Riding the Carousel
In an era when public art galleries are part of the entertainment industry, the National Gallery of Victoria is a natural habitat for a carousel. Installed in the gallery’s foyer over the summer of 2015, and now part of the NGV’s permanent collection, the mirrored surfaces of Carsten Höller’s Golden Mirror Carousel reflected riders’ faces as they chatted and held up their smartphones to take selfies.
Attempting to inject gravitas into the glitzy carnivalesque spectacle, the gallery’s program notes characterised Golden Mirror Carousel as meditative, possessing the power to alter our physical and psychological experience of the world. The Belgian artist’s work, we were informed, would cause us to reflect, ‘creating situations through which we can reimagine how we move through the world and reconsider our place in it’. Louise Neri, senior director of the heavyweight Gagosian Gallery, which represents Höller, likened the ostentatious installation to a Renaissance mise en abyme (a technique whereby an image depicts a smaller copy of itself, in a sequence appearing to recur indefinitely). Puncturing the artspeak, Höller has commented that it made sense to install a carousel in a museum as museums are a kind of amusement park.
Hyperbolic claims aside, Höller’s carousel ticked all the boxes on the contemporary curator’s wishlist: accessible, participatory, fun, family-friendly and photogenic. Just as enjoyable as a trip to Luna Park, albeit not nearly as thrilling as an adrenalin-fuelled ride on the double-helix Höller slides installed in the Turbine Hall of Tate Modern in 2006 (Test Site). Kidult entertainment is de rigueur for museums these days. It couldn’t be more apt, then, that Play-Doh, a lumpy, multi-coloured, Jeff Koons sculpture, has been hailed by the New York Times art critic Roberta Smith as an ‘almost certain masterpiece’.1
A survey of recent and upcoming exhibitions in public art institutions in Australia and overseas indicates that fashion, food, and cars—the obsessions of the wealthy modern world—are all on the menu. The institutions’ promiscuous embrace takes in all manner of creativity in their efforts to get crowds through the turnstiles. Exhibitions with entertainment value, designed to have mass consumer appeal and marketed with the inflated rhetoric of a luxury car ad, are dominating exhibition calendars. And after seeing the show, we exit through the souvenir shop—or ‘design store’, as these places are now branded. Major galleries around the world are expanding their shops to accommodate a vast array of merchandise. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York takes more in shop sales than it does in admissions and memberships. Enthusing over the commodification of the gallery experience, Ewan McEoin, a senior curator at the NGV, commented, ‘Our focus is to make [the gallery] a retail destination, not just a place to see art.’2
In presenting art as entertainment for the masses, public galleries are responding, in part, to a decline in public funding. The only way to impress our political masters and mistresses—not renowned for their artistic sensibilities—is by that crude measure of success: visitor numbers. Public art institutions have become businesses in the arts industry with an obligation to demonstrate their income-producing capacity.
Art for art’s sake has always been a difficult notion to sell in a (white) nation founded on a sheep’s back, and in an age of economic rationalism art for art’s sake is old currency. Art is a commodity in a market-driven art world. The production and consumption of art is a global industry stoked by wealthy collectors, new oil-rich art centres such as Dubai, and the emergence of private commercial galleries with a global reach such as Pace, Hauser & Wirth and Gagosian (the latter gallery has an online shop where you can buy artist-branded apparel, decor, jewellery and kids’ stuff including a Jeff Koons baby T-shirt for tiny Koons fans). Fashion houses and artists are opening their own galleries as an extension of their brand, the most recent examples being the Fondation Louis Vuitton in the Bois de Boulogne, Paris, designed by starchitect Frank Gehry, and celebrity artpreneur Damien Hirst’s London gallery, constructed to house his personal collection of more than 2000 pieces (including the aforementioned Koons work Play-Doh). Hirst’s street-length gallery has a retail outlet to complement his online shop, where you can buy a range of Hirst products.
Artists are promoting their brand by involvement in all manner of activities. One high-profile example is performance artist Marina Abramović—one of the few people on the planet who could outstare Julie Bishop—who has appeared in Givenchy ads, collaborated with Lady Gaga (as has Koons), designed a fashion collection (her silk jumpsuits have magnetic inserts with spiritually improving messages) and performed in an opera entitled The Life and Death of Marina Abramović. Despite the opera’s title, Abramović is still with us. She has, however, planned a posthumous performance piece—her funeral. Three coffins, each to be dispatched in a different direction after the ceremony, will befuddle those wanting to know the location of her final resting place.
Thinking about celebrity artists brings to mind Ai Weiwei, selfie-obsessed dissident artist and compulsive recorder of his life. His art practice has spawned such antics as smashing and defacing Chinese antiquities, and playing dead on a beach on the Greek island of Lesbos for an image exhibited at the India Art Fair. Weiwei posed for the photograph in the same posture as Aylan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian boy washed up on the shores of Turkey last year, whose image became—at least until public sentiment and social media moved on to another image, another cause—the defining symbol of the plight of Syrian refugees.
A decline in public funding has led to a greater reliance by art galleries on corporate sponsors and philanthropists. Cosying up to commerce comes with the risk that benefactors may seek to influence programming. Corporate sponsors expect a reward for their largesse; they may well prefer their brand to be associated with popular, high-profile exhibitions with their name ‘up in lights’. Lisa Dennison, former director of the Guggenheim Museum in New York, has commented that museums often have to invent programming to match the corporate gift, with the result that the basics—operations, acquisitions, building programs and capital campaigns—are underfunded. Elizabeth Ann Macgregor, director of Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art, has also warned of the dangers of reliance on corporate sponsors and philanthropists. While acknowledging that private donors generally accepted that giving money did not give them a licence to make artistic decisions, Macgregor has stated that nobody is without an agenda.
The final exhibition staged at the Whitney Museum in New York before it moved downtown to a new building designed by starchitect Renzo Piano was a huge Koons retrospective sponsored by clothing retailer H&M. The company timed the opening of its new flagship Fifth Avenue store—its largest in the world—to coincide with the Whitney show. A giant image of Koons’ Balloon Dog (Yellow) and the words ‘Fashion loves Art Jeff Koons’ were inscribed on the shopfront; at the opening, excited shoppers snapped up limited-edition handbags emblazoned with Koons’ signature yellow balloon dog. In a perfect marriage of art and commerce, H&M described the Fifth Avenue premises on its Facebook page as a ‘one-of-a-kind museum inspired store’. As museums increasingly resemble retail shops, a chain store is the ideal repository for the Koons brand. Why bother going to the museum when you can buy your very own limited-edition Koons for US$49.50 at H&M?
If you missed out on a Koons doggie bag, you can console yourself with some merchandise from the recent Warhol–Weiwei blockbuster at the NGV. Donning a Warhol or Weiwei eye mask as you recline your seat and settle in for a long-haul flight might earn you points for your art cred—although sporting a Weiwei mask on a Chinese airline is probably not a good idea. Perhaps you’d prefer a set of drink coasters depicting Weiwei giving the finger to the Louvre and other sites of cultural significance.
This, then, is the contemporary project of our public galleries: engage with the masses through commerce and entertainment. And what defines the masses more than anything these days? Our distracted state.
One of the defining characteristics of contemporary society is its love affair with technology. Like all intimate affairs, our relationship with technology is complex. An enormous reservoir of information (both trash and treasure) is accessible on the internet, and email and social media have expanded our sense of connectedness (however superficial that connection may be). This has come at a cost, changing our way of being in the world. Constant connection means being constantly distracted. We are intellectually restless. We skim images and text, toggle between tasks, congratulating ourselves on our nimbleness. However, it seems that all this flitting between technological interfaces is making it more difficult to sustain deep, reflective thinking. How does this distracted psychological state play out in our galleries?
Trumpeted as the biggest show in the NGV’s history (bigger is better in an art world addicted to spectacle), the massive Melbourne Now exhibition featured the work of more than 300 artists, architects, designers and ‘creative practitioners’ operating in what contemporary art parlance terms ‘a postmedium condition’. A show bag of multitudinous practices including graphic and industrial design, fashion and jewellery, it was enough to make you giddy—even without a ride on the carousel.
In their energetic pursuit of the idea that a gallery visit should be a noisy communing with the masses rather than an intimate experience, a major thread of the exhibition was Playtime (a common trope of contemporary art—one of Koons’ series of works is called ‘Easyfun’). Visitors to the NGV could play ping pong, string wooden beads or stick coloured birds on a wall. Like kids in kinder, we could all be creative practitioners in this democratic, infantilised site of play. The busy interactive spaces left little room for contemplative works such as Rick Amor’s painting Mobile Call of 2012, depicting a lone man on his mobile phone in a graffitied lane (so Melbourne, so now). A crowded jumble of art practices, Melbourne Now was noisy, participatory and family-friendly. An exercise in metropolitan branding, it attracted $2 million in government funding. Melbourne Now reflected our fragmented attention spans, catered to our distracted selves. In its zeal to engage with a mass audience by breaking down the walls between the gallery and the exterior world, the public gallery has become yet another arena in which to be distracted and entertained. Bloated by promotional hype and merchandising, hostages to fashion in exhibition programming, our public art institutions are in danger of running aground in the shallower waters of contemporary culture.
Public art institutions reflect many features of contemporary culture: the ephemeral attractions of fashion, commodity culture, the favouring of novelty over intellectual and imaginative complexity, infatuation with celebrity and youth. In this market-driven world, art institutions must rediscover the conviction to create an alternative imaginative space that isn’t just spectacle, commercial hype and novelty.
Our society is wedded to narrow instrumentalist values. As art has no clearly defined function, this is problematic for those whose job it is to argue for more public funding of art galleries. It has prompted cash-strapped institutions to mount projects designed to demonstrate art’s value in utilitarian terms. To take one example that played out on the NGV’s walls: philosopher duo Alain de Botton and John Armstrong’s Art as Therapy project (also displayed in different incarnations in Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum and the Art Gallery of Ontario), which was designed to demonstrate art’s social utility. According to de Botton, ‘The challenge is to rewrite the agendas for our art museums so that collections can begin to serve the needs of psychology as effectively as, for centuries, they served those of theology.’3
In its rejection of the notion of art for art’s sake, de Botton and Armstrong’s intervention was founded on the view that if art is to enjoy its privileges, it must demonstrate its relevance to the widest possible audience by helping us with the business of living. Recycling the old notion of art as an instrument for moral improvement, they captioned selected works with uplifting statements about art’s power to heal our psychic ailments. Cheaper than a course of antidepressants and no nasty side effects. De Botton and Armstrong perceive art as a sort of self-raising agent: a trip to the gallery makes us better citizens. They propose that art can rebalance your mood, help you to gain self-knowledge and self-esteem, become a better person, and even be a better decorator. In their ideal institution, separate galleries would be devoted to work, love, family, mortality, community, status and anxiety—a rollcall of topics suitable for a Sunday morning sermon.
The philosophers’ platitudinous captions resembled extracts from a self-help manual. They reframed the works, lifting them out of their historical context and stripping them of ambiguity. New meanings were created through speculative narratives. Finding moral lessons in the most unlikely places, Picasso—inveterate philanderer—became the vehicle for relationship advice: the caption accompanying Weeping Woman warned us ‘what will happen if you fly off the handle’. The banal narratives defused the paintings’ imaginative charge and dismissed their elusiveness. The philosopher duo’s notion of art as propaganda for the good and the nice is a recipe for a narrow curatorial approach. Indeed, Chinese President Xi Jinping sounded as if he was channelling de Botton and Armstrong when he pronounced that ‘Fine art works should be like sunshine from blue sky and breeze in spring that will inspire minds, warm hearts, cultivate taste and clean up undesirable work styles.’4
Projecting a social or moral lesson onto an artwork distances the viewer from the enlivening experience of ‘just looking’. It requires everyone to apprehend the work in the same way, ignoring the fact that we all bring our own associations, memories and experiences to a work of art. As photographer Bill Henson is fond of saying, art can only be subjectively apprehended—the meaning comes from feeling, not the other way around. Mediating art through the sentiments of pop psychology transforms an intimate, subjective encounter into a group therapy lesson. It patronises the viewer, trivialises the art and impoverishes the gallery experience.
A different kind of reflection
Not far from the mirrored carousel in the NGV, another institution projected a video onto the wall of a darkened room. A handful of people trailed in and out; most stayed for only a couple of minutes. A man whistles to another man across a valley; subtitles translate the whistled language as a request to buy some animal feed. Birdlike in its pitch and cadences, the whistled sound is closer to avian than human. Sonic remnants of communication before technology.
The Calling, a video work by Angelica Mesiti, was screened at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI), Melbourne, in 2014. The work was filmed in three communities: Kuskoy, a Turkish village; the Greek island of Antia; and La Gomera, one of the Canary Islands group. The Calling is a poignant exploration of whistled languages, of old traditions of human expression, the primal or so-called primitive elements that have survived technological progress and cultural evolution. Mesiti has described the process of making the video as thinking about how to film the visual rhythms in sound, space and silence. Silence—that rare experience in a contemporary city.
For more than 30,000 years, every human society has created art in one form or another. Whatever the explanation for this human drive, most of us have experienced at least something of its capacity to take us into ourselves as we stop and look, and look again. Disconnected from the performative self, wholly attentive in a kind of alert stasis; losing ourselves in an artwork that requires nothing of us other than our full imaginative attention. In an essay ‘Questions on the Way to an Exhibition’, one of the pieces in David Malouf’s book Being There (2015), Malouf writes about the notion of ‘attending’ to a work of art. When we practise the ‘long-looking’ that a painting demands, we are freed from the self and its preoccupations, paradoxically both fully present and dissolved in the object of our attention, experiencing it with our mind and our body. Letting an art object work its wonders without worrying about an outcome. How subversive in an age in which we are constantly exhorted to demonstrate our productivity and all human endeavour is measured by performance indicators. Removed from the tyranny of technology and from the concrete realities of the quotidian world, the public gallery is one of the few places where we can seek refuge from the busyness of our lives, giving ourselves a licence to inhabit a different interior landscape, a reflective space with no obvious reward or end use.
We need to be coaxed away from our distractions back into a meditative space. Unless our public galleries provide opportunities for this contemplative experience, we will lose the capacity to pay extended attention to a work of art. Like the group spotted running through the Hermitage Museum with their smartphones held aloft, ready to click when their tour leader yelled out the name of a masterpiece as they rushed past. They came, they conquered—but they didn’t see.
A radical alternative
Art galleries like to portray themselves as being on the cutting edge of contemporary culture. What could be more radical than subverting, rather than promoting, the features of modern life and contemporary culture that are inimical to experiencing art? Encouraging the long slow look instead of reinforcing our distractibility, our failure to give sustained attention to anything. Immersed in a quiet space removed from our screens and the background noise of culture, from the cacophony of daily life, we can turn our full attention to an intimate encounter with art.
Public galleries can perform a crucial educative function by providing an alternative space for a reflective experience (one that doesn’t involve a mirrored carousel) instead of replicating the distracted state of contemporary society. As Bill Henson has observed, museums have a central role to play in resetting our internal clocks: restraining, rather than fuelling, our distractible natures in an environment that requires us to slow down; one that is conducive to drawing us into the imaginative universe of the artist.
Henson has spoken of his formative experiences visiting museums. He recalls arriving in Vienna in the 1970s, and going to the Kunsthistorisches Museum. Treading carefully on the creaking parquetry flooring, he made his way through the museum until he came across Titian’s Nymph and Shepherd. He returned to the museum every day for a week to look at this one painting. Henson’s recollection brings to mind Reger, a character in Thomas Bernhard’s novel Old Masters. Reger had been visiting the Kunsthistorisches Museum for decades, always sitting on the same velvet-covered settee in the Bordone Room so as to look at Tintoretto’s picture White-Bearded Man. Whenever Reger wanted to be alone in his contemplation of the painting, an accommodating museum attendant named Irrsigler barred everyone else from entering the room.
In 2015 I went to Vienna for the first time. Walking past the Kunsthistorisches Museum on a Monday morning, when the museum is normally closed, I saw a woman slip through the entrance. I followed her inside. It was a public holiday; the museum was open. Most of the tourists in Vienna on that long weekend must have been unaware of the change in the museum’s opening hours as the place was unusually quiet. I spent most of the day sitting on velvet-covered settees in the main picture galleries, and then wandered through the smaller outer rooms. Standing in one of these almost deserted galleries, I noticed a museum attendant at the end of a long corridor punctuated by a series of arched doorways. The ghost of Irrsigler, perhaps, waiting for the tourist buses to pull up outside and disgorge their flocks of art pilgrims, the snap-happy scrums readying themselves for the photo opportunities on the museum’s walls.
It’s another Monday morning—this time, in an Australian public regional gallery—and I’m standing in a dark windowless room. The walls are painted pitch black. The only sounds are the tick and hum of the temperature-control system. Time slows as I’m immersed in an imaginary realm of nocturnal landscapes and deserted back roads. It’s a long way from the amusement park.
Creating a space in which personal reflection is possible and not doing what the entertainment industry does may well be the most radical thing that today’s art galleries can do.5 If public galleries don’t champion this vision, who will?
- Roberta Smith, ‘Shapes of an Extroverted Life’, <http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/27/arts/design/jeff-koons-a-retrospective-opens-at-the-whitney>, accessed 10 May 2016.
- Ray Edgar, ‘Enter through the gift shop’, Age, 13 December 2014.
- Alain de Botton, ‘Art as Therapy Q+A’, <http://alaindebotton.com/art/qa/>, accessed 10 May 2016.
- ‘Chinese President Xi Jinping warns against “immoral” art’, <http://www.bbc.com/news/entertainment-arts-29645574>, accessed 10 May 2016.
- Bill Henson, ‘Some Thoughts on Art and the Public Arena’, <https://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/essay/some-thoughts-on-art-and-the-public-arena/>, accessed 3 May 2016.