From labels to instructions in exhibition making
Quite often the strategies of exhibition making in the field of contemporary art prioritize an approach of multiple entries and thus a possibility for multiple perspectives and journeys within the space of exhibition. And yet this democratic and empowering model poses a challenge in the form of the gap that exists between the potential of experience and physical traversing, or walking through in the time between “in” and “out.” Also, we should not forget about the sharp change to be dealt with by the viewer (and the exhibition maker) characterizing the transition from the outside world to the space of art. Perhaps the most difficult (and rightly criticized) dilemmas for exhibitions are presented by video and film works: screens next to each other offering narratives impossible to grasp unless one spends hours in the gallery room. If screens and their moving contents are not intended to deliver dramaturgy of the space then it seems rather logic to wish that the whole content of a film or video is presented as a spatial object to be walked around and perceived in its totality. Of course, such solutions as embedded cinemas, bean bags, used extensively in contemporary Kunsthalles and art museums are helpful. While being engaged with the format of visual art, I have been enjoying (not without envy) the theater and other forms of performing art that possess viewers’ time and bodies.
On the other hand, an inscribed path and direction of viewing attracts with the possibility to consolidate the space of art with its experience. At the recent 20th Biennale of Sydney (18 March-05 June 2016) one of the most demanded art experiences – as evidenced by queues – seemed the works by Cécile B. Evans within the Cockatoo Island’s Dogleg Tunnel. Preamble to a Prequel (of Sorts), created for the Biennale, was an audiovisual walk through the tunnel, a walk “inside” the digital video played back from a smartphone integrated in a headset. This journey transitioned gently at the end of the tunnel into an intimate spectacle of another dreamy and surreal digital narrative – Hyperlinks or It Didn’t Happen (2014). All this preparation – waiting one’s turn, receiving service and instructions from staff while adjusting the headset, was important. There is certain weight in the role of lobbies and waiting rooms (bright in my memory is an event about six years ago when in a soft-spoken way I was offered a seat and a cup of tea in a “living room” arranged in a youth theater, at the entrance….). The whole experience of Cécile B. Evans work was complete. Visitors (and myself) took their time to lie and watch the second video in the chamber-like space at the far end of the dark tunnel.
I recalled my Dogleg Tunnel experience just few days ago upon another striking but different and deeply personalized event – Gardens Speak by Tania El Khoury in Adelaide festival. Joining a group of ten in a guided ritual within a somber space I uncovered, as I dug in the soil and attached my ears to the ground and listened to the voice speaking in the first person, the life story of an ordinary Syrian man who lost his life during the brutal and still ongoing conflict. Relating to the concept of path for experience – interestingly, or coincidentally, the grand exhibition at the gallery of South Australia, Versus Rodin (04 March – 02 July), in which curator Leigh Robb has weaved a cluster of narrative lines by thoughtful and tightly knit compositions of modernist and contemporary works, includes a room with walking “tunnels.” In this room, objects are placed on shaped floor structures elevated to the eye level.
“From labels to instructions” can be thought as a provocation that sets a direction towards awareness of the viewer’s bodily experience in frames of exhibition making. It appears to add to the critique of the label (for example, Jon Ippolito in his article Death by Wall Label referred to the use of classic wall labels; in the case of new media artworks requiring active rather than passive preservation this is problematic enough to signify their death). It is of course impossible to eliminate labels altogether and re-orientate to performative aesthetic positions. Ironically, instructions accompanying works of art appear as labels generating, again, an imperative to read. A path through or “instructions” is an offer that can benefit the experience of art in pursuing narratives or as one is invited to construct a narrative of her/his own.