Once in a while I take a regular ‘pilgrimage’ around art galleries in Brisbane. It is easy enough to concentrate on a particular art area in Brisbane, such as Fortitude Valley: each art hub in town provides just enough stimuli for intense survey viewing which runs out before the brain reaches its overload capacity. And it’s great to do it with an art-loving friend, as it keeps your own viewing honest and allows you to bounce ideas off each other.
Usually there is a healthy mix of ‘ok’ and ‘wonderful’, with a little bit of ‘not-so-great’ to create the inevitable balance (of course, always relating to personal taste) and to keep you on your toes. Personally, I like to take notes, look up artists, and talk to the staff, planning for more efficiency and selectivism for future visits.
We ended our ‘pilgrimage’ with a stimulating collection of Ralph Wilson’s works at Philip Bacon Galleries. The emotive colour combinations in his breathing, twisting landscapes, combined with the gorgeous intricacies of the gallery’s space itself, were definitely a high point of the afternoon. You know the exhibition is good when every piece that catches your eye has a little red dot underneath it! (I guess there is something to the theory of ‘if I want it, others will too’!) Honestly I was a little reluctant to enter another space after absorbing Wilson’s energising landscapes. But I thought, “What the hell, we’re already here.”
I thought wrong. It was my own fault, perhaps, for ending on such a high note – the plunge was just too great. We entered the last gallery, Institute of Modern Art. Bypassing the empty front desk we headed straight for the exhibition spaces. I have seen good and bad exhibits here. (The good ones you can read about in my earlier postings.) But the gallery insistently uses minimal labelling and no titles in their exhibitions. That would be ok if these were ‘toured’ by staff when visitors enter. But too often, visitors are left to their own devices, leaving the space not understanding what they just saw.
The first room housed black and white photographs – they looked interesting. But no context? Origin? Chronology? Or even a title of the exhibition as you enter the space? The laminated guide in the corner did not make it any easier: just numbers and obscure titles without a clear sense of a purpose of these works. What a shame, because these images did arouse my curiosity – but without a background this curiosity quickly turned to feeling lost in a big white space.
Having departed the abandoned hall of photographs, we proceeded into the next space. Three garage doors and a motion activated light. Again, no explanation required. (No explanation required?) More confusion. I was wondering what the point was. Don’t get me wrong – an art installation can be incredibly powerful, but only if the viewer is allowed to appreciate what they are looking at! If I have to look for an explanation, or try and think one up, I might as well have taken a trip to Bunnings or another hardware store.
It got worse. The darkened third space seemed completely empty. After looking around perplexed for a few moments, I spotted a description on the wall. Unfortunately it revealed nothing about what I was meant to see (or do?), and honestly by this stage my interest was clouded by annoyance…
Sure, there was a brochure with explanations of the current exhibitions that visitors are free to collect when they enter the gallery. However, my point is that this should not be necessary! Additional reading material is exactly that – additional. As in “not essential” for an average visitor.
Would it kill the galleries to communicate the meaning of their exhibitions? I have seen people leaving this space wearing the “what’s the point” look on their face. And this is entirely avoidable. Let’s put a title on the wall. Let’s make sure every visitor is greeted by a human being who guides them through the installations. Let’s make sure that the visitors know what they are meant to do! (The brochure mentioned that you need to push a button for a movie to start – OMG THERE WAS A BUTTON??)
Sadly, this wasn’t the first time I’ve experienced a contemporary art exhibit like this. It is a subject that I find myself forced to return to. (See “Abstract curating – the challenge of Contemporary Art”) It is also a subject that can make or break that fragile connection with art audiences today that every artist tries to salvage and somehow maintain. If, as curators, we want to present an artist’s work and have the audience love it, we must not assume that they know as much about it as we do. In fact, the slogan should be “they know absolutely nothing about this fantastic and highly stimulating artist, and I am going to make sure they know what they’re been missing and want to come back again and again!!”
The job of a curator is to guide and create an experience! If visitors have to read something before they see an exhibit, let’s make damn sure that it’s impossible for them to avoid the text. If they have to push a button to view the exhibit – make sure they can’t miss it. It’s really simple stuff. Isn’t the point to educate the audiences about the art, and in the process actually gain new audiences for this challenging industry?
Maybe if exhibits actually stroke a chord with their audiences (other than “what the?”), neither artists nor curators would have to struggle as much to survive.