From Dadaist photomontages of the early twentieth century to photo-collages like those of Barbara Kruger, artists and academics alike have been interested in the relationship between words and images, exploring how they function together to create and complicate meaning(s). But what happens when our analyses of such text/image works of art—specifically the photo-collages of Barbara Kruger and the photographs of Gillian Wearing and Sharon Hayes—also consider the public spaces in which those artworks circulate? How might our understandings of these artworks—their meaning, function, and potential for enacting socio-political change within a public sphere—shift if we move beyond discussing them in terms of content and form, and instead explore the various roles (i.e. the photographer, photographed subject(s), and whom the work addresses) involved in the photographic act or encounter?
The works of Barbara Kruger, Gillian Wearing, and Sharon Hayes each demonstrate unique approaches to the medium of photography, its incorporation of language, and their relationship to the performative construction of publics. Yet, these artists’ photo-works also remain grounded in the politics of their viewing publics and illustrate a shared history of art and photography. For example, there are a number of commonalities across the photo-collages of Kruger, Wearing’s photographs, and Hayes’s photographic “documentation”—specifically, the text/image legacy of modernism, the use of photography within a social situation, and the role of the “caption” in pinning down meaning. However, the works of Kruger, Wearing, and Hayes also reveal that publics, with specific historical locations (Kruger’s postmodern 1980s America, Wearing’s early 1990s London, and Hayes’s turn of the century New York City), are shaped within an ever-changing public sphere. As theoretical entities within a space they (re: publics) remain constant, but the particularities of a public subjectivity within a public sphere are also always in flux. In examining the performative and public aspects of Kruger, Wearing, and Hayes’s work we can better understand how these photographs address underlying socio-political issues of their time, as well as how their creation and circulation correspond to shifting understandings of publics that although complex and sometimes contradictory, are also somewhat tangible within the space of the public sphere. This project demonstrates the inherently political and performative function(s) of photography as a medium, and proposes that there is generative (counterhegemonic) potential within the abstract, complex entity of a public.