Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Bride or Bride’s Dress? Does Spectacular Display Make Ordinary Works Great?

(work by Ron Mueck)

Does a work of art need a particular ambience to be understood or enjoyed? As a curator, this has always been a pressing question whenever I get a body of works in hand. I believe a work of art when it is displayed on a wall or a floor, in a space or in any other interface of interactivity and projection, it should be treated like a bride and bridegroom on their wedding day. A work of art gains a special status, however mundane it looks, on the day of its display for the public to enjoy and the connoisseurs to assess its worth. Unlike the human beings, works of art get ‘married’ many times (some human beings too) as they are displayed in different locations and in different contexts. However, could a work of art always be seen in that festive mood? Is there a spot light always on it? Are there frames and defining contexts to bring it into focus? Are there discursive preambles so that it could be ‘read and understood’ in certain ways? What about those people who are absolutely new to those works of art which have a huge baggage of history and discourse on their shoulders? What happens to a work of art when it is extracted out of its exhibition context or display location and all discursive specificities? How does the mode of reception and appreciation change when it is seen printed on the page of a book or a newspaper, or in today’s context, when it is seen in the computer or smart phone screen as a self illuminated image?

(work by Ai Weiwei)

When it comes to the display of works of art, curators are seen in two different categories; one, the ones who insist that a work of art should be displayed as it is, and maximum one could allow is a spot light in order to highlight the tonal qualities of it. Two, the ones who insist that there should be a special zone created exclusively for that particular work of art so that it could be seen in isolation. In both the cases, there is a small shift or a minute aberration from the fundamental position of a gallery space, which has been evolved as a white cube space that underlines its provision of spatial neutrality. A white cube space does not give anything other than a white wall, a bare floor and a few lights for highlight. The evolution of a white cube is revolutionary and its gradually transformation as a special space is somehow ironic. Let’s see the evolution of it from the saloons and royal ball rooms where the works of art where crammed all over and each work was highlighted with gilded frames. Catching the attention of a viewer was really a challenge for a work of art, therefore for the creator of the work. The evolution of this space was basically a sort of decongestion to begin with, which in turn was imparting dignity not only to the work of art but also to the creator of it (artist). Slowly, this space became an exclusive space with ‘no value’ of its own. That means, a work of art which has been given exclusivity in this space could be viewed and assessed for its intrinsic values as it is not guided by anything extrinsic including any change in the wall colour. As time went on, the white cube space too became a conventional space liable to be questioned by the curators and artists as well. The idea of white cube was collapsed and the very spaces and structures started creating extrinsic values as we see in many galleries today by applying different colours on the walls, creating dark rooms, special light effects and even auditory and olfactory enhancement.

(work by Anish Kapoor)

It is hard to question the curatorial decisions to highlight a work of art. Of late artists have been dictating the terms of the ways in which their works are exhibited. There are some artists who make their display a bit complicated (though could be cracked by the curators) so that they could travel along with the works wherever they are exhibited. That means the curatorial task at times become a shared task, which could either start as a discussion in the artist’s studio before the curatorial venture starts or during the time of display itself. Slowly and steadily, the simple white cube display has become a drab and a bore. As curators, and during the good old market boom days, the imported exhibition designers as well, enhance the look of the work through additional appendage and structures, lighting and colour changes and so on, the exhibition viewers also have started looking for something spectacular inside the galleries. By this time, extravagant display has become a norm though most of the people really do not talk about the works of art as they are completely enamoured by the way the works are displayed. Going back to the marriage analogy, I would say, people see the fabric that the bride and groom wear on their nuptial day but never their qualities. Perhaps, people leave all those things to the bride and groom and to their fate. In the case of the art, people just do not worry about what happens to the art and the artist. This they leave to the fate of the artists and the buyers if there are any.

(work by Cornelia Parker)

I wouldn’t unilaterally question the curators and artists who have transgressed the norms of the white cube gallery and the ideology that drives the space. Nor do I completely embrace the spectacles that some artists and curators create only because they look different from a white cube space and for the time being conventions are broken and a revolutionary mode is brought in its place. But it is a great illusion exactly the same as the illusion that they create in their display modes. Years back, a young revolutionary curator displayed some works on the ceiling of a gallery. Today, except for the fact that we remember that a few works were displayed on the ceiling nobody remembers the works and their qualities. Whenever a spectacle is created in and around a gallery or a space where works of art are displayed, people take in the spectacle and leave the art behind. Who is responsible for this, artists or curators? In India no decision is taken alone by a curator; there is always an artistic interference or the gallery interference. I deliberately used the word interference than the word intervention. It is natural that the artists want their works to be displayed in a particular way to get the desired effect. And the curators also feel that their shows should be noticed for the novelty of display. But neither the artists nor the curators ask what happens once the show is done and the works are stripped off of their temporary glory and taken back to the studios or store rooms? Or in that case even to the drawing rooms of the art collectors.

(work by Subodh Gupta)

Does a work of art demand conditions of display? It is a very important question. I understand that there are artists who create works of art specifically for a location and the parameters of the display would change with the change in the location. A work of art created in a studio or a factor or a lab is not the same when it is brought in for the public display. But what happens to a work of art when it is not in the public display? Do the same conditions apply when it is displayed in the private collection of an art collector? Or when a work of art is taken from one place and exhibited in another space, even if it is a space neutral work, creation of a new ambience would change the reception of it? What happens to a work of art despite the change in location, when shown in the same ambience? Is there any particular law or dynamics that determine the ways of display? In my views, a work of art has an intrinsic logic and that is of its own visual quality or visuality. Whether it is exhibited in a white cube or in an enhanced space, what makes it stand out is its intrinsic visual quality. It is same for a painting, sculpture, installation, video, performance and so on. I am sure about the interactive works based on software as I have not dealt with as a curator so far (perhaps I am not interested). The intrinsic visuality of a work of art generates a dynamics that goads the curator to deal with it in a different way or a very normal way. Most of the works of art in fact do not demand more than a light and a place to sit. If given these basics, they would do wonders. That is why the great works of art, seen in the books or in digital interfaces still excite us as aesthetic objects. There are some works of art that demand a different approach; for example the blasted home by Cornelia Parker. It could exist only in that way. Duchamp’s Fountain on the other hand does not need any particular ambience; whichever way it is exhibited it remains the same.

(works by Rothko)

With the enhancement of price and at time with the inevitable invaluableness of a work of art, it gathers additional frames, bullet proof cases, security guards, surveillance camera and so on. That is the only way to tell the world that it is an invaluable work of art. The same could be shown on the bare walls of a white cube space with a normal spot light. Still it would command the same respect because it has been notified as invaluable. The same work could be printed on cheap paper, still it would be accepted as a great work of art. Consider, a work of art exhibited in a specially created space with lot of celebrity paraphernalia to go with it and by the time the exhibition is over people remember only who attended the do and how the ambience of the exhibition was. What happens to those works of art? These days, many curators and artists spend a lot of money to create unnecessary sets to exhibit their ordinary works. Eventually the works are forgotten, so are the artists. The power of a work of art remains in its visual quality and its moving power. Gandhiji did not dress up like Winston Churchill but the aesthetics of poverty that he created was so strong that the country moved as one whole mass as happened never before. Works of art exhibited in spectacular ways fall into the drain of oblivion and disappear. Take the grand works of Anish Kapoor, Subodh Gupta, Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, Ron Mueck, Christian Boltansky and Ai Weiwei or any other great names in the art scene. In my view, it is not the enhanced ambience that make their works great but the ambience of the works itself. Mueck’s sculptures are exhibited in bare galleries. Hirst’ works are in normal mundane spaces. Anish Kapoor’s works are at your face. Ai Weiwei denudes the space to place his works. But somehow some Indian artists and curators have absolutely gone wrong on this. They have misunderstood the power of aesthetics as the grandness of set designing or display design. For art, art is the only answer. No display could alleviate an ordinary work of art from the depths of ordinariness. That’s what happened recently to a few art shows in Mumbai. 

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