The history of modern art museums can be seen as a struggle between revolution and preservation, participation, protection, experimentation and isolation. (1)
The year 2016 played host to Modern Art Oxford’s celebrative fiftieth anniversary exhibition, KALEIDOSCOPE. The fourth display in its series, It’s Me to the World was an exhibition that brought together works from artists that use the body to explore ideas of perception, intimacy and endurance (2). Amongst the exhibit, artworks which had been previously displayed at Modern Art Oxford in the last fifty years found new residence between newly commissioned art and discourses prevalent to our immediate society.
It’s Me to the World invited its spectators to pause, encounter and experience the works; in the hope of audiences temporarily disassociating themselves with the digital technologies which have become deep-rooted within societal norms.
Within this exhibition Marina Abramović’s crystal works Green Dragon Lying (1989), Black Dragon (1994), and Shoes for Departure (1991) were highlighted as selected returning pieces; but their interpretation was a far departure from the original installation. Abramović’s sculptural pieces are described by the artist as ‘power objects’, which contain a certain energy, intended to be interacted with to enhance the public’s experience and interpretation of Abramović’s state of mind. (3) In an interview conducted in association with Art Journal in 1999, Abramović speaks about the importance of public interaction within her work:
"Transformation only matters if you really go through something yourself… So I decided to build these transitory objects. I don’t call them sculptures. They’re objects that the public can perform like props. When they trigger their own experience, the object can be removed. It is not something that should be permanent. The whole idea of the temporality of the object is very important to me, so they have to be used, and by use, destroyed. This is totally against the idea of the art object that has to last forever, I’m very interested in temporality. (4)"
Abramović’s aforementioned pieces not only found new curatorial residence in KALEIDOSCOPE, but with restrictive loan requirements they became subject to a very separate and new interpretation. Requirements made in the interest of preservation, guaranteed the public could not touch or connect with Abramović’s pieces, which were created solely for experiential conjecture.
Consequentially Abramović’s works had transitioned from a piece of contemporary art to an object not dissimilar to a museum artefact, which is to be preserved and gained from a purely educational standpoint. When Abramović’s pieces returned to KALEIDOSCOPE as objects of artefact and preservation, questions about freedom of speech, ephemerality and artists intentions were risen.
Before going any further, it is important here to define an object of preservation and an object of contemporary art… In the way that I am referring to them in this writing. Furthermore there is an importance to monitor how these differences can change and complicate the situational learning which is experienced by the public.
The object of preservation is referred to here as an item one might see within a museum. Due to its historical, technical, aesthetic or intellectual significance, the item is abstained from society and preserved for generations with the intent of educating the masses about its held significance. Museum etiquette has provided us with a bizarre approach to focus solely on the intellect the item can offer, rather than the appreciation of the artefact itself, making the item physically redundant. Iman Issa’s Heritage Studies (2005) provides us with an attractive insight into this current relationship between object memorialisation and museum conventions (5).
Opposing this method of display, objects of contemporary art are presented within spaces derivative of the white cube, which reinvent themselves sporadically to coincide with advances in contemporary art (6).However, public galleries of contemporary art are progressing, making themselves more available to the public through educative courses and satellite events with the intent to educate all. Unlike a traditional museum, Modern Art Oxford is known for its unorthodox approaches which allow the artist complete freedom of speech and reign of their galleries: Symbiotically, the gallery consents to unconventional learning by way of interaction and audience participation. Problems arise when the etiquette of these two institutions which appear devoid of one another, get confused: Through judging an ‘art object’ by museum standards, the significance of the presence of the object is questioned. If we cannot learn in the ways appropriated to ‘art object’, which most likely will have no familiarity to our lives, but can supposedly gain just through textual interpretations, then where is the need for a tangible art gallery? By default, Abramović’s works are everchanging in their meaning, which has been compromised through their environment, loan requirements and relationship to museum behaviours. Similar circumstances have befallen Simon Starling’s Turner Prize winning Shedboatshed (2005), which provides an intricate narrative, exposing complicated relationships that take place in the contemporary world. (7) There are large and ongoing conversations within contemporary art galleries as to what an ‘art object’ is and finding ways of interpreting them to make sense within the spectator’s reality. In the case of Abramović’s crystal objects, their ownership – which affects the viewing requirements – has changed the fundamental interpretation of her work, consequentially impeaching the artist’s freedom of speech. It is understandable that people find difficulty in accessing what contemporary art can offer, when the object itself is confused and devoid of its own meaning, purely through its display. Our society has – unsurprisingly – been built around notions that galleries are distinctly unapproachable and incapable of educating the masses; as people feel detached from the work before setting foot within the gallery.This is a central issue that needs to be addressed sensitively by curating and communications. The main tools curators have at their disposal in addressing the issue are textual interpretations, and the choice of arrangement of the works chosen for display; both of which affect the quality and nature of a spectator’s experience within a gallery. (8) In the case of It’s Me to the World, the exhibition notes that coincided with the artworks made little attempt to explain the loan restrictions or the original intent of the works. They instead explained to us Abramovic’s performance based career and briefly referred to the pieces on display, interestingly as ‘interactive sculpture’. (9) Without honest representation of the objects and the provenance of the works, it is difficult to understand why Modern Art Oxford requested them, if the interpretation was to beprospectively misconstrued upon their installation. For a gallery that bases its founding values on offering education to all, within a city divided by class, one might expect a more accessible approach to these confusing matters.
The interpretation of contemporary art is difficult for a non-captive audience. The added upset that accompanies unknown requirements, health and safety measures landowner restrictions prevents an issue which is unsolvable to curators. Communication surrounding these objects is key in the public’s interpretation. However, as discussed earlier art galleries are affiliated with museum behaviours, and the viewer finds themselves blindly following the interpretations thrown at them. This is no different in contemporary textualization. The curator is shrouded by politics in the art world, where one cannot place blame on a simple requirement but should be sensitive and honestabout the issues that have obscured an item’s meaning, as the curator owes the items the true explanation of their original creation. In the case of It’s Me to the World, Abramovic’s works were essential to the retrospective exhibition but perhaps nonessential to the artist’s original intent. When thinking presumptively – particularly living within a time of great social change – there is opportunity to fundamentally reform the accessibility, interpretation and display of the contemporary art world. It is, unfortunately, at a point where connoisseurly interpretation is not relatable within the ‘new age’ of art that is being created. The highly biographical, personal and political creature that art has become is giving a new perspective, and upheaval to the former need for the artist-genius. Public art galleries are showing signs of change, through communications on online platforms to satellite events. These events are so important to understanding the convoluted themes that run through contemporary arts exhibitions. These satellite events prove that galleries are approachable and capable of offering an alternative method of learning to the one that previous educational intuitions were built upon. This more immersive, interactive setting calls for art which fits its new environment; we should be focusing on art as an ephemeral being, which feeds back directly into the society that created it. Honesty about the complicated origins of exhibitions is the next step in making contemporary art a more human, and less devoid aspect of society. An environment where people are not required to have knowledge prior to entering an exhibition space will make the gallery a place of equal opportunity capable of educating every social class.
1 Emma Baker (ed), Contemporary Cultures of Display (New Haven: Yale University in association with the Open University, 1999), 48.
2 Modern Art Oxford Exhibition Notes ‘It’s Me to the World’ 2016
3 Janet A. Kaplan. “Deeper and Deeper: Interview with Marina Abramović”, Art Journal 58:2 (1999): 6-21
4 Janet A. Kaplan. “Deeper and Deeper: Interview with Marina Abramović”, Art Journal 58:2 (1999): 6-21
5 Modern Art Oxford Exhibition Guide “The Vanished Reality”, 2016.
6 Emma Baker (ed), Contemporary Cultures of Display (New Haven: Yale University in ass. With the Open University, 1999), 48.
7 Virginia Button, The Turner Prize (London: Tate Publishing, 2005), 216.
8 Peter J. Schertz. “The Curator as Scholar and Public Spokesperson”, Journal of Eastern Mediterranean Archaeology & Heritage Studies 3:3 (2015): 277-282
9 Modern Art Oxford Exhibition Guide “It’s Me to the World”, 2016.