signifiers

God and Butter

I’d hate to ruin something as splendidly thoughtless as butter for anyone reading this post, but Land O Lake’s label–a long-standing household image–is loaded with just as much meaning as cholesterol.

Land-O-Lakes

Beneath the Land O Lakes text, a smiling Native American woman holds another Land O Lakes box of butter in her hands. Behind her, the “O” in “Land O Lakes” surrounds her head from the exact center of the picture’s rectangular borders—creating a halo around her head.

These elements in particular ring of Sean Hall’s book, This Means This, This Means That, wherein he explains the relationship between signifiers and what is signified. The signified, in this case, is the “O” in Land O Lakes”, signifying a vague sort of divinity. From here, the divinity trickles from the halo, to the Native American woman (the bearer of the halo), to the product she is offering.

Just as important to the significations is the woman’s—and, furthermore, the box’s—placement(s) in this label. Notice that not only is she front and center with the box, all the objects surrounding her in the margin—the hills, the horizon—intensify her centricity; the hills to both of her sides are symmetrically-placed while the horizon makes a line straight through the middle region of her body. This element of placement adds yet another layer of religiosity to Land O Lakes’ product, drawing on Christian art works like Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” or murals inside of old churches.

So what is the purpose of placing a Native American woman in a Christian context when trying to sell your product? For starters, America is a primarily Christian nation, so using religious aesthetics to tap into our senses of purity and wholesomeness can’t hurt. I’m a lot more interested in the fact that this woman is Native American, though. Perhaps the creators of this label were tapping into another context—our nation’s considerably ugly formation over the Native Americans—and purifying it through Christianity. The woman in the label is sitting before a yellow, butter-like American sky and happily offering us Land O Lakes butter with a Christ-like halo.

We’ve seen similar works like this in more recent years for different, yet similar purposes:

One Nation Under God

In the controversial painting by Jon McNaughton, “One Nation Under God”, we see the same placement of divinity—this time Jesus—at the center of the work with the same central placement and same idealization (a glowing aura around his head). And, just like the Land O Lakes woman, he is offering us something: the Constitution. In both paintings, the artists are offering us forgiveness by fusing the divine with America, ultimately offering us forgiveness through what they are selling: dairy products and political agendas.

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Maps of the Imagination

I began my project, Maps of the Imagination, wanting something more than a traditional map.  I believed that if I asked others to draw a map of an intangible place, of somewhere they had to imagine completely, the results would be fascinating and a challenge to interpret.

I summarized my trouble with asking others in the introduction of my atlas:

To illustrate how maps are more abstract and more personal than popular belief, I asked twelve people to create a map of his or her imagination.  The task was not easy; the participants, including myself, all struggled with how to portray something in a tangible form that doesn’t literally exist (at least in the way that each of us could see it, with our eyes).  I did not give any instructions about how to create the map outside of using a sheet of paper.  Mo matter how confused the participant looked or how many questions they asked, I would not clarify the information any further.  In this way, their responses would not be influenced by my own conception of an imagination.  

Many people asked me for clarification and I simply refused it to them.  Each map turned out different and wonderful in its own way.  However, the maps all followed similar trajectories, falling into one of four categories:

  1. Maps that looked like maps, either by identifying specific locations or by incorporating roads,
  2. Maps that depicted a single image and needed to be interpreted with semiotics,
  3. Collage maps of words or images, the latter also needing to be interpreted with semiotics, and
  4. Maps that tried to reach for something larger, expressing the abstraction of the imagination.

Once I identified these categories, I could fit the individual maps into each one and analyze them based on readings from Turchi, Wood and Hall.  Finding the quotes themselves was initially challenging, but nothing that couldn’t be fixed by rereading and searching for specific keywords.

After this, the only struggle I encountered was formatting the words and images next to each other in Word before changing the whole atlas into a pdf.  Like most things outside of text in Word, there was only one way to put an image on a page by itself: multiple page breaks and columns.  I can proudly say that I will be better at this the next time around, however.  I have Word figured out and can reproduce the work much faster.

All in all, I like how the Atlas turned out.  The maps given to me by others were more than I could hope for, and each one helped to solidify the points that the authors were trying to say about maps.  In the future, I’m going to look at maps with a much more critical eye.

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