Josh Thorpe – Heavy Ambivalent Flag

In 2010 Canadian artist Josh Thorpe created a flag that contradicted itself — white on one side, black on the other — and flew it from a pole at the entrance to the Justina M. Barnicke Gallery on the University of Toronto campus, which had commissioned the work.

Heavy Ambivalent Flag flying at the University of Toronto in 2010.
Heavy Ambivalent Flag flying at the University of Toronto in 2010.  Photo by Toni Hafkensheid.

About this work, the artist writes:

With its straight-ahead reference to surrender on the one hand and anarchy or piracy on the other, the signal is not passive aggressive, but rather passive and aggressive entwined.

The flag’s “ambivalence” (in the sense of two forces or two arguments in a state of apposition or convolution) comes from the apparent struggle between the binary black and white.

Since the flag is flying on a university campus next to a soccer field, the work is something of a joke on argumentation on the claim to knowledge or the claim to territory.

As a flag doing more or less what flags do, however, it also indicates the multivalent forces at work in the atmosphere, an order of play unintelligible to the model of binary opposition.

In order to achieve the effect of black and white, the flagmaker used two pieces of nylon with a liner between, making the flag’s movement heavy and slow. This adds an unexpected oafish quality to the final work.

A month or so after install, the flag was stolen.

Thorpe’s fellow artist David Court provides an insightful reading of the work as a piece of self-referential art — as a flag that stands for itself, and for art itself, if art is understood as a domain of both intrinsic conflict and of asylum, apart from the world.

Court says, At its most basic, Thorpe’s flag simply does what any flag does: it sets up a predetermined figure/ground relationship.  I’m not sure I agree (or understand).  I do have a hard time with that “simply”though: whatever flags do, this artwork I think shows nicely that this is never “simple”, never unequivocal, always subject to interpretation.  

One of the great things about Heavy Ambivalent Flag (as do other strong examples of flag art) is that it opens a space to ask: just what does a flag do, at its most basic level? And Thorpe answers exactly this question very nicely in his commentary above: a flag flies in the wind, indicat[ing] the multivalent forces at work in the atmosphere. Atmosphere is quite literal when it comes to flags, of course, but it is also metaphorical: a flag’s atmosphere includes the cultures, the histories, the intentions, the interpretations that animate it, that give it life.

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