Travel and signage systems walk down the alley together.
Imagine the big suitcase, or now in the age of globalized commodities, Louis Vuitton trunks, packed and placed on a road, as they portray travel in the glossies and the billboards, and voila! You know at once, that this image, this sign stands for travel. A holiday to the exotic, to the foreign locale or maybe to even your local hill-station.
If you think about it, signs and travel have come to form a hand in glove relationship, where one appears, almost, to stand in for the other. Whether it is the sign of Krishna transcending the sanctified peripheries of a temple onto a Hermes scarf sashaying down the ramps of Milan, signage and signs have traveled through time periods and geographical boundaries to create new forms of meanings in the age of trans-culturalism.
In a rapidly changing, hyperreal world icons and iconoclasts have slowly managed to break free of the usual systems that had, until recently, made them meaningful. Cultural Myth, or the world of significations that surround icons we encounter daily, results out of the slow loss of memory of the meaning of the initial icon. The displaced cultural context of say a Che Guevara image on a tee-shirt or a school goers bag are ideal examples of such a loss of memory.
The negotiation of images, signs and their travels through minimalist poster designs offers a unique realm of study in this direction. Roughly put, minimalism may said to describe movements in different forms of art and design (especially in visual art and music) wherein the work of art sets out to expose the essence, essentials or a certain identity of a subject by eliminating all non-essential forms, features or concepts. As a specific movement in the arts it is identified with developments in post–World War II Western Art, most strongly with American visual arts in the 1960s and early 1970s . Down the years the term has come to be used for different artistic forms including plays, films, music and even automobile designs.
As a lover and consumer of visual culture I am fascinated by the language of signs and symbolism. The usage of just a particular sign or icon to portray a wide gamut of meanings, ranging over a wide period of time, with the assistance of only the least amount of text, as in a minimalist poster, is both artistically intriguing and intellectually challenging. This is what gripped me when I came across the accompanying poster of Hitler and Chaplin, two of the most recognizable persons of the last century. A bowler hat, as the text mentions, is what sets the one apart from the other. This poster, which went viral on various social networking websites a couple of months ago and was shared by thousands on their profiles, is an ideal example of how complex meanings may be denoted, simply, through the accessible vocabulary of signs and symbols.
‘It is the interaction between the viewer and object that gives art its meaning and decides the way in which the visual is read’, a cursory glance at the minimal Bollywood posters illustrated above is enough to demonstrate this adage about the visual sign and its reception. The minimal posters by artist Akshar Pathak ranging from creating a series on Hindi cinema clichés to American sitcoms to Indian TV shows, recreate the iconography of the celluloid or the television image that has been persistent in the viewers’ minds. The use of the image of a hapless Nirupa Roy on the poster for instance, evokes the cinematic iconisation of the ‘self-sacrificing’ mother figure, made iconic by actress Nirupa Roy in Hindi films. Characteristic dialogues mouthed by Roy in a large number of popular bollywood films, wherein she portrayed stock characters, make the posters at once relatable to a certain audience but simultaneously mean something ‘more’ due to the assembled nature of the work. In a similar image, where he shows a judge sitting on the desk with exaggeratedly long hands, evoke the typical Hindi film dialogue on the ‘long hands of the law’. Thus, it becomes what can be discussed as the face of either Nirupa Roy or the image of the judge being the Idea but the poster in itself becomes an Event.
Myth and as I would say, neo-myths in a postcolonial postmodern transcultural 21st century then are, as Barthes would say, a type of speech. It is then the very system of communication which is the message. Minimal posters then, are the tools through which me, you and everyone else can perceive the myth of an icon or an event as not the object, concept or even the idea – it is but then the mode of signification and transcends into creating a form with a semiotic and vocabulary of its own.
Shaheen Ahmed is a writer living in Delhi.