Discover more from The Gallery Companion
You Can Look, But Don't Touch
The 'thingness' of art and finding meaning in materiality
I suppose I shouldn’t really admit this, but sometimes I find looking at art in big galleries not terribly enjoyable. There’s something formulaic about the presentation of art in most of these traditional museum settings that can send me straight into a zombie-like daze: it’s the overwhelming number of artworks to look at in room after room of white walls and high ceilings, and the blurb on the walls that I know I should read but as soon as I try to a yawn starts to come and my eyes glaze over. Engaging art can get lost in the endlessness of it all.
I’ve been thinking this week about some of the exhibitions I’ve seen recently. Which artworks have stopped me in my tracks, and why? Of course what has impact or resonance or meaning is personal to each of us based on our own individual histories, experiences, and ways of looking at the world.
But I want to reflect a bit on how important the setting is to our understanding and experience of artworks. It’s nothing new to say this, but it’s worth repeating anyway: how we perceive and respond to an artwork depends on the context in which we view it. The way art is curated affects how we feel about it. The atmosphere of the space in which we encounter the art, the levels of light, how much room it is given, what’s put directly next to it, all these factors can make an artwork seem really powerful. Or it can reduce our capacity to see the richness of meaning that might emerge if it was experienced in another context.
A case in point. Last week I went to see the Sarah Lucas retrospective at Tate Britain in London. Lucas made her name back in the 1990s when she was part of the group of artists known as the YBAs (Young British Artists). Like a lot of artists who came from this scene including Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin, Lucas works across a variety of media, including sculpture, installation and photography.
In her work Lucas explores ideas about the objectification of women’s bodies, the dynamics of power between the sexes, and the misogyny of the slang that litters our everyday language. She’s a feminist, and although that’s not all that her art is about, it’s one of the most interesting aspects of it for me. Lucas has a reputation for provocative, irreverent and sometimes shocking representations of the female body that reflect and interrogate attitudes to women in our culture. So I was all set to really enjoy this show. But as I was walking around the exhibition my main thought was how tamed and contained her art felt. I found myself wondering how Lucas’s work might have been presented in a different way, in a different space, to give due power to her reflections on class and gender.
Displayed in the same huge dimensions in another setting Chicken Knickers, for example, would probably get quite a big response. It’s a photograph of the lower half of the artist wearing a pair of white pants to which a raw chicken has been attached. It’s about objectification and sexual desire in our culture.
The same goes for Fat, Forty and Flab-ulous, a huge poster of a double-page spread that Lucas reproduced from an actual British tabloid newspaper in 1990, which shows photographs of an overweight naked woman in unflattering poses whilst being mocked by her husband for her rapacious sex drive.
But for some reason, despite the enormous size of these artworks in this exhibition, something didn’t quite work. And I actually tutted when I read the words of the curator in the exhibition guide who claimed that the setting at the Tate for the exhibition makes Lucas’s work feel even more pertinent. We’re told:
Offensive language experienced by many of us is reflected back to us all in a formal gallery setting. In pointing to such experiences, we are invited to think about them differently.
I actually think the exact opposite happens in this particular setting. Her imagery and words become less shocking and less interesting to contemplate. It takes the edge off. Lucas’s work has the potential to pack a punch, especially because of the way she uses materials to suggest and complicate meaning — she explores different textures and surfaces, and incorporates everyday objects like furniture, cigarettes and clothes into her art. But these nuanced layers of meaning got a bit lost in this show. Instead it felt to me like it was all somewhat disconnected in a big, empty space.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that all art displayed in these large gallery and museum settings is a write-off. One of the artworks that has had the most impact on me this year is El Anatsui’s installation Behind the Red Moon in the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern. El Anatsui is a Ghanaian sculptor who creates huge artworks from discarded materials like metal caps and bits of foil from bottles. He crushes or flattens them, and then links these small pieces of metal together with copper wire into sheets that look like swathes of fabric.
On an intellectual level his work speaks to issues of consumption and waste in our world, as well as the history of migration of goods and people. But there was something that blew me away on a sensory level about seeing it in the Turbine Hall. If you’ve been to Tate Modern you’ll know the vastness and height of this central space in the museum. At one end of the hall El Anatsui’s shimmering sheet hangs down from the top of the gallery like a huge black and golden curtain, folding into waves onto the concrete floor at the bottom.
I don't know how else to describe what happened to my body when I saw it other than to say that it called me in to it like some sort of siren. There’s just something magnetic about it. The artwork tricks you in lots of ways. From a distance the curtain looks like soft, sheer, weightless fabric, but as you get closer you realise it’s made of bits of metal rubbish all held together by thin wires; imagining the weight of it is mind-boggling. And then there’s the patchwork of many colours that look uniform from a distance. I could spend hours looking at it. You start to think about how long it must have taken to make, how many hands, how much labour went into its construction.
It’s one of those artworks that makes you want to touch it, to pick up a corner of it and test its strength, to understand it in a different way from just the visual. But the gallery attendant was there, telling us repeatedly that we could look, but don’t touch.
There’s a ‘thingness’ about this artwork, a physical presence that actively occupies its environment. The way it delicately fills the void of the space, its relationship to the light which makes it glimmer and move, the way it hangs quietly amongst the muffled sounds of the Turbine Hall. This spatial context is integral to how we experience it and interact with it. It’s not just an aesthetic object but a dynamic thing that actively engages the senses. I had a feeling, like some clarity and understanding about something, in its presence. This is inspired curating.
I’ve been thinking about El Anatsui’s installation on and off ever since I first saw it. It reminds me of an exhibition I went to in Venice last year by the Korean artist Chun Kwang Young, which I’ve thought about several times over the months since then. Chun uses traditional Korean hand-made hanji paper that he finds in old books, which he says ‘hold our ancestors’ souls and stories’. He carefully removes the pages and then uses them to wrap up triangular-shaped tiny packages tied with string.
He then attaches them to objects to create a sort of 3-dimensional abstract ‘painting’. They look perfect and enticing, like little gifts that someone has lovingly wrapped up. Chun’s art is infused with Korean culture and history, and the memory of his childhood. His uncle ran a traditional medicine shop and when he prescribed remedies for his customers he would wrap them into little parcels with hanji paper and string. Here’s Chun talking about it:
I stumbled on this exhibition down a side street and wandered inside, not knowing what I was about to see or what to expect. It was in a tumble-down Venetian palazzo, in amongst old furniture, walls covered with patterned fabric. In some rooms just a small shaft of light came in through closed wooden shutters. There was something about the muffled atmosphere and darkness and faded grandeur of those rooms that gave these mysterious sculptural forms and the little paper packages attached to them some sort of energy.
Like El Anatsui’s work, there was a magnetism about it that made me want to reach out and feel it. When I first entered the building I was told not to touch anything. ‘You don’t need to tell me that’, I thought. But as I walked round I had to hold myself back from picking up one of those little parcels scattered on the floor. I wanted to have one in my hands, to understand it by touching it. The artwork was drawing me in to a bodily experience with it, and I think the atmosphere of that palazzo had everything to do with that. There was something about the decay of the building combined with the preservation of those old hanji papers that made me want to experience the work materially, to explore its authenticity. If I had seen Chun’s work in a white-walled gallery I wonder whether I would have had the same response.
As always I’d love to know your thoughts on any of these artists and ideas so please click on the comment button below to leave a message.