Charlotte Klonk‘s Spaces of Experience examines the evolution of the art gallery interior from the dense hang of the 17th century salon through to today’s bespoke architect-designed gallery spaces such as the Guggenheim Bilbao and Tate Britain. She spoke to Andrew Frost about the current state of museology, the presence of new media in spaces designed for paintings and the inescapable presence of the wall text…
TAL: Many people would think that looking at art in an art gallery is fairly straightforward – but is it?
Charlotte Klonk: If this is so, why then has the display of art changed so dramatically over the past two hundred years? As I try to show in “Spaces of Experience”, each change has meant a different evaluation of art and a different understanding of what it means to look at it. We appreciate paintings, for example, differently if we look at them densely hung on a wall that is covered to the ceiling or, if we see them one by one in a single line and hung with big gaps in between them.
TAL: What would you say is the single biggest factor in the way art is experienced today? Is it a question of the physical space of the gallery, or some other factor such as the intention of the curator, the nature of its sponsorship?
CK: If I have to single out one aspect, it would be the increasing importance of the curator. Despite the dramatic new museum buildings that have sprung up in the past decade, the way art is displayed has not much changed in the last eighty or so years. While remarkably different on the outside, inside the new galleries all retain more or less the white exhibition container format that goes back to the Museum of Modern Art in New York in the 1930s. The role of sponsorship has, of course, increased but the way it influences the organisation of exhibitions is different and varies from institution to institution and depends much on the persuasive power of the curator. Which brings me to my point: Visionary curators have always changed the way people saw and understood art. In recent years, however, the exhibition as a medium has become the message which the art works now serve. Not the other way round as was common ground in the past. In fact, I have just received an invitation for a conference that is self-confidently dedicated to exploring the way that curators can use exhibitions to convey specific meanings and new viewpoints to a broader public. “Thus”, the announcement goes, “criticism through the medium of the exhibition may have only just begun and we have to take the issue of the message of exhibitions seriously”. I personally think that this tilts a precarious balance too far in one direction.
TAL: Have artists reacted to the way art is seen in the way they now make it? Does one follow the other, or is it art first, and then finding a suitable space?
CK: Hard to say. I can think of examples that support either viewpoint. In the 1930s very few artists painted in studios with white walls when galleries in Germany and New York began to introduce them. Today, when asked, most painters at least paint and imagine their work on white walls. The penchant, on the other hand, for unplastered abandoned industrial spaces, such as the Arsenale Halls colonised by the Venice Biennale in the 1990s, goes back, of course, to artists discovering these spaces in the 1960s.
TAL: Although the salon hang for contemporary art is rare, it is still sometimes used, and often times we see that the colour of walls for art to hang on varies depending on the work. Do any of the ways of we look at art in galleries today directly link back to previous eras or centuries?
CK: You are quite right. There is increasingly a return to colour in contemporary art spaces. In most cases that I have encountered, however, it is clear that the choice of wall colours was left to a designer. Designers tend to choose a hue that appears to dominate in some or most of the works on display in the room. In the past the decision about wall colours was one that curators debated hotly and certainly considered themselves very carefully, often taking scientific, psychological and historical reflections into account. The only recent exception I know of, is the Documenta 12 that Roger M. Buergel und Ruth Noack curated in Kassel in 2007. The Fridericianum, one of the spaces that the Documenta always uses, appeared predominately with greenish, the Neue Galerie, another exhibition venue, with red walls. They had, however, not been redecorated on some crowd-pleasing whim, as one might have believed at first. They were, if I am not mistaken, much more a subtle allusion to the history of both the art exhibition in general and the two museum buildings in particular. The Fridericianum, completed in 1779, was the first museum that opened to the public in German-speaking countries. The shades of green that prevailed there for the duration of the 12th Documenta served as a reference to the choice of background colour customarily used for exhibitions in the 18th century. By contrast, the red in the Neue Galerie was entirely in keeping with the tradition of national museums, founded in the early 19th century, which the New Gallery still tried to emulate when it opened in 1877.
TAL: It seems that many older galleries with long standing historical collections hang paintings in a style analogous to the way it was seen when it was made – such as the salon hang – is this in your view a credible way of presenting such art, or would a contemporary presentation change the way the art is understood?
CK: I am all for variation and I think that a work by Rembrandt, for example, is badly displayed on white walls that came into being when modern artist began to paint with bright colours and stark contrasts. I do, however, think that it is wrong to give the illusion that we can be “live” witnesses to former ways of seeing and experiencing. The synthetic colours and fabrics, for example, that came onto the market in the late 19th and early 20th centuries are very different in feel and texture from the material in use in the 18th and early 19th centuries. No red painted wall can emulate the effect of dyed silken tapestry used in private palaces in the 18th century, or even in the national galleries that opened all over Europe in the early 19th century. In my view, any arrangement should be both sensitive to the demands of the work on display and not attempt to dissimulate its own time and place.
TAL: It has often been noted that art today is a contextual experience and the presence of extensive explanatory texts is very common. Where did this practice come from? And is it a world-wide phenomenon?
CK: I think by now it is a fairly wide-spread phenomenon. Since the 1990s art galleries have been, for various reasons, under pressure to increase their attendance figures and this went hand in hand with an attitude that assumed less prior knowledge from visitors. One way of meeting this new expectation is by making more information available in the galleries. It is, however, not a fully unprecedented development. Experiments with texts in galleries began in German art museums in the 1920s in a similar move to reach a wider public. But the large panels and explanatory texts on the walls originate, I think, in the thematically organised art exhibitions of the late 1970s and early 80s, such as Werner Hofmann’s “Around 1800” shows in the Kunsthalle Hamburg. Their emphasis was on the historical contexts of works of art and they took their cue from history museums where text panels have been standard for a long time.
TAL: In your opinion, do you think the presence of much new media work in contemporary gallery spaces has been worked out yet? The presence of TV monitors, video projection or even cinemas in galleries seem to imply that the evolution of this presentation is far from complete.
CK: In the last chapter of Spaces of Experience I am highly critical of the way that new media work is encroaching in the gallery. The emergence of the black box in contemporary art galleries is as far as I am concerned unsatisfactory for two reasons: First, each work seems to exist in their own world and thus prevents the dialogic nature that I see as pivotal for the experience of art in the museum. Second, it is greedy for space, time and attention and thus limits our freedom to move about, dip in and out and discuss works of art with friends and strangers alike. A possible compromise are, I think, purpose-built cinema spaces in museums. At least, then the viewer knows what she or he is letting themselves in for when they sink into the chairs. They don’t expect to discuss the work with each other and move on in their own time and on their own accord. Here the duration of the film alone determines how much time we spend in front of the work. In the galleries this is the other way round. The visitors decide how long they want to look at a work of art.
TAL: In your book you contend that gallery presentation of art has inherent political overtones and you cite the exhibitions of art under the Nazis as an example – is this political aspect still apparent today? And if so, what is it?
CK: It is so much easier to see this with hindsight. That, however, social and political intentions are so easily detected in a historical perspective should alert us to fact that ways of seeing in the gallery are never neutral. There are, of course, famous contemporary examples of shows where the political interests are obvious. The controversies about the way works by indigenous people should be exhibited in their own country and abroad are a good case in point. In my book, however, I trace a history from nineteenth-century museums where state interests prevail to today’s art galleries, where I think commercial interests determine the way we see art. Let me give you just one example: when the Guggenheim Museum decided it would not be able to support the gallery it had asked the architect Rem Koolhaas to design in Soho, New York, the space could be turned, without much alteration, into a Prada Shop. Luxury goods shops and museum interiors look similar, feel similar and appear similar in a way that is wholly unprecedented and tells us a lot, I think, about the world of values we inhabit.
TAL: Has the construction of iconic galleries such as the Tate and the Guggenheim at Bilbao changed the way art is being seen, or was the design based on the art that was intended for the space?
CK: Let’s face it, most of the gallery spaces in both museums are fairly unusual. Sure, there are some rooms in Tate Modern that have windows with wonderful views, but most are unspectacular and the light is remarkably flat. Most dramatic at the Guggenheim is the ground-level gallery that starts tall and then dips underneath a bridge. Its undulating walls echo Richard Serra’s sculpture Snake for which it was of course designed. The other dramatic space at the Guggenheim Bilbao is a double-height gallery that houses Jenny Holzer’s red-and-blue LED columns. It is important to know that the space works well, because the artist made a site-specific work after visiting the gallery before it opened. At Tate Modern the case is slightly different. The decision to convert an old power station with a soaring turbine hall into a gallery was made with the view to house large sculptures like Richard Serra’s. It has, however, now changed the way art is made, because artists are commissioned to create huge works that have no place elsewhere and often produce an overwhelming experience that is spectacular. I am thinking, for example, of Olafuur Eliasson’s Weather Project of 2003-4 which induced many visitors to mediated for hours in the space. It is this that I find so fascinating about the changes of display: museums are part of a broader history of experience and the story is still unfurling.
An edited version of this interview first appeared in Australian Art Collector, April-June, 2010.