A Semiotics of Surface

Jan Winkelmann

It might seem unusual to write a text about the image on an invitation-card. And even more so if, instead of a solitary piece in an artist's oeuvre, the card features a photographic snapshot. The photo in question is one which Sarah Morris shot in the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas in 1995 and which she used on the invitation to a show in Paris in the autumn of the following year. On 19th August 1995, Mike Tyson's first boxing match after his release from prison was to take place in the aforementioned hotel complex. At the eleventh hour, Sarah Morris, Jay Jopling and Jennifer Rubell flew to Las Vegas and succeeded in getting tickets for the big event. The Golden Nugget offered an appropriate setting for the observation of the pseudo-glamorous goings-on of the B-list-celebrities and stars of the underworld who shape the atmosphere at this type of event. Iron-Mike – living up to his nickname – won by knocking Peter McNeeley out seven seconds before the end of the first round. Sarah Morris took the photo in a bathroom in the MGM just shortly before the fight.

The white tiled floor with a lilac-coloured decorative pattern is seen at an angle and from above, resulting in a strange diagonal perspective. The "empty" centre of the picture is framed by the artist's feet, clad in white Prada high heels. The shoes, so far apart as to verge on obscenity, open as wide a range of associations. The green patent leather handbag, cropped at the lower edge of the picture, leads from the space of the photo to the reality beyond it. In many ways, the presence of specific elements, captured in the snapshot, make it a point of intersection in Morris’ work. First of all, the presence of shoes should be mentioned. They appear as a subject several times and in different forms in her work of the mid-Nineties: High Heels (Purple) (1996); Japanese Shoes (Upside Down) (1996); Fishnets (Legs Crossed) (1996). Their frequent occurrence, one could say, almost forms a group within her body of work. This series of paintings has its origin in another photo of her shoes, High Heels (1995), which came about while Morris was killing time one evening, waiting to be picked up from her New York apartment. The photo was also used on an invitation, in this case to her exhibition One False Move at White Cube, London in April 1996. The perspectival distortion of the modular tiled floor marks a point of departure for Sarah Morris's preoccupation with perspective. Whereas in the early Nineties perspective played almost no part in her paintings, it becomes an essential, constitutive element in the Midtown series. And just as in the paintings, in which the flaneur's view of the buildings’ façades from below is presented, the viewer becomes aware in the snapshot of his point of view through the use of a high, angled shot from above.

One could make the claim that Sarah Morris' work defines a “semiotics of surface.” Through high-rise façades which as architectonic skins function as symbols of power and prosperity, visible from far away, simultaneously shaping the physiognomy of their urban context and being both a "decorative" and anonymous pars pro toto. Through the shiny surfaces of the glossy enamel house-paint used in the Midtown series which, in their regularity, suggest no depth whatsoever and thus, as a medium, is analogous to the mirror-like surfaces of the buildings themselves. Through the use of the spectacular, which reduces moments and sensations of metropolitan life to the universally valid symbolism of the subject. Through sex, which because the mass media's repetitive overkill has become devoid of content, an empty screen onto which unfulfilled, faceless desires are projected, and – especially in Morris' paintings of shoes and legs – a fetish of an impersonal and undefined nature. Through subliminal references to cultural subsystems – such as fashion – with their respective, precisely defined social fields, mechanisms of differentiation and patterns of representation. In the photo described above – MGM Grand Hotel (Las Vegas) – formal and biographical elements combine with different aspects of content which are constitutive for Sarah Morris in such a complex way that even a snapshot can attain the status of a key work. Q.E.D.

(Translation: Tas Skorupa)

published in: Sarah Morris. Modern Worlds, cat. Museum of Modern Art Oxford, Galerie für Zeitgenössische Kunst Leipzig, Le Consortium Dijon 1999

© 1999 Jan Winkelmann

German version