In a few weeks time, I will be setting up on my website an online preview of the work I have collected so far in relation to the final major project I am to submit as part of my studies at Falmouth University. Indeed, I already have a work in progress gallery on my website containing within it all the work I have picked so far. The presentation criteria I followed when setting up that gallery was merely the chronological order in which the individual works were taken, with the latest snaps appearing at the end of the gallery. Thus, what will make this new preview gallery different to the work in progress gallery is that the work within this new gallery will be presented in a format more closely aligned to how I envision showcasing the final body of work. The final body of work will eventually be exhibited and published some time in the first half of 2021. The online preview of the body of work prepared so far will form part of the Landings exhibition that is organised annually by Falmouth University. Here is a brief description of what Landings is all about:
“Landings is an ‘art-trail’ type collection of self-initiated, small-scale local exhibitions / installations of work / digital portfolios being produced during the MA Photography at Falmouth University. It aims to increase online / offline exposure and provide formative feedback for current work. Although locations, artworks and sub-themes vary each year, the concept is underpinned by an intention to build a robust international photographic community without borders. As Falmouth historically served as one of the first ports for returning ships of the Royal Navy and as a station for the Packet Service, the exhibition continues Falmouth’s presence as a point of exchange and communication with the wider virtual / physical worlds” (Falmouth Flexible Photography Hub 2019).
During this week of studies, steered by the theme ‘Exhibition Guidance’, we read a lot about the ethical and political dimensions of art exhibitions. I found the arguments presented most pertinent to my recurrent concerns with showcasing personal work. Brian O’Doherty’s article ‘Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space’ proved most insightful and was the piece of literature I resonated with the most. I thus start by presenting O’Doherty’s critical analysis of the art gallery, the space in which most artworks find themselves relegated for public scrutiny. This analysis will serve as a springboard for the exposition of my personal concerns with exhibiting. The ending argument, revolving around Blake Stimson’s critical analysis of the work of Bernd and Hilla Becher, provides the escape-route by which to jettison most of these concerns.
O’Doherty, talking about the art gallery, states that “the ideal gallery subtracts from the artwork all cues that interfere with the fact that it is ‘art.’ The work is isolated from everything that would detract from its own evaluation of itself. This gives the space a presence possessed by other spaces where conventions are preserved through the repetition of a closed system of values” (1986: 14). O’Doherty then builds an exceptionally beautiful and nuanced rendering of the art gallery; he states: “a gallery is constructed along laws as rigorous as those for building a medieval church. The outside world must not come in, so windows are usually sealed off. Walls are painted white. The ceiling becomes the source of light. The wooden floor is polished so that you click along clinically, or carpeted so that you pad soundlessly, resting the feet while the eyes have at the wall. The art is free, as the saying used to go, ‘to take on its own life.’ The discreet desk may be the only piece of furniture. In this context a standing ashtray becomes almost a sacred object, just as the firehose in a modern museum looks not like a firehose but an esthetic conundrum. […] Unshadowed, white, clean, artificial – the space is devoted to the technology of esthetics. Works of art are mounted, hung, scattered for study. Their ungrubby surfaces are untouched by time and its vicissitudes. Art exists in a kind of eternity of display, and though there is lots of ‘period’ (late modern), there is no time. This eternity gives the gallery a limbolike status; one has to have died already to be there. Indeed the presence of that odd piece of furniture, your own body, seems superfluous, an intrusion” (Ibid. 15).
The view of the art gallery as a disembodied factory for beings, made disembodied, to modishly hover around in the ether of its suspended breath; a rarefied, sterile, aseptic, miscarried space containing within it fragments of a stilled life – all this makes the pounce of horror, like cold drops of water dripping down the back of one’s neck as they slip off an overhanging a/c condenser unit, take hold. This leads me to the following question: how do you maintain freedom when work that was produced in a democratic manner, for democratic reasons, is to be presented in an essentially bureaucratic space?
Talking about installation art, Bishop states that experience “is a contested term that has received many different interpretations at the hands of many different philosophers” (2005: 8). Yet, Bishop argues, that the common denominator in all these varied interpretations of experience is “the human being who constitutes the subject of that experience” (Ibid. 8). Subject in photography is a tripartite structure: we have the photographer as the Subject who captured the image; there is also the Subject contained within the captured image; and then there is the Subject who beholds the captured image. Each of these ‘subjects’ must retain their freedom in their experience within the white walled gallery. And here I speak of the white walled gallery both literally and metaphorically, for it is easy to see how the two ‘antecedent’ subjects, namely the photographer and the model, can be disheartened, to put it mildly, when foreseeing the ‘death’ that awaits them within the ‘white walled gallery’.
O’Doherty, tracing a journey from the Salons of the nineteenth century to present day art galleries, sees a developing movement by the two ‘antecedent’ subjects spoken of earlier (namely, the creator and his/her imaged content) to encroach on and contest the wall of the gallery. “It is now impossible to paint up an exhibition without surveying the space like a health inspector, taking into account the esthetics of the wall which will inevitably ‘artify’ the work in a way that frequently diffuses its intentions” (O’ DOHERTY 1986: 29).
O’Doherty cites an exhibition by William Anastasi, who reportedly photographed one of the empty walls of the gallery at Dwan and then hung on that same wall the ensuing print made slightly smaller than the wall. O’Doherty states that “the show had a peculiar after-effect; when the paintings came down, the wall became a kind of ready-made mural and so changed every show in that space thereafter” (1986: 34). O’Doherty here seems to be suggesting that works that somehow perform an ‘invisible’ modification to the environment are the ones that can repel the bureaucratic jargon of the art gallery.
So how can my current work which “simply requires optical contemplation (which is considered to be passive and detached)” (BISHOP 2005: 11) enable “activated spectatorship” (Ibid. 13) that is “political in implication” (Ibid. 13)? How can my current work perform a modification to the environment that is constituted within/through the active perceptive system of the beholder?
Talking about Bernd and Hilla Becher’s work, Blake Stimson states: “the experience of their work is […] realised as satisfaction (or dissatisfaction) in the object without any specific individual aim or instrumental purpose being satisfied (or frustrated), without any notion of individual interest or collective will. The experience produced, the delight that conveys satisfaction, thus, is generalised and endowed with the presumption of universality or, in Kant’s terms, ‘common sense’” (2004: 15). Stimson further states: “the Bechers present modern industry in a manner that disavows its social, political and economic value to the beholder and, in so doing, makes it available anew via an alternative category – aesthetic value or value ‘without any interest.’ This is a particular form of delight, philosophically distinct from other sorts of visual pleasure, and it conjures up a particular form of commitment, one that carries with it both the promise and the burden of social consequence” (Ibid. 15).
I too wish that my work, to use a common phrase, speaks for itself, unmediatedly; be itself by itself and for itself; have no ulterior aims. One ultimately hopes not to be forgotten.
BISHOP, Claire. 2005. Installation Art: A Critical History. Routledge.
FALMOUTH FLEXIBLE PHOTOGRAPHY HUB. 2019. Email to the author re: #Landings2019: Falmouth Flexible Photography Hub, 29 April 2019.
O’DOHERTY, Brian. 1986. Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space. USA: The Lapis Press.
STIMSON, Blake. 2004. ‘The Photographic Comportment of Bernd and Hilla Becher’. Tate Papers, 1-18.
William ANASTASI. 1967. West Wall, Dwan Main Gallery. Amazon [online] Available at: https://www.amazon.com/William-Anastasi-retrospective-1960-1995/dp/B0006F59JQ [accessed 12 July 2019].
Featured Image:Père Lachaise Cemetery [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons