Saturday, December 21, 2013

The Total Art Context
Art Essay

Marie-Therese Wisniowski

Artists do not live in isolation but rather draw from the past, consume the present and moreover, find sources for their inspiration in the nooks and crannies of their mind and spirit in order to map their imagination onto a physical world. It is therefore important to begin with the seeds, expose the roots before discussing the flower. That is, we need to begin with the milieu, which lead artists to create their own independent space “... rather than modifying space, which was given to them by a museum"[1]. How you display your artwork is a vital ingredient in the act of engagement – one of the necessary conditions for artwork in order for you to manage or encase its art context.

I hope you enjoy this essay that I penned for the next generation of curators.

This will be the last post for 2013. The next post will be on the 11th of January, 2014. No matter what your religion or what your belief system, I hope you have a very enjoyable break during this festive season.


Leonardo da Vinci - Mona Lisa - Lourve Museum. Sometimes the artwork overwhelms the display.

Vignette of the History of Museums and Galleries
The major vehicle for engagement of the “masses” with “Art” has been the development of the concept of the “Museum”. The Latin word museum (Greek: mouseion) has had an evolving definition. In classical times it signified a temple dedicated to the muses, the latter embodying nine sprightly and pleasantly amoral young goddesses, who watched over the welfare of music, love, poetry, oratory, history, tragedy, comedy, dance and astronomy[2].

The nine muses: Clio, Thalia, Erato, Euterpe, Polyhymnia, Calliope, Terpsichore, Urania, and Melpomene.

The concept of a museum was barely kept alive in Western Europe during the middle ages. In these times, religious icons embellished with silver, gold and jewels, manuscripts in sumptuous metal bindings, rich oriental fabrics and works of religious art were exhibited and housed in churches, cathedrals and monasteries. Organized private or palace collections of princes and nobles began from the spoils of wars (e.g. the Crusades etc.)[3]

The Bayeux Tapestry is a 0.5 x 68.38 meter (or 1.6 by 224.3 ft) long embroidered cloth depicting Harold coming to Normandy.

By the sixteenth century another word appeared to express the museum concept - the gallery (Italian: galleria). It is a long grand hall lighted from the side[4]. It came to signify an exhibition area for pictures and sculpture. In Western Europe in the late seventeenth century museums began to go public, with the University of Basel opening the first public museum in 1671[4].

Haus zur Mücke 1769-1862.
In 1671, the Amerbach Kabinett art collection was transferred to the house - "Zur Mücke" - near Cathedral Square in Basel and opened to the public, becoming one of the city's major attractions.

Museums are now very complex institutions. They have a number of different and varied facets, namely they[5]: house collections; conserve; engage in research; act as interpretative vehicles; are used as a cultural center and as a social instrument; are developers of professions; and moreover, exhibit. Museums are undeniably in motion in order to survive. That is, to remain relevant they must evolve with the evolving tastes crafted, but not necessarily managed by artists.

Museums as Exhibitors Prior to 1900s (and in some cases) to this Day
It is generally conceded that the “modern” concept of a museum began with the opening of the Louvre to the public (after the French revolution of 1793)[6]. Objects constitute the essence of a modern museum. Clearly, these objects were displayed for the purpose of engagement with the public so constituting an exhibition. Traditionally, art museums aimed to let the work of art engage freely and directly with the viewer[7]. For example, at Munich Pinakothek, the paintings were placed so that each school of painting could be viewed in its own discrete space without the distraction of others[8].

Lourve in Paris, France.

There are two chief classes of exhibits – permanent and temporary. Since the 1850s with Eastlakes’s introduction of a historical framework for displaying works of art in the National Gallery[9], museums have generally used organizing principles for both classes of exhibits. Generally, themes and sub-themes are used to arrange a series of objects in some ordered sequence, supported by interpretative aids such as labels, diagrams, photographs and perhaps multimedia devices. The three components of an exhibition are: the story line or concept, the objects to be showcased (using various display techniques) and the area setting (i.e. exhibition space). For example, in the British Museum (Natural History) in the 1880s the specimens displayed in the “Bird Galleries” demonstrated their places on the classificatory epistemological table through the display design[10].

Gyps fulvus (Griffon Vulture) at the British Natural History Museum.

In traditional exhibitions in art museums, a curatorial order is normally used. That is, the arrangement maybe chronological, historical grouping by school, geographic or based on some other organizing principle, but the curator makes judgments of quality, value and aesthetic compatibility[11]. The latter is not to be dismissed, since although an organization principle is evident, a curator may nevertheless place attractive works in vistas framed by doorways, adjusting space between works and moreover, give special consideration to entry and summary areas in order to bring out their aesthetic quality and so highlight the work of the artists[12].

For over a hundred years now Eastlake’s dictum[9] is still evident in such places as the National Portrait Gallery in London, where portraits are hung at what are considered to be the optimum height and the viewer is placed at the most appropriate distance. Moreover, in this museum an evolutionary tale is being unfolded in order to map the national progress. The museum halls are arranged with carefully spaced and orderly display cases that rigorously define the appropriate viewing conditions[10].

The National Portrait Gallery in Trafalgar Square in London was founded in 1856 to collect portraits of famous British men and women and today serves as a visual history of England from Shakespeare to Sporty Spice and all that which falls in between.

Museums - Modifying Their Spaces
By the end of the 18th century the function of many of the museums, especially in North America, was a “Cabinet of Curiosities”[13]. By the early 20th century, museums became “modern” and so many became thematic (e.g. Natural History, Museums of Modern Art, Science and Technology Museums), whilst others remained encyclopedic institutions (e.g. The Metropolitan Museum of Art)[14].

Museums are complex institutions and so demands are made on the space that they have at their disposal. For example, they house collections, conserve, do research and are also open to the public. Hence, space needs to be partitioned between private (offices, library collections and archives etc.) and public areas. Not all of the public space is available for exhibition, since these institutions educate (e.g. bookshops, theatres, study and educational centers), cater for food, have public conveniences and storage facilities for personal items of the public. Within the exhibition space, care must also be taken with respect to occupational, health and safety requirements, which may further impinge on the presentations of the exhibitions[15].

Floor Plan of the National Gallery of Victoria (Australia).

For many years (and even to this day), museums present their exhibits in rectangular or square shaped rooms, using the four walls and floors to display their objects. Moreover, the spatial arrangements are often simplistic, easy to grasp and the relationship between the visitor and the “engagement” (which is on offer by the artist and the museum) is usually direct, unhindered and uncluttered. Perhaps what typifies this approach is the following detailed description of the interior of the Museum of Modern Art New York in 1939[16]: “The Museum interior was transformed into antiseptic, laboratory like–spaces – enclosed, isolated, artificially illuminated, and apparently neutral environments – where viewers could study works of art which were displayed as so many isolated specimens”.

Counter Space: Design and the Modern Kitchen - Display at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), New York.

Whether these objects were two or three-dimensional was immaterial; space was carefully partitioned and managed by the museum (and not necessarily by the artist). In the case where the artist wished to explore both the space and form of the object into a unified “engagement”, museums were not always deemed a relevant vehicle. Hence such artists were deemed to have[17] “… built [their] own thing, not connected to any museum of art”. In other words, art somehow (no matter how tenuous) needed to be connected with the space made available by the museum.

A scientific revolution began in 1912. Einstein had renounced three-dimensional space, which had been so happily nurtured by Newton and before him by Euclid[18]. The Euclidean space of width, length and height was no longer completely relevant in measurement or in empirical science. Matter had distorted the space phenomenon by the inclusion of time, resulting in four dimensions, namely: length, width, height and time. It was clear that the innovators of art were not oblivious to what was happening in science. In art parlance, this space was translated in terms of three-dimensional space coupled to a fourth, namely, the “viewer/artist/museum engagement” – the total art context; that is, a three-dimensional world curved into the four dimensions of total engagement. Hence the museums modified their space to engage the viewer accordingly. Nevertheless, artworks would still not be exhibited if they challenged or defeated the very architecture of the building itself.

In 1919 Walter Gropius founded the Bauhaus School[19]. With exhibitions, he aimed to make the objects on display the sole focus and so played down display techniques. The manifesto Gropius echoed became the chant of post-modern museums some sixty years later, namely[20]: “The ultimate goal of all visual arts is the complete building”.

In order to satisfy this immediate need, decisions were made not to let viewers meander at will, but rather to pay strict attention to circulation of the viewer in order to obtain maximum engagement. Hence, the Bauhaus designers organized the floor plan to obtain uninterrupted flow of traffic and to encourage the visitor to view all exhibits (i.e. space and engagement was now curved by time). For example, in the German Werkbund show of 1930 in Paris, Gropius built a bridge to give the viewers an overview of the exhibit as well as to assist them in moving forward[21]. On the other hand, designers such as Baker painted footprints on the floor in the MOMA to move viewers from left to right, since he reasoned that reading the labels was also a left to right eye movement[22]. A similar approach was taken by the National Gallery of Australia for the permanent collections, where pathways are clearly marked and subtly assisted viewer circulation[23]. Even in my own installation - “Codes” - I attempted to develop the two-dimensional ArtCloth (usually draped on walls) into three dimensional objects (hung from ceilings), where the circulation and the pace of the viewer was somewhat controlled by the walls of art that confronted them whilst they were moved subtly in and out and in between ArtCloth during the act of engagement[24].

Counter Space: Design of the Modern Kitchen. The planned route for the walk through (MOMA).

Some modern designers of museum exhibitions now prefer curved or angled directions, screen walls, moveable panels, varied divisions, angles, or lightweight and flexible structural framing systems to reduce the sheer acreage of floors and so add to the appeal and also to diminish boredom of an exhibition. Hence it is not unusual to vary the floor-scape (i.e. carpet, stone, brick etc.) and to add one or two steps or the occasional ramp or bridge so to alter the pace of engagement by the viewer (as Gropius did). For example, for Dale Chihuly’s Exhibition – “Masterworks in Glass”[25] - the viewer stepped into an artificial confined narrow corridor with a ceiling of glassworks that was Chihuly’s Persian Pergola. Circulation was directed and the pace slowed, due to the restriction of the corridor. Moreover, the viewers were moved on a different floor-scape in order to substantiate that they were entering an enclosed passage of glass art, which was so distinct from Chihuly’s other displayed objects in the exhibition. For example, the pace of engagement was controlled by a steady pressure from those behind pushing forward, translating into a steady pressure to those in front, creating a time frame for the act of engagement; that is, a steady trickle streamed through the corridor.

Chihuly’s Persian Pergola.

Chihuly’s Persian Pergola Sketch.
Note: The artist in the sketch intentionally heightens the act of engagement.

The Emergence of the Architect-Artists
Modern museums are still a force to be reckoned with, even though their architecture have evident limitations both of the labyrinth and of flexible space. The second generation of modern museum designs no longer viewed themselves as a monument, but rather embraced an “open museum” concept pioneered by Willem Sanberg at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam[26]. The exhibition became a place where[26] "... artists meet their public and where the public themselves become creators”. For example, in Bonn a new Kunstmuseum opened in a building designed by Axel Shultes[27]. The collection of post-war German art was displayed according to the principle of one artist per room. Whilst Serota[28] concedes that such an arrangement of art gives the viewer a cumulative experience, such a configuration nevertheless avoids the exploration between artists or parallels between periods.

Willem Sanberg (Graphic Designer) – Museum Journal For Modern Art Cover (1963).

Even the “open architecture” design in itself presents a challenge to artists. Artists who[1] “... have created environments which establish independent space to be entered by the viewer” could be labeled as architect-artists[17], since they challenge the very foundations of the museum itself – its managed space. They represent a group that wish to capture the space within the museum under their control rather than pass on that control to the curator[29]. Artists such as Rothko (Seagram Murals), Still (San Fransico Museum of Modern Art) and Lissitky (Proun Room) and Schwitters’ (Merzhau), as Serota[30] has pointed out, all expose a sense of frustration with the objects – paintings - as the sole means to control space. Hence the architect-artists need to capture the whole room in order to put the three-dimensional world curved into the fourth dimension of time to engage under their own control.

Rothko’s the Seagram murals at Tate Modern.
Photo Courtesy of David Sillitoe.

Whilst in modern literature “closed worlds” are commonplace (e.g. Tolkin’s Lord of the Rings or Peake’s trilogy centered on Gormenghast), “closed worlds” became a further challenge for the architect-artists. This is now the ultimate control of the “engagement” delivered from the architect-artists to the viewer directly and without interference from curatorial control. Perhaps the most effective example of a creation of a “closed world” is Marcel Duchamp’s Etant donnes. His world (with its psychological overtones) is a permanent exhibition in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

An excellent description of a “closed world” approach has been given by Serota[31]. Initially a viewer is guided to an old wooden Spanish door framed in a brick archway set within a plastered wall. The viewer is invited to look through two holes at eye level and sees a brilliantly lit landscape in the background with a woman flung on brushwood, legs apart, holding a dimly lit gas light. As Serota[31] aptly points out: “A sense of complicity is established between the artists and the single viewer, a collusion excluding all other visitors”. Hence, a “closed world” has been established with the viewer entrapped in a sense of voyeurism. It is shocking, haunting and sealed as a secret (akin to what your parents never wanted you to see but what you peeked at nevertheless and then became shocked at what you saw - welcome to the internet!) Whilst this is part of a permanent installation it still only offers a parcel of work juxtaposed with those others housed in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Marcel Duchamp’s Etant donnes – One is guided to a wooden door.

Marcel Duchamp’s Etant donnes – The viewer is entrapped in a sense of voyeurism.

Perhaps an even more striking example of the desire to create a “closed world” is the work of architect-artist Donald Judd. In the late 1970s he created a new form of museum at Marfa Texas. He purchased a range of disused military building, which he renovated and then complemented with additions of his own design. His purpose was to develop permanent installations so that the viewer could encounter a particular work of art within a given space and pace[32] “... where change is brought about not by new juxtapositions but by the changing natural light at different times of the day and by changing the perspective of the viewer”. He created this space to display his own work extensively and the selected work of others. It is clear from his viewpoint that the “felt engagement” is more than just mono dimensional. Time as well as space are employed here. Contemplation and immersion in both space and time according to Judd deepens the act of engagement.

Judd Foundation’s mission is to maintain and preserve Donald Judd's permanently installed living and working spaces, libraries, and archives in New York and Marfa, Texas.

As architect-artists have striven to develop “closed worlds”, they have further widened the sense of the nature of a museum and/or gallery. More recent additions to the stable of museums express a psychoanalytical view of a single artist (in some cases) and so are in themselves “closed worlds”. For example, Brett Whitely purchased an old warehouse in Surrey Hills (Australia) and developed it (in a rudimentary fashion) as his studio and place of abode. It was not unusual for the floor of his studio to be covered in two inches of water after a heavy Sydney storm. On his death the warehouse became a museum celebrating the work and life of this single artist. The warehouse has been “sanitized” (for occupational, health and safety reasons). Groups such as “school artists” etc. and the occasional visitor are invited to step into the “mind” and life of this artist. We can lounge where he supposedly lounged and not only read, but experience his influences and his art. The space has been carefully managed and crafted to make you feel that a mental, if not spiritual connection has been made with the man himself.

The Brett Whiteley Studio, a tribute to the life of Brett Whiteley, one of Australia’s most gifted, best known and controversial artists, closed on April 30th 2007.

The ultimate in avoiding the use of captured spaces (as defined by the use of interiors of buildings) is to design your art as an outside event. Whilst sculpture has performed such a task for centuries, the new wave of architect-artists captured the act of engagement of art as a transitory experience (just like the sand paintings of the indigenous peoples) but immortalised the act by using modern technologies (photographs and/or videos). Warhol's 24 hour video of the Empire State Building is just one poor example. Perhaps the master artist in this category is Christo. His draping of landmarked buildings with cloth, projected the form of the building in context of its background and so gave well known icons a completely revitalised engagement. The photographs of a Christo event cemented the act of engagement of his art form.

Reichstag, in Berlin, wrapped by Christo and Jeanne-Claude.

It is clear that the museums and galleries are in motion, with a need for constant reinvention and rejuvenation both in concept and in architectural form. Whilst their existence has always been under threat (e.g. “info-tainment” centers, television, film, the electronic multimedia and the internet) it is their intimacy of that “felt” engagement delivered by the artists (and by the managed ambience) and moreover, their pedagogical mission that appears as yet to be irreplaceable. These houses that manage the act of engagement and learning appear to keep on mutating. For example, visit the Lourve web site, which has extensive content about its art holdings.

It is equally clear that artists should give thought to the act of engagement – in an art context. Often the space-time dimension is left to the curator to handle. As a studio artist and a curator, I welcome input from the artist – even though sometimes I shudder at the thoughts they do deliver. Artists need to conceptualize, enact their concept and get involved in heightening the act of engagement of their artwork. It is the total art context that makes art so unique to the human consciousness. Monkeys can paint but can they really participate in the act of engagement and so want to destroy their work, like Kafka did, because the act of engagement was too painful for him (but so pleasing to many others).

[1] N. Serota, Experience or Interpretation (Thames & Hudson, London, 2000) P27.

[2] E.P. Alexander, Museums in Motion (ASSLH Press, Nashville, 1979) P6.

[3] F.H. Taylor, Babel’s Tower (Columbia University Press, New York, 1945) P11.

[4] E.P. Alexander, Museums in Motion (ASSLH Press, Nashville, 1979) P8.

[5] I. Finlay, Priceless Heritage: The Future of Museums (Farber and Farber, London, 1977) 183 pp.

[6] H. Zerner in: Imagining the Future of the Museum of Modern Art, Studies in Modern Art 7 (H.M Abrams, New York, 1991) P100.

[7] E. Hooper-Greenhill, Museums and the Interpretation of Visual Culture (Routledge, London, 2000) P128.

[8] B. Taylor, Art for the Nation (Manchester University Press, Manchester, 1999) P47.

[9] N. Serota, Experience or Interpretation (Thames & Hudson, London, 2000) P7.

[10] E. Hooper-Greenhill, Museums and the Interpretation of Visual Culture (Routledge, London, 2000) P128.

[11] E. Hooper-Greenhill in, Museums Time-Machine (Routledge, London, 1988) P224-226.

[12] E.P. Alexander, Museums in Motion (ASSLH Press, Nashville, 1979) P177.

[13] K. Hudson, Museums of Influence (Cambridge University Press, London, 1987) P22.

[14] K. Hudson, Museums of Influence (Cambridge University Press, London, 1987) P220.

[15] G.D. Lowry in: Imagining the Future of the Museum of Modern Art, Studies in Modern Art 7 (H.M Abrams, New York, 1991) P75-97.

[16] A. Wallach, Essay on the Art Museums in the United States (The University of Massachusettes Press, Boston, 1998) P79.

[17] A. Isozaki in: Imagining the Future of the Museum of Modern Art, Studies in Modern Art 7 (H.M Abrams, New York, 1991) P54.

[18] R. Arnheim, Visual Thinking (University of California Press, Berkley, 1969) P290-293.

[19] S.W. Weltage, Bauhaus Textiles (Thames and Hudson, London, 1993) P208.

[20] S.W. Weltage, Bauhaus Textiles (Thames and Hudson, London, 1993) P16.

[21] E.P. Alexander, Museums in Motion (ASSLH Press, Nashville, 1979) P178.

[22] E.P. Alexander, Museums in Motion (ASSLH Press, Nashville, 1979) P179.

[23] National Gallery of Australia, ??? Permanent collection.

[24] Watt Space, Marie-Therese Wisniowski “Codes”. ?

[25] National Gallery of Australia, Dale Chihuly “Masterworks in Glass Exhibition”, 24th of September 1999 – 26th January 2000.

[26] N. Serota, Experience or Interpretation (Thames & Hudson, London, 2000) P14.

[27] N. Serota, Experience or Interpretation (Thames & Hudson, London, 2000) P17.

[28] N. Serota, Experience or Interpretation (Thames & Hudson, London, 2000) P18.

[29] N. Serota, Experience or Interpretation (Thames & Hudson, London, 2000) P20.

[30] N. Serota, Experience or Interpretation (Thames & Hudson, London, 2000) P28.

[31] N. Serota, Experience or Interpretation (Thames & Hudson, London, 2000) P30.

[32] N. Serota, Experience or Interpretation (Thames & Hudson, London, 2000) P54.

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