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The University of Southampton
Critical Practices Research Group


A picture of a spread from the Barthes/Burgin book, showing stills from Burgin's film 'Belledonne'
Stills from Victor Burgin’s Belledonne (2016), in Barthes/Burgin

Professors Ryan Bishop and Sunil Manghani curated the Barthes/Burgin exhibition at John Hansard Gallery.  They also produced an accompanying critical volume published with Edinburgh University Press. The exhibition placed side by side the little-known drawings of Roland Barthes with new projection works by Victor Burgin. The influence of Barthes on Burgin’s work is well documented, not least by Burgin himself. The exhibition included a new commission from Burgin, the projection piece Belledonne (2016).  This work takes as its starting point a postcard from St-Hilaire-du-Touvet in southeast France, where from 1942-1945 Barthes was a patient in a tuberculosis sanatorium. The postcard shows a panoramic view of the Belledonne mountain range in the French Alps, which Burgin hauntingly renders in a 3D landscape, and which is interspersed with intertitles, in short ‘breaths’, drawing into relationship a commentary on the starkness of living with tuberculosis and the brevity of the haiku form that Barthes frequently remarked upon in his late writings.

While Roland Barthes’ writings continue to resonate with literary and arts scholarship today, the fact that he sustained a practice of drawing and painting throughout the 1970s is little known. Only a handful of other public displays have occurred outside of France, and they have never been previously shown in the UK, despite sustained interest in his writings. Barthes’ love of stationery and writing as a physical, practical engagement is well-documented, yet it is difficult to know how to refer to his art practice. Barthes queries this himself in a short note, ‘Colouring, Degree Zero’, which originally appeared in Les Nouvelles Littéraires in 1978. The text opens with the failure of language that Barthes is alert to in his review ‘Is Painting a Language?’ from 1969. Here, Barthes refers to the ‘rigged question of art’, whereby, he suggests, ‘to ask if painting is a language is already an ethical question’. In this earlier article Barthes appears to settle on the side of language, ‘the language inevitably used in order to read [painting] – i.e., in order (implicitly) to write it’. However, just a few years later, following his trip to Japan, which fuelled an interest in Japanese calligraphy and brushwork, Barthes begins a regular practice of drawing and painting. The ‘process of production’, as he puts it in the entry on colouring, would appear to offer a different answer to the thorny problem of language and painting. Barthes refers instead to the ‘relief (the restfulness) of being able to create something that isn’t directly caught in the trap of language’ – the latter a phrase he uses again in the same year when addressing his audience at the Collège de France during his lecture course on the Neutral. 

 For the exhibition at the John Hansard, Victor Burgin’s prominence as an artist and theorist concerned with text and image during the 1970s onwards offered a challenging dialogue with Barthes’ work. Since the 1960s, Burgin has been one of the leading Conceptual artists and theorists from the UK working internationally. Often concerned with architecture, space, the built environment, memory and the means by which memory is physically and technologically constructed, Burgin’s recent digital projection installations can be considered as ‘photographs that move’. These works are not video as such, nor photography, but deliberate, painstaking digital constructions using current technologies. The exhibition was the final show in the John Hansard Gallery’s original site, and so marked the culmination of 35 years of exhibition making before making the move to its new premises in Southampton’s city centre Arts Complex.

 Barthes/Burgin (13 February 2016 - 16 April 2016) was a John Hansard Gallery exhibition, devised and curated in partnership with Professors Ryan Bishop and Sunil Manghani, Winchester School of Art. With financial support from The Henry Moore Foundation.


Related Publications

Bishop, R., and Manghani, S. (forthcoming) Zero Degree Seeing: Barthes/Burgin and Political Aesthetics. Edinburgh University Press.

Manghani, S. ed. (forthcoming) ‘Neutral Life: Reflections on Roland Barthes’ Late Works’,  special section, Theory, Culture & Society.

Manghani, S. (forthcoming) ‘Neutral Life: Roland Barthes’ Late Work’, Theory, Culture & Society.

Barthes, R., (forthcoming) ‘Colouring, Degree Zero’ (with editorial introduction by S. Manghani), Theory, Culture & Society.

Manghani (forthcoming) ‘Zero Degree Image’, in E. Alloa and C. Cappelletto (eds.) Dynamis of Images: Moving Images In a Global World. Contact Zones series, De Gruyter.

Manghani, S. (2015) ‘Marks of Neutrality’, On Writing and Drawing: Theorizing and Practicing Creativity with Roland Barthes Symposium, Peter Scott Gallery, Lancaster University, 12 November 2015.

Manghani, S and Bishop, R (2016) Barthes/Burgin: Notes Towards an Exhibition. Edinburgh University Press.

Manghani, S. (2015) ‘Works on Paper’ (panel convenor & contributor, with Céline Flécheux and Beth Harland), Barthes at 100, 30-31 March 2015.

Manghani, S. (2013) ‘Beyond Semiotics’ in Image Studies: Theory and Practice. Routledge, pp.3-18.


 See Also

John Hansard Gallery – Barthes/Burgin

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