The Exhibition (and beyond)

“The impact of art is often not what it should be because the frame is wrong, we aren’t actively encouraged to bring ourselves to it, or see ourselves in it…” (The School of Life, 2013).

To illustrate this Alain de Botton references his experience as a young man in the Rothko room(s) at Tate, confused about what he should feel in their presence. The captions didn’t help, they described what it was made of, what it was worth, with affiliations to galleries and collectors.

Years later he heard an interview Rothko did with TIME Magazine in which he said “You’ve got sadness in you, I’ve got sadness in me, my works of art are places where the two sadnesses can meet – and therefore both of us can feel less sad.” de Botton suggests this quote would have been a far more successful caption next to the paintings because it would have been a productive frame with which to enter a relationship with those artworks. This alludes to what I think research craves too; a ‘productive frame’ in which to be viewed.

But as theory became practice on the walls of the Rijksmuseum in their intervention (Art is Therapy, 2014), this interesting and valid point receded with the addition of a kind of post-it note commentary, displayed with the charm of Passive Aggressive Notes, 2016. They seemed more like teacher’s notes on poorly executed homework than a bold new curatorial statement geared more towards demystification. Saying this, when it comes to supporting materials in exhibitions, half of visitors say they want more of it and half don’t want it at all. This puts the curator in a position where they can almost never be right. The justified criticism of this intervention overshadows the profound observations contained in their book (Armstrong & de Botton, 2013):

  • Society is moving away from religion, with culture suited to filling its shoes
  • Distilling theory into something digestible for new or untrained eyes
  • The need for a facilitator between big books and a diverse audience
  • Moving away from devotion to academic categories
  • Purposes of criticism
  • The ever growing role of ‘the artist’
  • The need for ‘enlightened capitalism’

Perhaps this intervention highlights the importance of what Murray (1997) calls, “…the gold standard of aesthetic and critical value”. It’s not enough to have a good idea, how you show it matters just as much, if not more.

Refracted exhibition at Russell-Cotes Art gallery & Museum

Refracted (2017) at the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery & Museum negotiated a similar translation on to the walls of a museum, using it’s own collection thoughtfully, clearly, boldly and with grace. Using the idea of refraction (splitting of light into its component colours) coinciding with the rainbow flag, members of the local LGBTQ community re-hung elements of the museum collection across several themes denoted by the colour of the wall on which they’re placed. Here the lens is changed, we see a historical collection through the eyes of those in society who should have been welcomed to the party a long time ago.

We’ve earmarked the art gallery and museum as a place to experiment, question, challenge each other’s perceptions and put ourselves under the microscope. Eilean Hooper-Greenhill (1992) quite rightly says that social institutions serve many masters and must play many tunes accordingly. Success could be defined by the ability to balance all the tunes that must be played and still make a sound worth listening to. I think we should also be making one more people can hear.

Whilst research and design are fundamental parts of exhibition making there remains a big difference between an exhibition at an art gallery or museum and a ‘research exhibition’ in and around an academic institution. Successful marriages of art and research have resulted in some very engaging exhibitions. What about the interplay between art and research made them appeal to audiences? Death: The Human Experience (2016) posed big public interest questions like ‘What is a good death?’ and ‘Is it your right to choose?’ alongside examples of when art and death have crossed paths. Others have brought together multiple tangents of human experience in response to recent events (Manifesta 12, 2018), from the perspective of a particular part of society (Refracted, 2017) or through art (From Africa to the Americas: Face-to-face Picasso, Past and Present, 2018).

In academia (outside of art disciplines), with few curators or designers around, most ‘research exhibitions’ are yet to bypass the imagination of a world fair or trade show. The word heavy poster, or slide show is still the staple presentation media of the academic. A recent shift driven by the interdisciplinary and public engagement agenda, has resulted in the emergence of semi-dynamic spaces, but only shoots of quality exhibition concepts.

These concepts tend to manifest as practice based ‘art-as-research’ or a researcher being paired with an artist, the outcome being a one-off artwork that looks to somehow artistically represent the research, art trying to ‘draw’ science or express scientific themes. One practice trying hard to represent the other for the sake of it. Group exhibitions that bring together these organised marriage ‘collaborations’ in a gallery context, often default to the novelty of a competition. This is problematic and seems to devalue a potentially interesting assemblage of practitioners.

It is of no surprise that those who ponder research communication and the curatorial can see the home comforts of the exhibition as a good place to start, or even set up shop. This might seem especially appealing with the possibility of provoking a ‘turn’. However, the creative spirit of the artist or scientist takes most pleasure in the light-bulb moments made in the spirit of discovery.

However hard it may be to hear for those with a vested interest in the arts; people who value art and attend exhibitions on a regular basis are a niche group in society. Within Europe, 37% of people asked said they had visited a museum or gallery once in the last year, 31% a public library (TNS Opinion and Social, 2013). Those outside of this niche group may only attend art venues when visiting a new city or if they’ve received an invitation to do so, maybe not even then. If one mistakes this group as the ‘public’, ‘society’ or even the majority, one is in danger of either overestimating the reach and impact of ones activities or preaching to the converted.

As soon as we start talking about communicating with large numbers of people and entering public consciousness we have no choice but to look outside of the museum or classroom walls and beyond the exhibition as the primary (or preferred) mode of presentation and discourse, for it is here that we all live.