Experiencing the work of art and design

“The birth of the reader is at the cost of the death of the author” – Barthes

When you go to sites of display, such as a gallery or art centre, there is usually a prescribed route the audience follow through the pieces of art. The order in which these art pieces are displayed is often in accordance with order of importance, and is obviously created by a curator. In the Musée d’Orsay, Paris, for example, the route ends with artists that are not well known, or are perhaps not the canons of art history that we’ve all heard of since Primary school (such as Michelangelo). Canonical works e.g. Mona Lisa, David, would be found towards the front of a route. This is done so that if you give up half way through the gallery, you don’t miss out on the important artefacts. But what are you leaving out if you choose to do this? A considerable amount of artworks!

Some curators (I think the best ones) will think about the work of the specific artist they are curating and design the route around the type of design the work involves. It’s like telling a story and, while they cannot totally prescribe what a person does when they walk in a huge gallery room, many will follow the route laid out before them; even if this is as simple as following the people traffic in one direction. People move around the gallery in procession together, with a notion of collective, but also an individual notion exists, as people are lost in their own thoughts whilst they view the art objects. Being the rebel I am, I like to walk into a gallery room and decide for myself what I want to see first, prescribing my own viewing order. I’m quite good at ignoring everyone else jostling to view certain pieces and I won’t jostle; I usually pick a place away from the commotion and stand still, allowing others to move around me. What do you do?

Carol Duncan talks about liminality and the gallery as a ritual ground. Public spaces are the everyday spaces we habituate and the galleries and museums we visit are different; they seem to linger in their own time. Duncan says that gallery spaces are liminal spaces and almost church like. They have a different concept of time, different rules of behaviour, a different culture and, for this reason, they are almost like ritual grounds. She takes of the motion of everyone following the same route as if on a pilgrimage. The audience follow the route prescribed and stare in awe at the objets d’art to feel the aura in accordance with Benjamin’s theories.

In the instance of a white cube, the art works are framed by the neutral space (even though it can be said that neutral space doesn’t exist). The Louvre, for example, is far from being a white cube space, so the histories of the place, the décor, and the atmosphere all impact on the viewing experience.

Taking some examples of installations to apply Duncan’s theories to: Chris Ofili’s ‘The Upper Room’ is set out is similar to the 12 disciples and the last supper, with a head monkey in an image at the head of the table, as Jesus. The dark corridor before entering the room prepares you, cleanses you, for what you are about to see and then you are IN the piece of art in a way, as the set up is as if the floor is the table that the monkeys sit around, as per the Last Supper. The pieces are individually spot lit in such a way that paintings are reflected into the floor below them, making it possible for the audience to stand within the image, in a way. The reflections are much like stained glass. It is very much liminal, as the room is almost on the periphery of reality and is detached from the everyday. It is particularly postmodern to view these images as closely as is possible, without them being in glass cases, or roped off, which would be the modernist way.

The Photographers gallery in London: There used to be a room with benches set up in the centre of it, which was used as seating for the cafe, so the audience sat around drinking their tea whilst looking at the images. It is rather ritualistic to congregate in an area and drink tea, but it’s definitely not as ritualistic as the spaces in the opposite of a white cube situation. Duncan’s notion of liminality is subverted or problematised as the two spaces merge: that of the cafe and the non-route around the gallery. It is almost as if there are two rituals combining together here. It could depend on the subject of the work itself, as it may be possible that the artist demands a relaxed situation around their images in order to develop the aura of the objects further and in an intentional way. It is very postmodern of the gallery to have merged these two areas as the boundaries have become blurred between the two.

When there is a ritual ground involved, there is often a very linear factor to it, as there might be to our everyday lives. This merge of the cafe and gallery also might ruin a lot of people’s rituals in a gallery, as it removes the linearity of their visit. The space has been reconfigured into a social space, rather than a space to view the works of art, almost as if the people in the room are ignoring the objects of art. The opposite of this would be the theory of civilising the space. By freeing the work and not ascribing one reading to it, as might come from the author/artist, we are then freed up to read the work and interpret it in our own way.

The key theory for today is from:

Carol Duncan – ‘Civilising Rituals’

Roland Barthes – ‘The Death of the Author’

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