Heroism is an organizing element of my practice, providing a unique way to access the “stories we tell ourselves about ourselves” in the process of constructing our identities and narrating our pasts. Using representations of heroism from popular material artifacts I investigate the ways in which mythologized histories inform processes of identity formation, create rhetorics of difference, perpetuate systems of inequality, and mask technologies of power. In the guise of artist, historian and pop archeologist, I attempt to dig beneath their stable narratives to unsettle our perception of truth.

The hero serves as a narrative embodiment for a particular community. It is both an iconic reflection of shared values and a representation of shared experience. But heroic imagination presupposes the existence of an Other—a villainous foil. I understand this paradox of heroism to be a discursive manifestation of mythologized histories. Roland Barthes defines myth as de-politicized speech, an aspect of language that simultaneously imbues history with fantasy and masks its own effects. Subject to myth, historical reality is replaced by a past that is at once speculative and self-evident, a narrative of truth that denies or discounts other narratives.

Working primarily in print media—encompassing my works on paper, digital print-based installations, and archival interventions—my practice is an attempt at what historian Saidiya Hartman calls critical fabulation, in which voice is lent to historically voiceless subjects by embracing the unknown alongside the archival. In her formulation, artistic elaboration balances with intellectual restraint, as some archival gaps are filled with reconstructive fictions and others left void. Superheroic tales are exceptional sources for seeking out the voices of the unheard to reassemble the accounts of the unthought. Juxtaposing our most mythic visions of iconic super-humans alongside references to the lived experiences of supra-human Others enables me to suggest new fictions and futures.

Iconic surrogacy and fantasy embodiment are two key frameworks for my work. I define iconic surrogacy as the substitution of the raced, gendered and variously othered bodies of historical subjects with characters from already-commodified popular corpora. Iconic surrogacy is an attempt to alleviate the pain of real bodies by replacing them with fantasy bodies-as-icons made to be reused and recycled. Fantasy embodiment, in turn, involves creating haptic experiences that invite viewer-participants to slip into a visceral recognition of the precarity of their individual narratives, and become entangled in material negotiations of spectacle, power, pleasure, and pain.


Philip Crawford

March 2019