So it transpires that I’m really fascinated with how weird people are in art galleries – and I don’t just mean that one variant on the fantastically dressed old man that you always end up seeing whenever you go to a big show (although those guys are definitely worth talking about too). What I mean is that the way that we act when we’re in a space for art is really quite peculiar. For one, you’re normally faced with a weird mix of people: the art student sketching in a corner; the people having a frankly too-loud discussion about their opinions on the work; the school kids on a trip that don’t really want to be there and pass through without really looking at anything; and those who have been stood staring at one thing for as long as you’ve been in the room and almost definitely after you leave. People squat, sit, peer, photograph. Sometimes they lie down. Sometimes they laugh a lot. Sometimes they scratch their chins and look pretentious. It varies.
Last week in London I saw some fantastic things in art galleries. Not all of those things were the art I was there for, and some of them weren’t intended to be art at all, but as I was stood watching the art and the people around it I sometimes wasn’t sure where the art stopped and its audience began.
In the White Cube – a bright, clinical space, where the polished concrete floor is posher and shinier than concrete has any business being – was The Illuminating Gas. The show by Cerith Wyn Evans was just as bright and clean as the exhibition space, with neon tubing sculptures suspended from the ceiling, and palm trees on turntables rotating so slowly that their movement was only discernible if you knew it was happening and you stood still staring at it for long enough. The revered hush that the space engendered was overpowered by an eerie fog of noise generated by a sculpture formed of a number of glass flutes sounding at varying pitches hung in one portion of the room.
The whole thing was quite atmospheric, and very impressive, with twenty or so people milling around the room, circling the artworks. As I was readying to leave, in comes a young mother and her baby – not completely unheard of, but not the most common sight in this kind of environment. I watched them for a moment, smiling, as is my general reaction at the sight of a baby. The mother pointed to the bright lights of the installation, which the child had not yet noticed – his eyes widened, he looked back to his mother and grinned a gummy smile. Then, something wonderful happened: the child’s mother put him down in the centre of the room, amidst the milling guests and the spinning trees.
And how wonderful it was to see a baby, probably sticky and dribbling, crawling around on the floor of this pristine, polished gallery; the space’s peculiarly ethereal flute sounds now punctuated by the slap of chubby hands and knees on polished concrete. The young invigilator – who had apologetically told me earlier that I couldn’t sit down in the gallery, although because it was only his third day of work he had really no idea why – looked on bemused, clearly torn on whether he should allow the moment to unfold, or try and maintain some sense of reverence in the space. It was fantastic, and I thought to myself that every slightly pretentious art gallery should come with its own absurd, sticky, performance art baby to remind everybody that art isn’t just to tilt your head and scratch your chin at.
But this was not the only thing I saw as I was making my art gallery rounds.
The Ai Weiwei exhibition at The Royal Academy of Arts is a poignant show, as could be expected from an artist and activist whose works form around concepts of Chinese politics and human rights – especially one who has been imprisoned, beaten, and is under constant surveillance by his government. The show has been extremely popular and extremely busy, prompting the Royal Academy to extend the opening hours of the show in its final four weekends. It holds a number of works – some developed new specifically for the exhibition, some well known: including the photographed performance of his famous 1995 work Dropping A Han Dynasty Urn.
The space was crowded when I was visiting. There was a lot of dodging and trying to not be in anyone’s way, whilst not stepping over the white tape on the floor – demarcating how close you could get to the artworks before you were too close. The room that contained Dropping A Han Dynasty Urn was especially crowded, with little floor space to occupy that wasn’t covered by ceramics, and much of what was available was being used by a class group, maybe around 13 years old, on a school trip.
As I was looking around, one of the girls stood in front of the centre of the photographic triptych and proceeded to drop their notebook, mimicking the actions of the artist behind her. This performance then apparently caught on amongst her peers, and suddenly a whole pack of them were crowding the space in front of the images, lining up in little groups to drop their not-Han-dynasty-urn notebooks, photographing and rephotographing each other, each to get their perfect picture. They were definitely in the way of a lot of people for a considerable period of time, and irritating a lot of them. One visitor eventually asked them to please move along and let other people look at the art, but I thought – and I hope I wasn’t the only one – that the whole surreal experience was fantastic.
What would Ai Weiwei have thought to have seen this unintentional impromptu performance? Would he have hated or loved their flippant engagement with the work? What were the girls thinking as they imitated a controversial, conceptually loaded artwork (not that this, by the way, is the first or the most drastic case of imitation). Probably, they weren’t thinking about the symbolism of their actions at all and were just quite excited about the prospect of a cool and fun new profile picture – which I don’t think is anything to be criticised. Whatever those girls were thinking, they were engaging with that artwork in a fascinating way which was no less valid than the engagement of anyone else in that room at that or any other time.
Audiences in art galleries represent the outside world, and an imperfect reality that is otherwise removed from the immaculate space of the gallery. They are uncontrollable factors in what is usually an otherwise meticulously designed space, giving the art purpose. Because, except maybe besides being cathartic for the artist, what is art without an audience good for?
There is value in being alone in a gallery, having an undisturbed experience of the art, but I think it is all the more fascinating to have, as well as your own experience, the experience of others in your view as well. I’ve found myself thinking equally about these two incidents as I have the art I went to see, and I don’t think one train of through is more important than the other – they’re complimentary, symbiotic, as the art and its audience are.
Next time you go to an exhibition, after you’re done looking at the art yourself, I suggest looking at everyone else who’s looking at the art too. You might see something great.
Written: Rebekah Prentice