I was disappointed by the Joseph Beuys room at the Tate Modern. I feel the work needs a dead-end of a room, not as a reflection on the work, but because the room then becomes a well of attraction, it promotes lingering. This long, thin corridor of a room funnels the audience through from the previous room to the next, the room is the route, and the set of vitrines along the long wall only emphasises this.
Juxtaposing unlikely artworks or exhibitions is one way to tease out meanings. I call it the hermeneutics of the unjustified comparison, the depth analysis of opposites, the free flight or free fall of critical discourse. Although a word in different context may mean something else, by pretending it has the same meaning wherever it turns up offers the possibility of turning contexts upside down, inside out. Puns and other double meanings can be used that way too, particularly I am told in Hebrew and Arabic where consonant “roots” can be filled in with different vowels.
The quote above was from an article on the ArtsJournal site reviewing the Douglas Gordon/Dada exhibitions at MOMA NY and seemed appropriate to my main topic. On Saturday I was at the Tate Modern for the “Museums and Art History” Study Day. This was an excellent set of talks spurred by the recent rehang of the Tate’s collection and developing out into wider concerns with the rôle of museum displays in the reception and canonization of art.
Some very interesting points were raised about the practical considerations with which curators have to deal. For example, the hang can only ever be a subset of the available collection, which is likely to be uneven in it’s coverage of the styles, periods or groups that the curator would like to present.
In addition to that organic unevenness, prejudices in the history of acquisitions will skew the work available. The Guerrilla Girls highlighted gender and racial bias – the disproportionate number of male, white artists represented in the collections, which a hang inevitably mirrors regardless of the best intentions of the curators. Frances Morris (Curator and Head of Displays at Tate Modern) quoted figures that said that women artists represented 11% of the Tate’s collection, and 16% of the works displayed in the recent rehang.
In addition to the limited palette of available works, the presentation of those works was a concern of the speakers. Nigel Warburton (Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at the Open University) spoke of the ways in which the mind creates narratives through juxtapositions of objects which may completely fortuitous and possibly counter to the curator’s vision. An example given was of the serendipitous relation set up between the grey of Gerhard Richter’s ‘Grey’ and the adjacent view of Joseph Beuy’s ‘Felt Suit’ high on the wall of the next room.
It has been stated many times that the curators were deliberately departing from a chronological display to create collections of works connected by themes or currents, however the kind of leaching of works from one room to another perhaps prizes the narrative from the curator’s controlling vision and into another kind of territory of imaginative links and interpretations controlled by the audience. The Richter/Beuys link was posited as an semi-random occurrence, but I guess any curator would have the bigger picture in mind when organizing their room. They would not just be considering their four walls, but also the visitors mental and physical progression from one room to another, their memory and interpretation coming into play as the mental landscape that the new room will key into. I think Nigel described the audience’s renegotiation of the presentation as the ‘critical active agency of the public.’
Some random notes from the talks taken out of context:-
- The alchemy of the museum, adding aura where the artist didn’t intend it. (FM)
- Carl André ‘Venus Forge’, originally installed in conjunction with Judd’s ‘Untitled.’ The invitation to walk on the metal plates extended by the André bled out to the Judd and became an assumed invitation to touch the box, damaging the red coating on the interior surface. An effective example of the artist’s intentions adjusting the audience’s behaviour. (NW)
- With regards to contemporary artists, it’s not the museums place to be canonical about them. (FM)
- The spectacle of the rooms balanced with the need to present a coherent view. (FM)
- In relation to blockbuster shows, how do you deal with their large audiences who could be deleterious to the reception of the work – at a very basic level of blocking any views of those works? (SE)
- Typologies of room display: enfilade (sequential architecture, unfolding narrative), white cube. The Tate Modern less able to direct the public’s route than the Tate Britain due to it’s architecture. (FM)
- The art-market based on class, but artists not so much – they seem better able to move through class barriers. (GG)
- What makes you angry? – aestheticise it! (GG)
(SE) = Steve Edwards
(NW) = Nigel Warburton
(FM) = Frances Morris
(GG) = Kathe Kollwitz and Frida Kahlo, the Guerrilla Girls
Can anyone really be certain about anything?
I admire those who are certain about their choices, who say: “This is what I want to do, I have found an end-point and everything I do is working towards this.” If I was to say this, I would be a victim of a gross misapprehension of my own thoughts and I can’t help but think this applies to other people as well. But how arrogant is that – how would I know, how would they know without a level of introspection that in the process would stall any further certainty.
But, at least for myself, certainty is a state of not considering all the options. This obviously leads to a condition of continual indecision and as a result I am only able to judge a course of action by what it is not. If I don’t want to do it, I will pursue another option, and so, eventually, by a very uneconomical route, I will reach a conclusion.
Another option is that sometimes you just have to do something. And at that point every option becomes homogenized, “a reduction of difference to absolute indifference, equivalence, interchangeability (what Jean Baudrillard calls ‘implosion’).”1
1. Craig Owens, “The Discourse of Others: Feminists and Postmodernism,” in Hal Foster, ed., The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays in Postmodern Culture (New York: The New Press, 1998), p. 66.
Déjeuner sur l’Herbe and Olympia were perhaps the first “museum” paintings, the first paintings in European art that were less a response to the achievements of Giorgione, Raphael, and Velázquez than an acknowledgement (supported by this singular and obvious connection, using this legible reference to cloak its operation) of the new and substantial relationship of painting to itself, as a manifestation of the existence of museums and the particular reality and interdependence that paintings acquire in museums. In the same period, The Temptation was the first literary work to comprehend the greenish institutions where books are accumulated and where the slow and incontrovertible vegetation of learning quietly proliferates. Flaubert is to the library what Manet is to the museum. They both produced works in a self-conscious relationship to earlier painting or writing that remains indefinitely open. They erect their art within the archive. They were not meant to foster the lamentations—the lost youth, the absence of vigor, and the decline of inventiveness—through which we reproach our Alexandrian age, but to unearth an essential aspect of our culture: every painting now belongs within the squared and massive surface of painting and all literary works are confined to the indefinite murmur of writing.
Michel Foucault, “Fantasia of the Library,” in Language, Counter-Memory, Practice, trans. Donald F. Bouchard and Sherry Simon (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1980), pp. 92-3.
Until recently, the received precepts of modern curatorial practice favored the exclusive use of artificial light in all art galleries. It has perhaps been insufficiently recognized how this encapsulation tends to reduce the artwork to a commodity, since such an environment must conspire to render the work placeless. This is because the local light spectrum is never permitted to play across its surface: here, then, we see how the loss of aura, attributed by Walter Benjamin to the processes of mechanical reproduction, also arises from a relatively static application of universal technology.
Frampton, K. (1983) ‘Towards a Critical Regionalism: Six Points for an Architecture of Resistance’ in Foster, H. (ed.), The anti-aesthetic: essays on postmodern culture, Cambridge (Mass.) and London, 1983, pp. 29–30.
…and this is what I said to Goldsmiths:
As much as Art excites me intensely and has been an interest and practice throughout my life, I struggle to understand and come to terms with aspects of it. I see this course at Goldsmiths as an environment in which to address and build upon those struggles so that I can develop an informed practice. I can see the course enhancing my intellectual resources and abilities, allowing me to articulate my excitement practically and meaningfully.
I pretty much ran the full gamut of artistic practices in an attempt to define my artistic practice, ultimately leading to conceptual/critical activities by the end of my BA. During my final year I worked on pieces which targeted various ready-made situations within the college, including my colleagues’ works, the library and gallery spaces. The resulting pieces were accompanied by or comprised of a series of talks addressing my problems with the situations and Art in general.
During the degree I was heavily involved with the work experience programme run by the college, spending time with artists, a couple of commercial galleries and an artist’s agent. I originally chose to do this as it keyed into my interests regarding the workings of the art-world. I was aware that here was the site of a broader perspective on art and the art-world than was available to me within the confines of the college.
This led me to work with the artist Peter Fend whose (semi-)deliberate conflictual activity and aesthetic production I had already become aware of and found of interest. We began a dialogue which led to my inviting him to exhibit in my Degree Show. We more or less worked in parallel producing this event, the final form of which was an installation of his pieces with a small book of Peter’s and my own writings. Perhaps predictably bringing another artist to exhibit was not popular with the University, but I was very fortunate to have understanding tutors who defended my work.
Leaving college led to a crisis of confidence in my work. This, in combination with my personal circumstances encouraged me to settle into employment as a graphic/web designer. A little over a year ago my circumstances changed again leaving me free to re-assess and reinitialize my concern with art.
On a practical level, the PGDip in Contemporary Art History will provide a strong basis on which to build my future activities. Goldsmiths always had a great reputation when I was at Middlesex University, and I enjoyed my visits to the site – there seemed to be a good community there. The fact that this course is concentrates on Contemporary Art is a definite bonus given my areas of interest and the College’s location in a major hub of the art-world make Goldsmiths a logical and attractive choice for me.
…and they said: “accepted.”
Having just handed my notice in at work, many people have been asking about what I will be doing once I leave. When I tell them that I’m going back to college, there is some confusion over what the course entails.
The title “Postgraduate Diploma in Contemporary Art History” could be either Contemporary-Art History or Contemporary Art-History, hence an emphasis on the Art or the History. When this first came up I initially DID NOT KNOW how to answer the question, it was one of those situations where your perceptions of a subject are radically altered by a simple question, revealing the shallow roots of your understanding. If I wanted to be hyperbolic, I could claim I’ve just accepted a place on a year-long course without knowing what it was about.
In reality, the choice between the two definitions would have made little difference to me, but the course outline clears up any misconceptions I may have been left with:
…the Core Course…is a lecture and seminar series that introduces you to a range of critical perspectives that have shaped the history and theory of the discipline. As such, the course encourages you to develop a fuller awareness of art’s cultural and political significance in the past, whilst also asking you to relate your historical understanding of visual art to current debates among artists, critics and historians. [my emphasis]
Reading the outline further shows an aspect that tickles me about the conception and presentation of the course:
The Core Course is accompanied by a Laboratory, which gives you the opportunity to process the taught materials further through a variety of strategies such as museum and gallery visits, film screenings and experimental projects.
“strategies”! Very military. I suppose you could see the course as defining the territory that I will be attempting to conquer.