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  • Writer's pictureOlivier Blanc

"The desert of images" By Jango Cai (Visual Culture, article)

Updated: Apr 30

In our series on Visual Culture, our latest guest writer is Jango Cai.

Jango is a research-led Designer, Design Director, and co-founder of the publishing studio Inky Pixel. A graduate of UAL, he is a member of the creative writing collective Bad Influence. Jango likes to challenge the assumptions of what design can do and explore the unseen relations between design and its users.

The desert of images

By Jango Cai

On 5th Oct. 2018, the famous anonymous street artist lurked outside Sotheby’s London waiting for his painting “Girl with Balloon” to be auctioned. As soon as the bid was closed, he remotely controlled the shredding device that was previously built into the frame to start working and shredded his stencil print worth £1,042,000 in front of the posh upper-class crowds. Why did he do that? Was this performance meant to make a scene? And what was this shenanigans for?

Poster for exhibition, the world of Banksy, girl with the red balloon

A detour to understanding visual culture may explain.

Visual culture is represented through what we perceive, whether directly (actual objects/clothes/buildings/landscape) or indirectly (image/photograph/painting/simulation). It is formed by the collection of visuals and their meanings which are learnt by experience or existing knowledge. It is still an essential aspect of culture, as opposed to something equivalent to culture.

The viewer living in a world of visual culture always connects the view with many other things. We do not just look for the sake of looking, instead, we contextualize meanings and logic. To look is to situate ourselves within a cultural/historical environment. For example, when looking at a leather jacket with rivets embedded, prior to putting it into words, one first

thinks of imagery of “punk rock”, “D.I.Y. culture”, and maybe “anti-establishment”; A psychedelic font design conjures up a feeling of the 60s Bohemian lifestyle (some may put it in the phrase — “the marijuana smell”); A black and white stencil mural is often seen as political, made by those who are at risk of conveying an alternative idea to the public.

Simultaneously, art and design express, consume and contribute to the culture. They are inseparable.

Now let’s review the story at the beginning. Girl with Balloon along with all the other Banksy works are usually found on the street as they attempt to represent the voice of the common people. Being auctioned in Sotheby’s at millions of pounds is in fact separating its cultural meanings from the painting itself. Once privatized, it degenerates into a lifeless symbol. And as time goes by we will only remember its symbolic value instead of the culture it once represented.

"In John Berger’s Ways of Seeing, he points out that a viewer viewing a landscape painting is actually looking at what the painting is simulating rather than the painting itself. "

This separation in today’s networked world is omnipresent. In John Berger’s Ways of Seeing, he points out that a viewer viewing a landscape painting is actually looking at what the painting is simulating rather than the painting itself. If we put it in Baudrillard’s terms, the viewer is looking at the “simulacra” of a landscape. (1994). However, an oil painting on canvas is a visual representation of culture that belongs to the pre-modern era. The 19th-century Industrial Revolution made it possible for culture to be reproduced massively through photography and printing. In today’s postmodern world, the massive duplication and fast transmission capabilities of online images and videos have speeded up the separation process making it a burden to trace back the cultural context of the visuals. Culture starts to reproduce itself through images, and represents the representation of other cultures. However, the fast-spreading of images ironically reminds us that our body is still slow. (Kruk, V. & van der Velden, D., 2018) In such a hyperreal world, meanings are, therefore, rephrased, reinterpreted, fractionated, lost and alienated.

Following up Banksy’s little “shenanigans” is that the piece was renamed and its value was increased by almost 17 million pounds. As the video of the painting being shredded went viral, Sotheby’s later claimed that it was the first-ever art created during a bidding. The action of protesting thus becomes another symbol. Without understanding the culture of what we see, we enter the desert of images, in which we recognise everything but understand none.


  1. Baudrillard, J., 1994. Simulacra and simulation. University of Michigan Press.

  2. Berger, J., & Dibb, M. (2003). Ways of seeing. na.

  3. Metahaven. (2018). Digital Tartovsky. Strelka Press.

NB: Simulacra is the representation of a representation but without its original function or content.

Photograph credit: Marcus Ganahl


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