Published in Punctum: Reflections on Photography
Salzburg: Salzburger Kunstverein, 2009
I took this picture of the Roland Barthes boutique in Beijing in 2009. At the time, I was astounded by my discovery, which gripped me with hilarity. But I can now see that I should not have been so surprised. Over the years, I have taken many pictures that are akin in spirit. In Wuhan, China, there is an “Amega” watch store, the first “A” designed in sleight-of-hand fashion to resemble an “O.” Last year, several faux Apple stores shut down throughout China. I recall reading that several of the dismissed employees were convinced they were working in an actual Apple store! The devil is in the details, but apparently the details were well attended to for the most part. During one of my first visits to China, I recall walking by a vendor selling signature Burberry scarves. On one table were “Buberry” scarves—without the first “r.” On another table was a sample Burberry scarf of the same design that was not for sale. The vendor told me that all the Buberry scarves came from the same factory as the Burberry scarf and were in every way identical. The vendor added that he could sell me a Burberry if I wanted one but it would be a lot more expensive, and that it would not make sense to him since the Buberry was the same scarf (except, of course, for the Buberry, and not Burberry, tag). This reminded me of when I was on the famous slave disembarkation site of Gorée Island off the coast of Dakar, in Senegal. A vendor was selling paintings that he had done based on the configuration of slaves as they lay in the holds of ships. The paintings were done on thin cloth and quite meticulously rendered. The vendor wanted USD 1000 per painting. I mentioned that I thought they were scarves at first and not paintings. The vendor did not object and offered to sell me the same painting as a scarf for ten dollars. I asked him why the large discount in price, and he replied that a work of art is special and should always be worth more than a mere article of clothing. I have had other fashion-related encounters in Peru and India, each offering its own spin on the so-called developing world’s profound understanding of the fashion system (of which Barthes wrote, of course, a seminal book on fashion theory) and, by extension, the whole entangled world of signs and commodity exchange. I have no idea how it is that someone in China decided to name a clothing store after Roland Barthes. But it seems to me that someone in China (or India or elsewhere) understands in the deepest sense the nature of a punctum as not so much that which pierces the viewer but that which pierces the system.