The subject of photographs as art, photographs in galleries, photographs as having monetary value, photographs as replicable objects etc. continues to be brought under scrutiny. It is evidence for me of the sheer speed of photography’s spread and capabilities as a technology. The technology seems to have developed much faster than our own minds can adapt to, in practice.
It surprises me that the discussion of whether photographs can be art still permeates. Perhaps the ‘Duchampian’ view that art can be anything is close to my own approach to art and image making. Whatever I make is a heartfelt expression, a thought or emotion, externalised as much as it can possibly be. It doesn’t matter the material used for the externalisation. I might paint, draw on paper, cut shapes, mould shapes, take photographs.
It is not my ultimate driver to make things to go into galleries; I think I make things because I have had/am having a difficult journey and this is my only way of dealing with it. Perhaps it is the notion that something has to come out of it all, but why I do it is exactly why I felt the need to study, and I still find it hard to think of a life for my images beyond my own intimate world. If the things I produced were to find their way into a gallery (as occasionally they have in the past) perhaps it would be because they echo something for other human beings who haven’t found a route to externalising their innermost selves.
Early 20th century ‘Readymades’ were of their time, and were a message – controversial at the time – that really anything could be art. Also, they were a message that pretty much anything can be replicated and remade, as well we know today. In galleries, perhaps we still don’t expect it, though. I went to an exhibition of Grayson Perry’s tapestries last year, and though I expected to find one-offs, I found instead that there were 5 of each tapestry in existence, all machine made, so theoretically more could be made at any time. I enjoyed the saturation of woven colour, and the fictional stories of Julie Cope, but it did change my experience as I had expected a handcrafted approach; I had imagined in advance the physical immersion and effort that the maker had put into the manufacture of each piece. I learned that the effort, as it seemed to me, was in the concept, the story, the translation from thought and imagination into something tangible, visual, engaging and colourful. The replicable nature of the tapestries was a surprise to me, but the multiple lives of Julie Cope were then sharable, viewed in more than one place at one time (and online, of course). Another exhibition that I was quite taken with was Rivane Neuenschwander’s I Wish Your Wish in 2015. I wrote about this in an old blog, clearly struck at the time by its disseminatory approach to art:
“Visitors are invited to select one ribbon only and to tie it to their wrist or ankle with three knots in the belief that when the ribbon falls the wish will be granted. The popularity of this installation and the time visitors spent reading the multitude of wishes reflects a wide belief in wishing as an act of hope and is evidence of the anxieties we carry whether they are of personal and/or global significance. To select and take a ribbon and leave a wish behind perhaps enables a strengthening or renewing of hope, and a little unburdening of anxiety. In additional to visitors’ personal engagement with I Wish Your Wish, the gradual ‘movement’ of the installation by way of participation also allows for a tangible trace of the reach of art, with people in St Ives noticeably wearing them. “The installation encourages a literal movement of the work into the space of the gallery, the town and beyond.” (Tate). The movement of this installation from gallery to gallery will also generate new series’ of wishes to disperse among other communities, and it would be interesting to know the differences in wishes between places and times. My own ribbon has so far travelled a further 410 miles with me to Cumbria, its story to be shared for weeks, months, longer.”
The politics of exhibiting anything in a gallery, however, is complex. The gallery has aims and mission statements to adhere to; the gallery has its history and reputation to maintain; the gallery has funders and friends with agendas; the gallery has to represent different pockets of society; the gallery has to please people, provoke thought, attract visitors, span communities, raise funds; the gallery has a hierarchy of decision makers whose preferences will create the order of the experience; the gallery has to be able to report some kind of impact. There are politics within the world of art and the gallery just as there are politics in everything human. The gallery is quite a strange thing for us to have created for ourselves as are the rules we make around its use as a space. I often scratch my head at the way we are, and the monetary values sometimes applied to art are no less baffling; human nature is endlessly baffling. The camera, too, is a strange thing for us to have created as are the conventions and debates that it has led to, especially around reproducibility and ownership. Richard Prince has perhaps hit on something of importance in the ‘orphaning’ of the recent portrait work he created. (if I can I will write more on this later).
My own reason for visiting galleries to view different forms of art has always been that I am also of the view that they provide a contemplatory space, spaces that we rarely have the chance to experience. They are usually quiet, usually airy, bright and cool spaces. The art they present is spaced apart, and it is nice to have a break in the constant flow of images around us. The gallery is the one space in the town or city which “can break the circuit, arrest the flow, by encouraging us to contemplate a still, or at least a slow, image.” (Barker, 1999, p21). Contemplation, for me, has great personal value. The price tag is irrelevant.
As someone who has also worked as a gallery invigilator for a few years now, I find it interesting to see the fascination of the photographer with the gallery warden as in Freeberg’s 2013 photograph, The Guardians. (see featured image). I am always aware, while I sit beside a painting, that I am a part of the visual experience for the visitor. I experience this from the other side of Freeberg’s photograph; I am the woman in the chair. But I am fascinated by the visitors, how they experience the art and how they engage with me. Sometimes they bypass me completely, don’t even look at me, though I know that they know I am there. Sometimes they smile at me. Sometimes engage in conversation or ask me questions about the work. Occasionally they comment as to how I am a part of the exhibition. I don’t mind at all. For that moment they are, too.
Barker, E. (1999) Contemporary cultures of display (Introduction), Yale University Press in association with the Open University (accessed via PHO702 Informing Contexts, 27 March 2019)
Freeberg, A. (ND) Matisse Still Life, Hermitage Museum, from The Guardians [Photograph] Available at: http://www.andyfreeberg.com/guardians.html (Accessed 27 March 2019)