Abstract curating – the challenges of Contemporary Art

By | July 18, 2016

I was really looking forward to this exhibition. Contemporary art practice of five generations of women congregated in one place. Pressed for writing deadlines, I didn’t research the exhibition before my visit. But that shouldn’t be an issue for an opening night visit, right?

Wrong. As I entered the room, the attention grabber was a sheet painted yellow hanging from the ceiling to the floor. Two photos of earth on the back wall… A revolving door replica made of fabric was slowly spinning on the right. Two videos were playing either side of the entrance – the most engaging pieces for their visual continuity.

Ok, I’m walking through… Five works – five generations… But instead of bringing it together in my mind, it seems to be only disorientating me. I can’t see any chronology in these works. I can’t connect the pieces with the generations, or even figure out what the pieces mean. The works seem to be unrelated except in that all are made by women. And I only know that because I read the short description before my visit!


What I kept wondering, walking through this exhibition, was what would be so wrong with putting a few descriptions on the walls? Guiding the viewer? Maybe helping them to understand what on earth the artists are trying to communicate? It’s not the art that is the problem – it’s the delivery.

This was not the first time I felt confused at an exhibition. Contemporary art is often intended to communicate with the audience in a different way, thinking outside the box, providing an experience and challenging our perceptions. That’s fantastic! Art keeps growing, developing, and changing. That is both normal and necessary. But are we meant to wander through, just ‘taking it in’ and hoping that somehow it will create a transcendent experience and culminate in a eureka moment?

Just recently, browsing an online auction site for contemporary artists, I came across a request from the site moderators: “please name your artwork”. Unsurprisingly, with such a massive volume of art for sale online “Untitled” was an overwhelmingly common ‘title’. Unsurprisingly, they do not sell. Is this minimalism gone too far? I know artists sometimes want us to think about what the piece means to us, find a personal meaning in their art, and allows each viewer perceive the art freely. Unfortunately, sometimes it simply leaves the viewer feeling lost.

Minimalist exhibitions displaying nothing but a couple of objects or abstract art pieces that may not even go together at first glance can feel like an unexpected visit to someone else’s REM cycle. Normally a pamphlet is around somewhere explaining a little bit about the art on display. But would it hurt to put up a little bit of something on the walls, set up a sound to create an atmosphere? Anything to guide the audience a little bit.

Indeed, older art has more definite subjects, recognizable to the viewer. Yet even in those exhibitions we see a short description of the works – just to give it a little bit more perspective, and associate some context to the pieces. Have we outgrown this as audiences? Why then art that is challenging and potentially ground-breaking is denied this opportunity to be brought closer to its audiences? In a world that struggles to connect art with audiences, it really seems that over-minimalization is actually detrimental to the survival of art. I mean, if I want to decorate a home in the minimalist style, it does not mean that a single chair in the living room achieves perfection!

In a recent workshop with an Australian artist, Don Waters, he talked about artists on occasion feeling overwhelmed by a blank canvas. (Even to the point of tears!) Is this what we’re doing to the audience? It seems giving the audience a chance to appreciate the exhibition through a curated experience would only enhance their appreciation of it. If curators make their audiences guess the message – it fails. Mind you, if the message is ‘to guess’, that should be made clear before the audience enters the exhibition. (And it shouldn’t rely on someone handing them a pamphlet!) If we become too eccentric in curating, then audience will no longer really matter. That’s bad for artists. Bad for art too.

Yes, absolutely, art is meant to challenge – but an exhibition should not confuse its audience. People want a real connection to the art – so let’s give it to them!

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  1. Pingback: Gallery hopping in Brisbane – the good, the bad, and ‘what the’? – BrushWord: Art Blog

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