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.