Friday, October 3, 2008

The Vulnerable Viewer and the Art Fatigue

Have you ever felt art fatigue- a kind of tiredness after seeing a lot of art or even a kind of tiredness that seeps into you when you actually stand in front of a work of art? I feel it a lot these days. May be, you also. Four exhibition openings on the same evening, at four far flung venues and you feel the urge to catch up with all those works presented in all those four shows. The first show makes you melancholic and the second one makes you tired. And the third and fourth…no…no …you are not going for it.

I have seen people sitting exhausted and drained at the steps of the British Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the National Museum, the Louvre Museum and so on. It is not the works of art that make them tired but the sheer size of the building and the vastness of the collection that these museums carry inside their bellies. It takes at least one week, if you really want to see each and every artifact in Louvre Museum. But you are a tourist there in Paris and you need to cover all the important museums in the available time and space. So you rush through the works, brisk walk before the works of art, occasionally stand in front of a work that you are familiar with through reproductions. You break all your previous records of viewing art, especially when you are in a foreign country, which has good museums.

At times I have a feeling that excessive viewing of contemporary art tires you out like anything. When there are too many openings on the same evening, my friends in Delhi call me up and ask which opening I am attending. Then we divide the opening amongst ourselves; you go there and I will go here kind. Whenever I attend an opening I remember a work by Barbara Kruger. In this work, she interpolates the image of a Grecian classical woman’s face with these words, ‘Your Gaze Hits the Side of My Face’. When you are in front of a work of art, actually you feel someone is looking at you. Your brain and finer senses do over work when you are in front of a work of art. You become really vulnerable then and anybody’s gaze would strike you right at your face.

I feel, this over active senses impart you with art fatigue. There is an interesting proportion in the case of art viewing; the better the works the more vulnerable you become. Then again, the worse the works, the more tired you become. Basically, art appreciation is all about your own projection of ideas on the work on view. You go through your collective cultural consciousness, cull out ideas and references that make the understanding of the particular work possible. Work in itself becomes a medium to recognize your own subjectivity and its role in the cultural (political or social) understanding. Work of art becomes a ‘readerly’ text as Roland Barthes puts it. It is neither the catalogue nor the title that gives you a fuller understanding of it, but your own efforts, your own projections that makes it possible. Catalogues and titles can play only a role of mediation in certain ways.

Viewing is as tiring as making (of a work of art). Seeing more art means tiring yourself more. How can one catch up with four shows in a single evening? Impossible. But people do it and those who do it, generally do not see works of art- and I am sure it is quite true. There comes the social pressure of attending an opening thereby assuming the responsibility of viewing more and more works of art. This social pressure is something contagious and you feel incapacitated in a crowd, especially you have missed out some so called ‘important’ shows. Actually in an opening what do you do is enacting a social responsibility. You go there, meet people, drink socially, chat, bitch, mock, satirize and please the ego of the artist/s who is/are exhibiting on that particular evening. An art opening has only anthropological values, in which exchanging of gifts plays an important role. In art openings, you become a gift in yourself for the artist/s in question. You primarily don’t see art. What you see is the impression of that art and the impression that generally makes on people. It does not talk about the impressions of the people in exchange with the works of art.

Attending a marriage ceremony or a death leaves you tired; you attend such functions for the social thereby anthropological reasons. You attend openings also for the same reason and you become tired. I would not call those people who attend several shows in a day, snobs. They are not snobs, though snobbishness is one of the driving forces behind such attendance. They are the people who would like to be in a social chain that makes them comfortable and feel as a part of the group. It is a community feeling and a community is a location where you make social contacts and further your interests. It is a give and take, and it binds you with the society, thereby dispelling the fears of alienation. Members of the contemporary art communities are afraid of being alienated. They want to dissolve their individuality in the din of social exchanges that make them one with the society. In this way we all have become conformists to the group mentality.

Art fatigue comes from a particular awareness that you want to be with the society at the same time certain values that you cherish do not allow you to be a part. You alienate yourself from that society while you engage yourself with the works of art on display. As I mentioned elsewhere, you are already vulnerable before a work of art and the sense of preferable alienation makes your further tired. Art in our times really makes the viewer tired, because, I believe, each individual who doubles up as a viewer in an art community still carries that element of alienation (not in the Marxian sense but more in a Sartre-an sense) in his mind. You go back to home after attending all these openings, fall on your bed and bleed. Do you dispute?

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