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