Stephanie Syjuco dismantles the power dynamics of visual design

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Stephanie Syjuco is an artist whose work I first came across at The Site is Under Revolution, an exhibition held at the Moscow Museum of Modern Art from 6 June to 12 July this year. The artwork, “Rogue States” was one of only a couple that remained in my mind well after the show had finished. This is partly due to its bold graphic design and memorable title. But the other reason is that, like most of Syjuco’s projects, the marriage between concept and execution is excellent. My reaction to most of her oeuvre can be encapsulated in a big sigh of admiration and perpetual disappointment (“I wish I had thought of that!”).

“Rogue States” consists of a collection of 22 digitally printed flags hung in five rows from the high ceiling of a spacious room in the gallery. The colours and shapes of the flags’ graphics look familiar. Some could easily be mistaken for existing countries — flags we may have glanced over in an old atlas, or on television coverage of some international sporting event. But, as it turns out, while these flag designs do exist, they were all born of fiction — films and TV shows. The description on the artists’ website sums up the power of this work best: “an installation of fictional flags of made-up countries from Africa, the Middle East, Asia, Eastern Europe, and Central and South America, all culled from American and European movies that position these countries as terrorist, backward, resistant, or unstable. From Hollywood blockbusters to comedy television shows, these rogue states carry the projected weight and fear of the uncontrollable Other.” The artwork not only criticises Western colonial mentality, but also poses questions around the legitimacy of statehood formation. I think it sits in the sweet spot between art and design. It also demonstrates how much design acts as a political tool, and how the structure of its hegemony can be dismantled through careful analysis.

 

A couple of older works are also worth noting as examples of the themes Syjuco probes again and again. “Natural Calibration Studies (Ornament + Crime)” is a tableau of textiles and cardboard cut-outs of photographic images. The photo banquet critiques the notion of neutrality, taking caucasian-centric photo calibration charts as the conceptual vehicle, and building images of stereotypes and cultural appropriation around this centre. The back of the installation is spray-painted grey, another layer of masking. “Cargo Cults” is akin to “Rogue States” in its iconic imagery and conceptual clarity. Here, the artist poses for self-portraits in the manner of ethnographic studio photographs. She dons monochrome clothing around from cheap chain stores, such as H&M, Urban Outfitter, and Target, that advertises itself as ‘ethnic’ and ‘boho,’ often appropriating patterns from various cultures around the globe. The resulting outfits are mash-ups of constructed ‘ethnic’ vagueness. She semi-blends into a background busy hangings, disrupting the relationship between foreground and background. Syjuco has extensively explored the politics around pattern, so take a closer look at her website if you are interested in this topic.

Stephanie Syjuco was born in the Philippines and received her MFA from Stanford University. She has exhibited widely at institutions such as MoMA/P.S.1, the Whitney Museum of American Art, The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and is currently an Assistant Professor in Sculpture at the University of California at Berkeley.