Saturday, April 24, 2010

how to 'do' a gallery

Harry Kent's painting Regrets from here

In a recent comment, Obiterspeak (see right - Blogs I Follow) provided a very engaging description of her experience in art galleries  which made me think more about mine own, and wonder if there is a ‘right’ way to ‘do’ a gallery. And even more fundamentally, what a gallery is anyway that it makes me feel the way I do in there, and act in the peculiar way that I do. I mean, I don’t carry on like that in a supermarket, where there are also things on display to study, consider and relate to.

Peter Timms provides a description of the gallery viewer’s progress in What's Wrong with Contemporary Art? 
What's Wrong with Contemporary Art?“The next time you visit a gallery, sit yourself down in an inconspicuous place and, instead of the art, watch the visitors. Most people will spend no more than five seconds in front of each work.They will probably devote more time to reading the labels. Very often, they will simply saunter past without pausing, their heads cocked to one side. Thirty seconds for each work is an unusually long time, and more than a minute starts to look pretentious. All you can do in thirty seconds is to take in the visual hit: what the work looks like and whether or not it pleases or excites you. You can't begin to make even the most superficial assessment of it. If a work happens to prick your interest, that will rarely induce you to contemplate it longer, but instead will send you off to lean more about it from some other source. Maybe you’ll buy the exhibition catalogue and read the essay, or wait for the exhibition to be reviewed in the newspaper. Perhaps you’ll ask someone with more knowledge than you have to explain it to you. In other words, you will seek information from some source other than the work itself. We don't usually regard the viewing of a work of art as an act of discovery but rather as a prompt or cue for investigation elsewhere.

By their very nature most galleries do nothing to encourage intimate encounters with the art they show. They are interested in getting as many people as possible through the front door, not in fostering contemplation of the art. Even the most visitor-friendly tend to be cold and unwelcoming, designed to impress rather than reassure. If seating is provided, it will be of the sort that says: 'You may perch here for a moment or two, but don't make yourself comfortable'. Many contemporary art museums, such as the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art in Melbourne, seem designed as statements of naked power and intimidation. Not even the most seductive art can induce us to linger in such hostile environments” (p. 109).

What Timms doesn’t do is explain why those people went in there in the first place. What were they hoping for? Why do they keep coming back? Why have half a million Australians queued for hours to see the Impressionists?  "Some people are very quick, some people seem to take six hours. But everyone can go through at their own pace" I am not as pessimistic as Timms. I have less difficulty accepting the plurality of motives and needs people may have. And hence the plurality of ways of progressing through a gallery even though looked at through the lens of cultural anthropology, gallery visits are a mighty strange beast.

Upon our initial visit we may be walking zombies with eyes like saucers. After repeat visits we may rush straight to our favourites. Nowadays, whenever visiting the National Gallery in London, I stride resolutely straight through to Vincent’s Wheat fields with cypresses, September 1889. ( ) .Vincent painted 3 of these, each different. And an interesting pen drawing of the same which shows how deliberate his swirling forms were, how carefully he placed and accentuated ‘information-rich’ areas where lines change direction. This painting absolutely glows. The colours so finely tuned. The joy so abundant. It is fresh every time I see it. I am refreshed every time I see it. But yes, I walk briskly through the Pre-Raphaelites and past Stubbs. I’ve dwelt on them in the past, heard the exegesis of volunteer guides. I know my eyes and my feet can only take so much. And nowadays I’m after slow art  – a few pieces dwelt on, breathed in, memorised, like a familiar face.

For me galleries are places to explore, to poke about, sometimes to drift with Wordsworth lonely as cloud, other times to storm through ferociously hunting a quarry, and other times to be a calm methodical student with notebook in hand. Sometimes the mind out of focus, passively massaged. Other times sharp, analytical. Sometimes tolerant, accepting. Other times picky, critical, short-tempered and judgemental. Sometimes, like Obiterspeak, “driven only by what seems like an unintelligent desire to see or take in ... I just look or go where my appetite takes me. Sometimes though it seems as if ghosts pull me in different directions “. Though often enough nowadays, I spend time getting up close, looking at surface, examining brush-work. Or thinking about historical or stylistic context. Or an artist’s personal tale. Or decoding use of symbolism. Or delighting in aesthetic arousal. Or simply looking for the basement cafe. Which of these is the wrong way to be in a gallery? Which is the ‘correct’ way?

I believe all are the right way. How I wandered aimlessly round the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery as a teenager was as right for me back then as it was right for me last year as I purposefully sought out Marlene Duma’s work at the Pompidou. Because the mind we bring at any given time is the right mind. What Zen calls Everyday Mind. (  , ). There is nothing special we have to ‘be’ or to ‘do’. We are constantly ‘becoming’ and in choosing to keep company with the works in galleries, we will inexorably become one who notices more, reflects more, and feels more.

But sure, having knowledge enables greater complexities to be understood. Having more language enables more to be articulated. Having more developed sensibilities enables a richer experience. But these are all matters of degree. First and foremost, I appreciate that whacky things such as galleries ever came to into existence (however distorted the art market may be) and that, historically, the human struggle for equality and opportunity was the mid-wife to their birth. I love to see old widowers seeking the company of Borland’s Elle Macpherson 1, the homeless keeping warm in front Brett’s Alchemy 2, Japanese tourists puzzle before Nolan’s Ned 3, and well-behaved school groups making notes on the floor beneath Blue Poles 4. We all belong there. We all bring there what we each have. And maybe take away a little more than what we arrived with when it’s time to go.

It’s all good



  1. Harry , your blog and works are great .
    i've just read this first post and saw the works on all over the blog .
    about this one i really have lots to comment . hahah! i am lazy right now .
    it is a pleasure to have discovered this now .
    all the best .
    see you soon .
    Caio .

  2. Thanks for the kind comments, Caio...and it sure was a pleasure for me dive into your ocean of words at Mein Welt, esp the 'things I like' ... as for your painting - amazing gutsy work ... i'll be back for more ... keep dreaming

  3. soooo good to look through your work, read some of the great 'stuff' surrounding it all and refresh my my memory and inspire me yet again. Good your back on board and already getting stuck into more painting too, (had us wondering where you got to for a bit!)and you keep dreamin' too