Information hungry, the way we live revolves around what we know, how quickly we can collect information and how much information we can retain; this is true of the way we consider education, the way we live socially and the way we encounter the world. This also very appropriately describes the way we view art. Encountering wall texts, audio-guides, guided tours, information booklets, catalogues, not to mention the usual amenities such as artist’s names, titles and mediums, upon entering the vast majority of art galleries we are faced with fixtures which in terms of knowledge and understanding leave few stones unturned. Although what could be considered the current standard curatorial method (a didactic approach to viewing art) allows a viewer an impressively comprehensive theoretical understanding of a particular work, it does not seem to invite more creative approaches to the process of mediation or understanding. Such a heavily didactic approach to information greatly reduces the probability of a viewer forming any sort of personal or emotional connection to a work. People don’t fall for a Rothko because they understand it.
In Wonderful uncertainty a text by Raqs Media Collective, they write: ‘people bring their own histories, memories, scars and desires to bear on any work they encounter’. Surely the more prescriptively one is fed a work of art, the less one is able to bring of one’s own and thus is supposedly far less connected. Colours, shapes, objects etc. all have there own cultural and social associations, layers of representation or ‘meaning’ which we bestow upon them. However, often colours, shapes, objects, etc. are also inexplicably tied-up with personal association, representation and emotion. When one experiences a work of art, one undoubtedly experiences the work from one’s own individual viewpoint of the world.
Suzanne Lacy in her publication Mapping the terrain: new genre public art talks of engagement in terms of particular artworks, within the text is a diagram depicting what Lacy refers to as ‘rings of engagement’, which in concentric circles transform the notion of different audiences into a diagram representing different groups’ levels of interaction with a work of art, and their importance insofar as the works existence. Lacy states that the ‘innermost circle represents those without whom the work could not exist’, the outermost circle being ‘audience of myth and memory’. I suppose, the question this poses (at least to me) is whether one could consider the perspective of ‘the audience of myth and memory’ as either part of the inner circle or a different diagram completely, as although yes, the work could exist without their perspective, the work from their perspective could not exist without them. Without a specific viewer having gone through an individual process of mediating a particular piece of work, their ideas would have never been realised. It’s arguable that works of art exist as a multiplicity of individual interpretations and understandings (of which the artist is one), in which case, the individual experience is of extreme importance and the work couldn’t exist without each and every viewer (in whatever capacity that may be).
Additional information in which I am including titles, mediums, descriptive and/or explanatory wall-texts, etc. is just that – additional. The information, at least that which is crucial, is unspoken and present in the work itself. Looking for more, it’s easily forgotten that these often over-didactic methods employed by the gallery are not the only place to search. It’s important not only to understand what the work has to offer but what one has to offer to the work – experiences, memories, emotions which ultimately one has in common with the work are as, if not more important than any conceptual understanding on the part of the artist. When does information or understanding become counter-productive?
Do we really engage with a work we are told everything about? There are most certainly works that more effortlessly lend themselves to a more fluid, creative process of mediation. Just as there are works which it is much more difficult to engage with in this way, of which conceptual art proves particularly problematic. How can a work’s conceptual ideas be explained, whilst still allowing the space for a viewer’s personal thoughts and feelings to manifest? It is, I suppose, important that conceptual understanding, in terms of the artist’s understanding of their own work, is presented in some way and in that sense, a didactic attitude towards the work’s meaning is difficult to avoid – but do we really want to close off the possibility to the artwork’s full potential? Do different varieties of work require different levels of mediation and do some works in particular require there to be a more open, more fluid form of viewing?
Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ Untitled 1989-1990, a stack of endless sheets of printed paper, along with Dominique Gonzalez-Forester’s Tapis de Lecture (Reading Rug), a carpet on which an ‘L’ shaped stack of books sits waiting to be read, are both works which invite a participatory viewing. Both works surround specific conceptual meaning with an aura of ambiguity and in this sense encourage the viewer to engage in a deeper, more intrinsic encounter with the work. Gonzalez-Torres’ paper-stacks, which are intended to be taken one by one, by the viewer and are constantly replenished by the gallery, are a heavily conceptual body of works and yet in their minimal forms, do not necessarily dictate the experience or understanding of the individual. Inviting the viewer to engage in an act seldom acceptable in an art gallery in both touching and removing the work, the viewer is offered another rare opportunity of experiencing an original work of contemporary art (or at least a piece of) in their home. Tapis de Lecture is entirely different in its methods of non-specificity. The foundation of its bibliography being Gonzales-Forester’s practice; the books are ones commonly referenced within her work. Despite the specific nature of the selection of material, what the viewer (or reader) chooses to read is completely up to the individual. A viewer could read the entirety of information present in Tapis de lecture and yet their thoughts, ideas and connections between documents would be completely unique to that of Gonzales-Forester’s. Whether viewers read at all is, I suppose, dictated by the situation they might find themselves in; participation is more likely to occur if some level of participation is already taking place. As I have already attempted to establish within this text, current methods of curating and viewing art often stand in the way of the potential for a more engaged, creative experience, and this is true also of physical participation.
At the 2014 Tate Summer School Jenny Dunseath gave a talk specifically focused towards making; she had her audience/participants occupying their hands molding plasticine and their mouths with the act of chewing gum. Dunseath who sculpts and has a particular interest in idiosyncrasies and processes of making, had her audience fiddling and chewing whilst following various instructions. As her audience/participants became increasingly involved with their own process of making she spoke about an array of works, ideas and theories by both herself and other practitioners. She reeled off huge amounts of of information, including information about her work as an assistant to Antony Caro – making remained at all times the theme of her monologue. It was both my understanding and that of all other audience/participants that we experienced a point at which we had stopped listening to what Dunseath was saying. Discovering an inability to sculpt with the plasticine, follow instruction, chew gum and listen to/digest information, there came a point at which each audience/participant sort of ‘woke up’ in a panic that they had failed to take notice of what Dunseath had to say. Thankfully Dunseath reassured her listeners at the very end when she spoke about the importance of the talk/exercise being in the process and experience that each individual had had with their materials (plasticine and gum) and that learning was intentionally taking place through the physical process of doing and not listening.