encounters.
Whitlam’s use of the Silver Surfer, as an example, superimposes the iconic image of the Marvel hero over an image of a mushroom cloud from a nuclear explosion, itself a still from footage of the Trinity nuclear test carried out by the US Army in 1945. The quote included in the Silver Surfer’s speech bubble is taken from remarks made by theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer who worked on the nuclear weapon tested at the Trinity site. Oppenheimer himself was quoting the Hindu sacred text, the Bhagavad-Gita, as way of articulating the complexity of his feelings about being a part of the first successful nuclear weapons test. And they most certainly would have been complex feelings, Oppenheimer was tied to the obligations of the task he had been given but, at the same time, was keenly aware of the impact that the existence of such a weapon would have on the world in both its immediate and long term future.
Oppenheimer was not an adherent of Hinduism in any practical sense, he was, however, a devotee of literature. His interest in the Bhagavad-Gita was based as much on its literary qualities as its spiritual and moral qualities. Oppenheimer, then, is quoting the Bhagavad-Gita, the Silver Surfer quotes both of them and Whitlam fuses them together in his own quotation of markedly different contexts that work to show how art, in all its forms, gives us access to the articulation of emotional and moral complexity out of the bounds or other forms of communication.
This kind of deferral to another text for the purposes of individual expression begins to elucidate Prince’s experience of hearing music outside of his personal space and finding more, rather than less, meaning in it as a result. Whether it is a familiar song played by someone else, or another’s words that convey an experience better than anything original we could say, or a public image that captures something uniquely personal, meaning is seen to be not as fixed as we might assume. Nor is it the exclusive property of the individual subject, meaning flows and mutates and is recast anew as passes through subject after subject. The words uttered by Frank Miller’s character Dwight McCarthy expressing regret and a desire to make things better for himself in a high contrast frame from ‘Sin City: A Dame to Kill For’, are tied to that original graphic novel context but are simultaneously removed from it. They are McCarthy’s words, they are Miller’s words, they are Whitlam’s words and they are your words. Who hasn’t screwed up and yearned for the change “wipe the slate clean?”
Why would Oppenheimer defer to an ancient text that served as a moral and spiritual foundation of a religion he was not an adherent of? Similarly, why would he draw inspiration for the code name of the test from the work of a 17th Century poet? The answer is much the same as that to the question we might ask of Whitlam: why use the comic book imagery to discuss such ‘serious’ issues as nuclear weapons, international relations, personal relationships, and the nihilistic pathos of existence? The reason is that art, in all its forms, from 17th Century poetry to 1980s comic books, explains the world to us. It communicates the complexities of human subjectivity in ways that other forms of communication cannot. How can somebody explain how it feels to both be responsible for one of the most technically complex achievements of modern physics, but also have an awareness of the thousands of lives it claimed. There are in fact no words for this, but there is art.