What does “iconic” mean today? Is it something that can be boiled down to a square-cropped image on Instagram? If so, is there any room left for the conceptual? Are image resolution, photo documentation, or uniqueness still a concern? Are social media feeds a hassle or an opportunity? A group of artists whose work reconsiders the status of the image discuss notions of taste, impact, exposure, fetishism, titillation and sympathy in the age of memes, watermarks and clickbait.


Ed Fornieles

Ed Fornieles Main Theme

Taste is a group game, the rules of which are generated from exposure to the feed. With Instagram, things are pushed into squares, no filter is better than any, and what looks best is looking honest and feeling authentic.

I feel the iconic has shifted from the singular to the many, where events, ideas, people, conflicts and movements are captured in a barrage of imagery rather than individual photos. The iconic becomes a state created through exposure to the stream; though it is still instantly recognizable, its definition is blurred, the specifics of a scene melting away in exchange for a broader sense of things. The repeated exposure to the stream forms resistance to the potency of any one singular image, changing the duration in which the iconic plays itself out: the poignancy or shock moment is replaced by an incremental effect, closer to a wave which enters the subconscious field, forming the landscape.

I prefer this diffused iconic to the singular form. I like the idea that all the works are nodes in a larger network, the size of which is too big for anyone to see. Maybe all these nodes could be called iconic, or icons pointing back the rest of the network, idk. I’d like the work to be more iconic, as it would mean familiarity, and people are much more willing to interact with the familiar. You’re less likely to let a stranger into your house than someone you recognize. Once inside, though, you can pretty much do what you want. 😉

Ed Fornieles (British, b. 1983) is an artist who lives and works in London. He is represented by Carlos Ishikawa, London. In April, he will present performance installations at Palais De Tokyo, Paris, and Schirn Kunsthalle, Frankfurt, as well as a solo exhibition at Arratia Beer, Berlin.


Takeshi Murata


A “superimage” becomes such by immediacy and exploitation, speed and acuity. Fetishism.

Technically, today’s images look great. Phones shoot better video than most pro equipment just a few years ago. But everyone now shooting and posting things on their phones is causing a catastrophic rise in the shit sea levels overall. There are still some Tangerines floating around here and there, but no more than there ever were. New modes of monetization have shifted the control to nerdy mega-corps. The old channels are done—scrounging what little is left, studying dank memes and hashtags. Where these icon accelerators once stood, the focus-group PC masses now rule.

Resolution will never be high enough. In 2-D displays, resolution is reaching the highest discernible levels, but within the 3-D environment, resolution requirements are vastly higher. Resolution is tied to movement: limitless movement requires limitless detail and resolution to produce it. The current moment of experiencing things through cell phone screens will be a short one. Expansive viewing experiences are around the corner and will quickly become the norm.

Takeshi Murata (American, b. 1974) is an artist who lives and works in New York. He is represented by Ratio3, San Francisco, and Salon 94, New York. His first international survey was presented at Kunsthall Stavanger, Norway, in 2015. A solo show of his works will open at Ratio3 on 13 May.


Katja Novitskova

Katja Novitskova Main Theme

I am interested in the relationship between “human” images and “non-human” visual data pattern-processing technologies (or creatures), and how it might be applied to art. For me, this means a need to redefine what is iconic, shifting from an art historical to an algorithmic framework, or perhaps a combination of both. What will Deep Dream algorithm classify as iconic based on the billions of images it processes? I hope to make work that rouses the curiosity of both people and, potentially, algorithm-driven machines.

Maybe an image is a kind of a machine that activates the visual attention of people or other creatures. The machines that are the most successful at doing this at any given time and circumstance are supreme: images that “break the Internet,” that change policies and sway votes, that “create” social behavior. It is not just about the formal quality of the image itself, but also the networks of meaning and social relations it carries with it: humanitarian, celebrity, pop culture, etc. Superimages can also be “poor,” in Hito Steyerl’s words, in how they come about (i.e., memes as disposable, obviously evolving images). Anything that is alive but not human, formally intense and has a face tends to draw attention, making animal representations particularly effective image machines.

Clickbait may well be today’s main mode of content architecture, and that probably means that any understanding of a contemporary image should be networked. The square format of Instagram is only the tip of the iceberg that is smartphones, smartphone cameras, social network infrastructures, patterns of social behavior, retro Polaroid aesthetics, speed of access and communication, digital advertising and monetization models. In this world, the iconic is maybe something that continues to activate beyond its release date, target group, trend cycle or platform-specific context.

Although I have no skills when it comes to making a “professional” photograph, I do often take my own documentation images, especially when it comes to works being exhibited for the first time. My work is not finished before there is a set of images that capture (more or less) what I want them to capture. Using my own eyes and sensibility is crucial; at this point, it’s almost impossible to outsource. I think contemporary art documentation points to an overall trend of relying on image production as a tool for data creation: from ecological research, medicine, surveillance and biotech to space programs and social media—anywhere with satellite, tracking, night vision, x-ray, smartphone and other kinds of cameras and flash cards. We are at the point where taking more pictures of the world has become a means of gaining a deeper understanding of the world (for good and bad), and contemporary art is no exception.

Katja Novitskova (Estonian, b. 1984) is an artist who lives and works in Amsterdam and Berlin. She is represented by Kraupa Tuskany, Berlin, and Greene Naftali, New York. Upcoming solo exhibitions will be held at Greene Naftali, New York, and Kunstverein Hamburg.


Jonathan Horowitz

I think fear and/or titillation usually work to make an image into a “superimage”—especially when they’re combined. I think it’s key that the girl in Nick Ut’s famous Vietnam photo is naked; Caitlyn Jenner’s Vanity Fair cover certainly works on both fronts. But repetition and familiarity alone can invest an image with power—there needn’t be anything special about the image itself. (That portrait of Mao wasn’t plastered all over China because people liked it.)

Sometimes I employ iconic imagery because I have something I want to say about an image, and sometimes just because I find it useful to communicate an idea. I certainly want my work to be impactful. But art doesn’t often produce what I think you mean by “superimages,” and when it does, I think it might have more to do with familiarity than impact. I saw a Warhol painting of Marilyn the other day—an artwork that would surely qualify as a superimage—and it was overwhelming. It occurred to me, though, that Marilyn’s really doing a lot of the work. Today, there’s not a single Kim Kardashian selfie that’s iconic—it’s Kim Kardashian’s selfies, plural, that are iconic.

Jonathan Horowitz (American, b. 1966) is an artist who lives and works in New York. He is represented by Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, New York; Sadie Coles HQ, London; and Xavier Hufkens, Brussels.


Olia Lialina

Olia Lialina Main Theme

For many years, I spent my days looking through old webpages, following the images that went from one site to another, adopted by a diverse range of web makers: hulagirl.gif, peeman.gif, felix.gif, and so on. But when it comes to impact, I don’t think anything comes close to the power of outer space backgrounds. They formed the image of the early web, making cyberspace visual; they made early web makers believe that they were building a new universe. These starry backgrounds were very empowering back then. Today, they are icons, symbols for the early web.

I think my earliest work, MBCBFTW (1996), can probably be described as iconic on some scale. It is a website with recognizable (through many reproductions), minimal visuals and, most importantly, a recognizable structure. The browser window is divided into several frames that grow smaller with each click. It was not a common way to design a web page in the mid-‘90s, so it got some attention, and is still alive through the interpretations of artists and others. The work provides structure for a difficult conversation; if anything, it became an icon of the non-linear monologue.

Olia Lialina (Russian, b. 1971) is a net artist who lives and works in Moscow. A retrospective exhibition for the 20th anniversary of her seminal work MBCBFTW will open in February at MU Artspace, Eindhoven.


Darren Bader

Darren Bader Main Theme

I’m a mortal with hang-ups. I seek some sort of proof of a meaningful existence through my deliberate communication with others. My work is one of my primary voices. If it fails to be iconic, I feel more alone—just as my other primary voices do when my work is received in a way that suggests iconicity. In short, though I do want my work to be iconic, I find my work misrepresentative of that desire.

I’d say “iconic” still implies the mutually effective: an iconic image will generate sympathy and will function with little support from the verbal (even if we’re speaking of an iconic achievement in the literary sphere). I often follow the Renaissance model of looks-good, but I can (at times grudgingly) recognize this as being a choice. I do think we are profoundly affected by hue and contrast.

But then again, “superimages” seems a category like any other. Images are ubiquitous. Can’t any of them become specialized, high-powered, high-impact? Aren’t any number of seemingly innocuous or arrestingly amusing memes “superimages”? I think there will always be the obscene aspect of comedy and the terror of tragedy (and vice versa); image technology exists to be in service of this. Perhaps a pause in feeling initiates the consideration/categorization of art itself.

Darren Bader (American, b. 1978) is an artist who lives and works in New York. He is represented by Sadie Coles HQ, London; Andrew Kreps Gallery, New York; and Galleria Franco Noero, Turin. His solo exhibition “Such are Promises” is currently on view at Sadie Coles HQ through 20 February.


Martine Syms

Martine Syms Main Theme

I want my work to be seductive. It has to boom. I want people to stare at it with mouths agape, kind of like how Lionel Ritchie looked at Kanye West at the 2015 Brit Awards.

If you want to feel a picture, it’s working. A few examples: Sam Cooke on Ed Sullivan, Grace Jones’s Island Life cover, Emmet Till’s body, Mary J. Blige in the “Not Gon’ Cry” video, LL Cool J for Gap (and Fubu), the poster for Coffy, the Soft & Beautiful Just For Me no-lye relaxer packaging, Trayvon Martin’s hoodie, Jennifer Holiday at the 1982 Tony Awards, Michael Jordan’s “Failure” commercial for Nike.

Images become iconic through circulation. I have to save it, look at it everyday, share it with everyone I know, remake it and, ultimately, embody it. I find the best images at the Slauson Swap Meet.

Martine Syms (American, b. 1988) is an artist and conceptual entrepreneur who lives and works in Los Angeles, where she runs Dominica publishing. She is represented by Bridget Donahue, New York. Upcoming solo exhibitions will open at Karma International, Los Angeles in March and at the ICA, London, in April. She will be included in the Hammer Museum’s “Made In L.A. Biennial,” Los Angeles, this June.


Guthrie Lonergan

Guthrie Lonergan Main Theme

I recently bought a new iMac with a retina display and am genuinely in awe of the default desktop photos of Yosemite. Higher screen resolution makes more of an impact than I expected. I can’t stop looking at them.

Today’s images usually rely on a little bit of text to activate them, to tell us how to interpret them. They depend on the subjective captions attached to each social media user’s re-sharing of them, the clickbait-y headline, some meme-y overlaid text, the pithy one-line caption, a link, a hashtag… Some sort of textual information always needs to be tacked onto good images today; they are rarely silent, and rarely speak for themselves. I’m not sure why. Personally, I try to avoid using strong and unique images in my work. I want my images to be cliché, to be replaceable by a simple search, to remind you that I’m just dipping into a vast, inexhaustible resource.

In 2006, I made a video entitled Artist Looking at Camera, employing stock images with their watermark. For some artists, the watermark is about the aura of branding, but at the time, I was interested more in the tension between the amateur and the professional, of a normal Internet user simply leaving the watermark on an unlicensed image or video. Restrictive watermarks were antithetical to the Wild West, “information wants to be free” spirit of the early Internet, but they seem very normal today, as that old ethos quickly disappears. A few years back, Getty Images even redesigned their still image watermark to feel less severe and exclusive by moving the logo from the center to the side, shrinking it down and adding the photographer’s name. It all feels friendlier now. Maybe too friendly?

Guthrie Lonergan (American, b. 1984) is an artist who lives and works in Hollywood. His works will be part of the group exhibition “Ordinary Pictures,” opening in February at Walker Art Center, Minneapolis.

Hanne Mugaas is the director and curator of Kunsthall Stavanger in Norway, where she has organized exhibitions by such artists as Judith Bernstein, Nicolas Party and Torbjørn Rødland. This year, she will present projects with Sascha Braunig, Morten Norbye Halvorsen and Jessica Warboys. Mugaas was a founder, with Fabienne Stephan, of the project space Art Since the Summer of ’69 in New York.

Images: Takeshi Murata, Jogger (Yellow), 2014. Courtesy of the artist and Salon 94, New York; Ed Fornieles at ATM machine, The Hills, Los Angeles, 2 weeks ago; Takeshi Murata, Salon Kitty, 2011. Courtesy of the artist and Salon 94, New York; Katja Novitskova, Pattern of Activation, 2014. Courtesy of the artist and Kraupa Tuskany Zeidler, Berlin; Jonathan Horowitz, Beyoncé, 2015. Courtesy of the artist and Sadie Coles HQ, London; Olia Lialina, MBCBFTW, 1996. Courtesy of the artist; Darren Bader, Orange soda with/and smoked salmon. Courtesy of the artist and Andrew Kreps, New York; Martine Syms, Notes on Gesture (Still), 2015. Courtesy of the artist.