There were six of us sitting round a table at a mate's house. It was nearly morning and the conversation turned into the ridiculous and sublime task of deciding "the most important image of the 20th century".
Step up Che Guevara, 30 years old, unshaven with long, tousled hair, wearing a beret (not pulled down to one side), with a star on it and a determined look in his eye, as he's captured on film, snapped by photographer Alberto Korda. I met Korda when he had some photographs in an exhibtion, Cuba, Si! 50 Years of Cuban Photography at the National Theatre in 2000. He knew the work I had done with his photo of Che and his first words to me were: "You're not as beautiful as Che."
I first used the Korda photograph of Che Guevara in 1999, when I made a wax sculpture of Che standing in the pose of Elvis Presley as depicted by Andy Warhol in The Gunslinger. The first time I made myself in this photographic way was for a billboard exhibtion I was invited to take part in, and I used that opportunity to make a kind of advert for the sculpture. It was quite a degraded, grainy image, so I could photograph myself in such a way that you wouldn't recognise that it was me and not, in fact, Che. You only need key elements of the photo - the beret, the long hair, the position of the eyes (as with classical icons, looking up and to the right), a bit of beard - to make it function as a symbol.
The Most important image of the 20th century.
The poster-ised bust gets pasted on to a red (communist) background and the cropped portrait of Che becomes the banner or flag of the idealist, socialist demonstration around the globe, most notably at the 1968 student protests in Italy and France. The image lives on, still recognisable, as it is rephotographed and rephotographed. But as the quality of the image has deteriorated, it retains if not gains intensity, revealing its homemade or underground production. The repetition of the image is exposed in its lack of detail - repetition as it can be heard and seen in the mantra and the art of Andy Warhol, who had a morbid fascination with recognising and creating iconic images.
Che Guevara, the icon, represents something of value for so many different people: revolution, emancipation, heroics, nostalgia, exoticism, romance, protest, youth power, alternative culture, design, identity, pop art, fashion, marketing. For this reason, I think Che has to be the most important image of the 20th century.
Ernesto « Che » Guevara Lynch, born on June 14, 1928, was assassinated at La Higuera, in Bolivia on October 9, 1967. His band of two dozen warriors captured by the Bolivian army, having failed to launch a continent-wide revolution.
* Gavin Turk, Aricle published in The Guardian on June 3, 2006.