An exploration into the differences between expected and contemporary behaviour inside the white cube.
The gallery, like many constructed institutions, has established a specific etiquette that people are expected to adhere to within its walls. These expectations are intrinsically linked to how the white cube presents itself. While it was conceived as a neutral space where art can be seen without any external interference, it is in fact, steeped with associations – including that of religion and purity, as well as neutrality itself. Its visual conventions act as cues to alert visitors to the way they must interact – walking meditatively around, contemplating each work for an allotted time. While artists have challenged this passive interaction, through the development of installation and relational practices, the gallery still perpetuates a calm, meditative image.
By using various means of representation and documentation, the gallery constructs this image, enforcing the rules for behaviour and our expectations of fellow viewers. Brian O’Doherty, in Inside the White Cube, describes that “The installation shot is a metaphor for the gallery space” as provides the idealised viewing of art, without the intrusion of physical bodies. This is part of a more extensive propaganda that includes the representation of art through postcards, posters and monographs that show art in isolation from its physical surroundings. The reality for me, and the majority of viewers, is much more messy. While the attempted neutrality aims to separate art from life the presence of spectators and their ‘physical bodies’ bring this interference, and life, into the space.
One of the reasons public galleries gain funding is so that art can increase visitors in an area, providing income for the local economy. While for galleries in major cities this isn’t the only attraction, the idea of art being an element of tourism is pertinent to our experience within them. With renowned museums like the Tate, the Louvre and the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) being part of the itinerary for most tourists, they attract a much more general public and conventions of tourism seep into the gallery. Just as you would photograph Big Ben, The Eiffel Tower and the Statue of Liberty, it is important to capture the equivalent ‘celebrity’ artworks upon visiting these institutions. While the Mona Lisa is the undeniable champion, galvanising the most attention, with swarms of visitors partaking in the attempt to photograph her enigmatic smile – despite the excess of others attempting the same. Works like Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans and Van Gogh’s Starry Night generates a slightly less extreme, yet similar behaviour.
While some galleries prevent the paparazzi flooding the white cube by not permitting photography, many leave the decision to the viewer resulting in an array of different interactions. From methodically capturing every work with an SLR, so you have your own version of the galleries documentation to show others what you failed to look at – apart from through a lens; to the new trend of taking selfies beside, or in front of, famous works. The integration of high quality cameras into smart phones allows almost everyone to thoroughly document their lives, including visits to galleries.
While this type of photography within exhibitions does a lot to contradict the empty, lifeless image of the gallery, other more simple aspects of human behaviour similarly disrupt the illusions of the space. From coughing and sneezing, creaky floors and phones ringing, to general conversations, life is never truly separated from the white cube as long as there are people within it. And while the institution does its best to keep it out, with today’s technology where everyone is connected to their smart phone and social media has become integrated into our daily lives, nothing can be kept separate from life, even the gallery.