Materials, Symbols and Visual Codes: Meaning for an Audience

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About this sample


Words: 1880 |

Pages: 4|

10 min read

Published: Aug 30, 2022

Words: 1880|Pages: 4|10 min read

Published: Aug 30, 2022

Through the artmaking of various artists, materials, symbols and visual codes are used to communicate meaning for an audience. They are able to represent meaning through conceptual, theoretical and materialistic ways, where their choices of material, symbols and visual codes, help the audience to draw connections to their own lives, feel empathy and become aware of issues that are raised. The visual codes that encode meaning, involve the way that stylistic features are used to strengthen and elaborate meaning. This is evident in the Dada artist, Marcel Duchamp and apparent in the contemporary artists, Joan Ross and Tony Albert’s colonialism and political artworks. Ultimately, these techniques and choices used in their artmaking, encode meaning for an audience, enhancing their interaction with the artist and their intended meaning.

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Through the avant-garde material processes of Marcel Duchamp’s artmaking in the early 20th century, symbols and visual codes are seen through the gathering and encoding meaning into found objects that he repurposed into artworks. These became known as readymade objects, to what Duchamp referred to as “anti-retinal”, which means challenging the motion of artistic skill or aesthetics. The concepts of the readymade can be seen through the incorporation of a mundane object that is transformed through the artist’s distinct and non-traditional practice of reconceptualization of an object or objects. French artist, Marcel Duchamp’s involvement with the Dada movement aimed to remove traditional practices and values in art and to create new ideas and expectations in art to replace the past, where he embodied the avant-garde rejection of conventional culture, exposing the main concerns he had with his world. This can be patently seen through Duchamp’s materialistic, readymade sculpture, “Fountain”, a porcelain urinal, signed “R.Mutt”. This marked a revolutionary moment in art history as Duchamp challenged traditional practices through the humour, wordplay and wit that he evoked, through the use of visual codes. The minimal choice of object exposes his use of dematerialisation, further challenging traditional practices and representing the anarchistic style of his practice, re-directing the Western Art expectations. Duchamp uses a readymade object as a symbol of the subversion of traditional practices that he uses in his practice, allowing his artwork to become monumental in the Dada movement. The object of a urinal is perceived as an unusual symbol, emphasising his message that any object can be transformed and regarded as an artwork, as well as bringing irony and humour into the artwork. This challenged audiences as it invited them to a range of responses and perspectives of the intention of the artwork, within his encoded meaning about the significance of conceptual and non-traditional aspects of an artist’s choice of materials. Moreover, his visual code in the mysterious signature of “R.Mutt” represents his wit and wordplay of his concept. Across many decades, critics have interacted with Duchamp’s work, with countless perspectives and judgements. His attempt to challenge conventional art practice through the concept of the readymade has been commented on by the critic Wood who states, “He chose it. He created a meaning for the object”, representing the principles of Duchamp’s readymade movement and the uprising of the Dada artists during their time. Ultimately, he uses the object of a dull and repugnant urinal as a symbol of artistic revolution during his conservative context, breaking boundaries of conventional art practice. Duchamp’s practice and interaction in the artworld as he used recontextualization and appropriation in his artmaking, impacted the traditional practices and expectations of art, as well as influenced the future of art practice, including the artmaking of contemporary and modern artists, who were inspired to use similar ideas to encode meaning in their artworks.

Through the artmaking of an Australian contemporary artist, materials, symbols and visual codes are used, allowing them to reference issues of colonialism and diverse political views. Joan Ross’ digital animation, “The Claiming of Things”, illustrates her view and interpretation of colonialism and ownership through her appropriation of an original painting by John Glover. It was executed in the early days of the Tasmanian colonies. The appropriation of this painting in her backdrop acts as a focal point for her ironic and subversive interventions, establishing the landscape of the scene. The role of her artwork is to reveal the damaging effects of colonisation on Australia as well as represent the fear that was felt by the Aboriginal’s due to high impact of the introduced species, use of resources and other issues created by the colonisers. She does this through her intrinsic visual codes and material choices in her digital art. Ross is able to communicate this concept through her choice of the new media of digital animation, and material choice, immediately displaying the introduction of digital technology that colonisation eventually brought to Australia. Yinke Shonibare is another contemporary artist who explores similar issues of post-colonialism through his sculptural installations. He uses his Nigerian background to depict the issues caused by colonisers, as seen in his installation, ‘The Scramble for Africa’ where he reforms the Berlin-Congo conference that concerned the European colonial accusations on African communities. Through this depiction, he raises similar issues to Joan Ross, as well as linking to Julie Gough, who is from Tasmania and Ireland/Scotland, as they both experience dual-identities who were marginalised. The notions of vandalism and graffiti in Ross’ animation are shown in the two authoritative yet folly filled figures from Gainsborough, demonstrating their claiming of the land and the original owners’ loss of ownership. The figures from Gainsborough can be linked back to his English portrait, “the morning walk” where the wealthy couple, Mr and Mrs William Hallett are seen walking their loyal dog. This idea is typical for Gainsborough, and Ross has used this in her appropriation, exaggerating the irony of class and status. Ross uses the symbol of a graffiti can to directly represent the damage and vandalism that the figures used in the animation, as well as represent the impact of the tangible damage that the colonisers had on Australia and the original land. Ross’ use of pop-cultural, post-modern symbols and visual codes in her animated images throughout the animation, demonstrates the effect of colonisation and commercialism on the original landscape, displaying the slow degeneration of nature due to human impact. Through her encoded iconography, using pop-culture symbols and images, conceptual meaning is exhibited, allowing the audience to share their experiences and recognise the identifiable and familiar images. For example, the image of a cake and pink poodle are extremely recognisable for modern audiences and relate to the introduced elements that the colonisers forced onto Australia that have created a desire for luxury in all Australians. Additionally, the highlighted, prominent fluorescent fence’s placement epitomises the entrapment and fear of the Aboriginals in contrast to their behaviour before settlement. Ross is able to convey this meaning through the symbol of an enclosure, linking to the collective representation of entrapment in the icon of a fence. Similarly, her use of fluorescent, vivid colours, specifically high-vis yellow, symbolise the issue of colonisation, uniquely addressing the impact of our disposable culture and belief that construction is the answer to all of our financial and social issues. The high-vis yellow that is used as a stylistic feature, amplifies the meaning of the reference of colonialism, acting as a visual code in the artwork. Also, it highlights the foreign and alien aspects that were brought by the colonisers. This technique and symbol is also seen in several of her other works acting as a motif, including her installation called “Wrapped up like a douche” and digital animation, “Colonial Grab”, where she frequently uses this visual code to represent the mass-colonialisation and the impact it has had on the original land and owners. Ross’ artmaking significantly displays how materials, symbols and visual codes can encode meaning for the audience, to understand the issues that she communicates.

Additionally, diverse political views are communicated through Australian contemporary artist, Tony Albert’s special commissioned work, “Sorry”. His installation linked to the 2008 apology by PM Kevin Rudd that was significant for Aboriginal Australians as it acknowledged the mistreatment of their society. His political views are challenged as he deliberately uses distinctive techniques and uses specific symbols to provoke the audience to become aware of these issues. In his composition, “Sorry”, he includes kitsch caricatures, which are mass produced popular objects often of poor taste, and easily recognisable found objects from Australia’s recent past, around the 1950-70s. This enabled him to recontextualise these objects and symbols to fit with his views on the 2008 apology and the tragedy of the mistreatment of Aboriginal Australians. These symbolic objects consist of portraits of Aboriginal individuals on ash trays, plates and boomerangs, and other kitsch found objects personifying the link of these objects to the lives of Aboriginal people. Through his ability to revoice these objects, the audience can become sympathetic of the mistreatment they experienced, where the installation generates empathetic reactions during political upheaval. This links to Pablo Picasso’s artworks, “Massacre in Korea” and “Guernica” where empathy from the audience is caused through the depiction of issues of suffering in war and agony, stimulating similar responses. Albert’s beige and muddy colour palette, with metallic browns, dusty oranges and pure white, allow him to represent the simple lives that the Aboriginal’s lived before colonisation, as well as linking to their reliance on the environment through the earthy colours. Albert’s use of stylistic techniques in his use of colour, and his choice to not include colours that represent colonialism such as high-vis yellow, bright pinks, blues and purples, represent his ability to reference the high impact that society has had on Aboriginals, including the mistreatment of their communities. Similarly, Duchamp’s appropriation of the “Mona Lisa”, using a kitsch object, the mass-produced postcard with the infamous Mona Lisa displayed, into his repurposed artwork called “L.H.O.O.Q”. This work uses similar techniques and visual codes of appropriation and repurposed objects, raising questions about the significance and purpose of art. This relates to Albert’s repurposing of objects in his artwork, “Sorry”, showing links to his successful use of installation similar to the indigenous man, Jonathan Jones who uses large scale, site-specific installations to display similar ideas of colonisation and their collective culture. Moreover, Albert’s ability to repurpose these objects, that he labelled “Aboriginalia”, such as plates, ash trays, boomerangs, toys and wood, help him to challenge his audience through the encoded meaning of each specific object, examining and interrogating the representation and treatment of Aboriginal Australians. Albert uses his own contextual background and involvement with this issue to exhibit and represent these marginalised communities, using unique political views in his art in a similar way to the artist, Abdul Abdullah, who used his experience of issues with his identity to communicate meaning to the audience. Therefore, through the materials, symbols and visual codes that are used in Albert’s artmaking, encoded meaning on and political issues are communicated to the audience.

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In conclusion, through the artmaking of distinctive artists, materials, symbols and visual codes are used to encode meaning to the audience in order to challenge, raise awareness or illustrate personal views. This is apparent through the contemporary artists, Joan Ross and Tony Albert’s, and in the Dada artist, Marcel Duchamp, where their choices of techniques and materials, conceptual meaning and identifiable symbols, encode meaning for the audience to be challenged by and interact with. 

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This essay was reviewed by
Dr. Oliver Johnson

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Materials, Symbols and Visual Codes: Meaning for an Audience. (2022, August 30). GradesFixer. Retrieved April 24, 2024, from
“Materials, Symbols and Visual Codes: Meaning for an Audience.” GradesFixer, 30 Aug. 2022,
Materials, Symbols and Visual Codes: Meaning for an Audience. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 24 Apr. 2024].
Materials, Symbols and Visual Codes: Meaning for an Audience [Internet]. GradesFixer. 2022 Aug 30 [cited 2024 Apr 24]. Available from:
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