Taking an average

Nancy Burson, Warhead I (55% Reagan, 45% Brezhnev, less than 1% each of Thatcher, Mitterand, and Deng), 1982

The idea of the digital composite that Idris Khan uses to such great effect isn’t a new one by any means. Possibly somewhat surprisingly it goes back several decades, with Nancy Burson – who had been involved with Experiments in Art and Technology (EAT) since leaving college in the late 1960s – making composite portraits digitally in the early 1980s. Composite photographic portraits of course have a much longer history – Francis Galton’s composites of criminal types were made in the late nineteenth century for instance – but the use of digital is something Burson pioneered.

It’s not all about the technology though. Indeed, it’s as art that Burson’s work interests me more. In building her composites, Burson is effectively making layered photomontages and accordingly her work can be seen as the combining of two (or more) elements to reveal a third meaning. In Warhead I, Burson has combined the imagges of world leaders accoring to the percentage of the world’s nuclear arsenal they had at their disposal. This being 1982 that effectively mean merging the faces of Leeonid Brezhnev and Ronald Reagan. Though in a way this makes me think about the significance of nuclear weapons during the Cold War it’s also interesting that it seems to come from a simpler time. How many faces would be in the mix now? And would anyone be able to accurately pinpoint the percentages?

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