Research - Semiotics, Part 1 / by Ally McGinn

On semiotics

The first real, intense, interest I have had since starting the MA (and here I distinguish a desire to research to improve my practice from an interest in a subject) has been semiotics.

It comes as a result of a discussion board created by our tutor after a lecture by Robin Marriner on the nature of visual communication and the important relationship with semiotics and context.

The discussion board was placed for us to articulate semiotics in relation to our own practices.

I've had an interest in semiotics since researching for my dissertation - which focussed on the important elements in understanding art, which contains an element of semiotics.

While semiotics is rooted in language when we use it in art it becomes something more. By nature it deals with both the entomology and ontology of a subject.

The sign is made up of two distinct elements, the signifier and signified, which relate to the nature of something and the meaning we attribute to it.

For example: the word apple, and the meaning we take from it (it's fruitness, religion, the computer company, apple pie, New York)

The look of an apple, the sound of its crunch, its feel and it's taste, which might be used more in art, are signifiers, they are the things that tell us it's an apple. So can we explain it as - Signifier (physical reality) and, signified (the language we use around it).

Semiotics is used constantly in our world. Arguably it is what language is. Saussure described language as part of semiotics, while Barthes positioned the opposite.

Given my current knowledge, I am unable to disagree with Saussure. Language is the form semiotics take. This can be shown in the fact that we could take any part of human activity and our explorations and explanations of it would be a form of semiotics.

The only form of activity that has no relation to semiotics would arguably be found in philosophy or metaphysics, a concept without a signifier.  Anything that has a subject is experienced semiotically.

This feels like the perfect moment to stop for now and read more about Barthes argument that semiotics is a part of language.

The next post will explore semiotics a little further but will remain short, following that I will explore some of the signs in my practice.


Semiotics in my practice

In relation to my own practice semiotics is extremely important. One of the concerns i often focus on is - the understanding and interpretation of what art is - which requires a certain reading of art in the first instance.

In order to subvert or distort an idea, we must first understand the idea. Given that art is primarily a visual subject, and a very subjective one, many of the qualifiers are a form of sign - eg: an object's location in an art gallery, it's medium, function and presentation.

Understanding the implications of these signs has been something I have been interested in to form the foundation for experiments in studio practice.

In particular, Derrida’s theories about the frame (‘The Parergon’) and the implications when we understand the internal/external web that surrounds any artwork.

Semiotics is apparent in multiple places in my studio, from the subverted signs that inform something as art, to the overt signs on canvas placed on a worktop to collect the process of making (which often include words, arrows, numbers and diagrams) these signs and their signifiers are an important element of my practice.

I find semiotics to be a fascinating subject with a fractal nature, the more you look the more you will see.

I particularly enjoy the moment when we first perceive a sign, when we realise something we took as tacit is actually implicit or visa versa.


Barthes, Roland (1973) Mythologies. UK: Hill and Wang.

Barthes, Roland ([1964] 1967). Elements of Semiology (trans. Annette Lavers & Colin Smith). London: Jonathan Cape.

Chandler, Daniel (2004) Semiotics: The Basics. London: Routledge.

Marriner, R. (2002) ‘Derrida and the Parergon’. In: Smith, P and Wilde, C. eds. A companion to art theory. Blackwell: 349-359.

Marriner, R. (2015) Making and the Contemporary. Bath Spa University. October-December 2015.

Marriner, R (2017) Meanings in Visual Culture. Research Methodologies module. Bath Spa University. 17th October 2017.

Saussure, Ferdinand de ([1916] 1983): Course in General Linguistics (trans. Roy Harris). London: Duckworth.