In a time when appropriation has become seamlessly integrated into contemporary art practice, it’s not easy to provide a precise definition for such an increasingly amorphous concept. Jan Verwoert offers a robust description, calling appropriation “an intense sense of an interruption of temporal continuity, a black out of historical time that mortifies culture and turns its tropes into inanimate figures, into a objectified, commodified visual material, ready to pick up and use” [emphasis mine]. This last segment of Verwoert’s phrasing is intriguingly applicable to Victoria Fu’s current exhibition Belle Captive at Emerson Dorsch, in Miami, in which her two videos rely on the appropriation of stock footage.
In the gallery’s main exhibition space, at one end of the open room, Belle Captive I (2013) is projected at a large scale onto and spilling beyond a temporary wall erected in the gallery. The other iteration, Belle Captive II (2013), appears at a much smaller scale on the gallery’s adjacent wall alongside sculptural cutouts of three blank portrait silhouettes—akin to Facebook placeholder images for those lacking profile pictures. Each video is about six minutes in length and continuously looped, and the videos follow a similar archetype consisting of montages of stock footage in the foreground and abstracted 16mm footage of sunsets in the background. Even though the clips are obscure, they certainly read as familiar: images of a young girl waving, a dog lapping up water, a lusciously red tomato, and men and women in suits holding blank signs could easily be inserted into any of the ubiquitous advertisements that pervade our daily existence. Fu’s usage of stock footage here removes these banal images from the commercial environments for which they were intended, similar to the actions of artists using appropriation strategies in the 1970s.
Appropriation in recent decades has consisted largely of artists using images without permission, an action that has influenced discussions of authorship and originality in contemporary art discourse. In Fu’s case, however, she uses images and video that were designed explicitly for reuse in specific applications. Even more, Verwoert’s characterization of appropriation—“commodified visual material, ready to pick up and use”— succinctly describes stock footage. In her attempt to appropriate images that already seem to be appropriated, Fu calls into question the appropriation’s supposed requirement of taking images without permission and thrusting them into unexpected contexts.
However, Fu’s insertion of stock footage into her work does indeed create a new context in which to view such clips. Were these stock images to be used in an intended commercial context, such as a television commercial, the stock footage would take on new meaning in relation to the products or concepts featured in the advertisement. Fu’s use of stock footage, however, attempts to strip away any capacity they would have had to take on specific meaning. Presented within a montage, several clips appear abstracted and blurry beyond recognition, and at several times the clips overlap, mostly obscuring one another. This layering of imagery is echoed by the projection of the video onto the temporary wall—the projection spills several feet onto the back wall, sometimes making it harder to comprehend images. By weaving a labyrinthine web of imagery, Fu negates the potential for narrative capabilities, while solidifying stock imagery as immaterial and lacking meaning without context—akin to the “inanimate figures” Verwoert discusses.
In both of her videos on view, her explorations of imagery and their associated meanings are quite clear. In using stock footage, she chooses imagery that relies on being inserted correctly into a specific context in order to carry a specific meaning. Though she uses images that are designed to be appropriated, she does insert them into a context for aesthetic and ontological exploration—video works that explore how such images exist outside of their intended, usually commercial environments. In this way, she reverses these images’ appropriated qualities—their “objectified, commodified visual” nature—by making them part of a disjointed, heavily obscured montage, a complex web of meaning that forgoes traditional linear narrative. In doing so, her works scrutinize the exploitation of images and the underlying structures of appropriation in this solidly thought-provoking show.
Belle Captive is on view at Emerson Dorsch through October 12, 2013.
 Verwoert, Jan. “Apropos Appropriation: Why Stealing Images Today Feels Different.” Art and Research 1, no. 2, Summer 2007.