When Is A Chair, A Chair?

When Is A Chair, A Chair?

A chair invites you to sit. Or maybe it tells you to stand on top of it? Maybe a chair signifies work or food or power? A chair, an everyday object, provides a simple meaning to what the sound “chair” and the written word represents: an object of utility… to sit on, but the list of connotative meanings extended from this sitting device are perhaps endless.

For example, these two chairs have very different meanings even though they are both ultimately to sit on.




This is semiotics. Semiotics is the study of how we process signs. Different from linguistics, semiotics looks at non-linguistic signs such as images and photographs and looks at how we as humans derive meaning and significance.

Looking on a more subtle but equally powerful level, these two images of chairs have disparate meanings extending above their obvious logic.


The Phyllis, Huski Studios [link]    //    MR20 Armchair, Mies van der Rohe, 1927

Though both chairs are similar in the ascribed use, our personal history and how we relate to each of these objects, whether through the material, the colour, the way the photo is shot, changes the meaning and our response entirely.

Roland Barthes, the famed 60’s semiologist, describes in ‘Rhetoric of Image’ (1977), that the linguistic message is twofold and can be described as denotational and connotational.

Denotation is the first level of meaning. This is derived from a basic sense of logic. It’s how we can decipher between a chair and a toilet… should we need to

Connotation will be the symbolic or cultural message – it’s the second level of meaning. Released in 1961, Roland Barthes describes connotation in ‘The Photographic Message’ as “endowed with certain meanings by virtue of the practice of a certain society”.

But can an image escape these dual meanings? Can an image be entirely denotative? Even an image depicted in a scientific journal where the data needs to appear objective still holds the authoritative truth of an academic text, abstracted from its sole intention to direct and teach.


Diagram of The Human Anatomy (via astoundsurround.com)


Similarly, can an image only have connotative meanings and avoid denotative “first level” meaning? The work of Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray certainly try to challenge this by blurring the denotative meaning of one common object with the denotative meaning of another.



Cadeau, Man Ray, 1921

Bicycle Wheel, Marcel Duchamp, 1913

Le Manche Dans La Manche, Man Ray, 1921 


As we logically respond to the objects, we recognise the elements of two radically different objects which results in us feeling uneasy and at odds with the world around us, ultimately making us question our reality as a consequence. Attempting to escaping the rules of logic (or at least confuse them), these dadaist objects make the functional, non-functional, and the everyday-ness of them somewhat disturbing.

Below, Sally Hewett uses the denotative meaning of the chair (an object to sit on) and intersects it with the connotative meaning of something else.


Nursing Chair, Sally Hewett, 2018

Merging the denotative implication of the chair’s use with our emotional response to the visible blue veins makes us feel uncomfortably intimate with the object as we respond to the command of the chair to be sat on and used.

Additionally, the antique styling of the chair echos a connotative meaning of ‘old’ which ties in with the resemblance and denotative meaning of the elderly human woman upholstered on to the object.

The purpose of much of this postmodern art (if it has any at all) is this: To take our assumptions of reality and what we hold as truth and question them. Much like the semiotic writings of Barthes or the ‘deconstruction’ philosophy of Derrida, much of this work is also about the titles the artist give to their works.

Whether it’s Man Ray’s ‘Cadeau’ (‘Gift’), or Duchamp’s ‘In Advance of the Broken’, they take our conventional use of identification and throttle them. In an early example, Rene Magritte’s ‘The Treachery of Images’ (1928-29) Magritte uses text to tell us bluntly, “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (this is not a pipe). Which of course it isn’t. It’s a painting of a pipe. So it’s a painting of a sign that we interpret as a pipe.


The Treachery of Images, Rene Magritte, 1928-29

This theme is echoed throughout the rest of the century and finds lots of leg-room in conceptualism as if the point has not yet been made. Beneath is ‘An Oak Tree’ by Michael Craig-Martin (1973).


An Oak Tree, Michael Craig-Martin, 1973


You wouldn’t be mistaken if you said that this piece is a glass of water on a very ordinary bathroom glass shelf. In the 1973 exhibition, this piece was the only object in the room and placed nine feet high on the wall. Visitors were given an anonymously written questionnaire which read:


Q: Haven’t you simply called this glass of water an oak tree?

A: Absolutely not. It is not a glass of water anymore. I have changed its actual substance. It would no longer be accurate to call it a glass of water. One could call it anything one wished but that would not alter the fact that it is an oak tree


This piece highlights the postmodern tendency to point out the arbitrariness of naming and the function of the gallery space itself. Of course, that’s about it. As in the end, the consensus will be that it is a glass of liquid theatrically positioned on a shelf, doomed to only to be told otherwise when art historians refer to it… whether that’s for better or worse.



Feature Image: One and Three Chairs, Joseph Kosuth, 1965