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<nettime-ann> pourinfos.org [apostils] : Displaying works of art. Some remarks about exhibition design. |Jerome Glicenstein|

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Displaying works of art. Some remarks about exhibition design.

By Jérôme Glicenstein

The issue regarding exhibition design is widely ignored and misunderstood, since the display designer’s work is often confused with the curator’s or the artist’s. This stems from the fact that some exhibition designers also can be artists, architects, decorators or interior designers. The misconception surrounding exhibition designers can also be explained by the fact that they can simultaneously be theater-set designers, working for art and science museums, private galleries, biennials and professional shows. The task itself seems difficult to define since it varies from hanging paintings in a row (as seen in large museums) to putting up a few nails in a gallery. The work could go completely unnoticed, while some display designers including Robert Wilson, Philippe Starck or Jean Nouvel are recognized as major creators.
However, exhibition display has existed for a long time, at least since art has been shown outside its original context. This is why, since the creation of the “Salon officiel” set in France (at the end of the 17th century), one of the curators’ main functions was to display art pieces in such a way that they relate to each other thus proposing a certain order to the visitors. At first, this approach was not necessarily related to “aesthetics” but followed academic and genres priorities and other rules of etiquette. At first, curators were Academy members; later on however, during the whole existence of the Salon, it was the artists themselves who arranged exhibitions display. Artists as different as Chardin, Renoir, Matisse or Léger occasionally played this role at the salons [1].

The “Golden Era” of exhibition design was during the 1920’s and 30’s, when many museums were reorganized and the first museums of modern art came into existence.
Many of the modern art protagonists of the time were involved, Alexander Dorner, Alfred Barr, René d’Harnoncourt, Louis Hautecœur, El Lissitzky, Herbert Bayer or Frederick Kiesler... Lissitzky summarized pretty well the passage regarding wall set-up within the arrangement of the whole space: “One doesn’t look at the space through a keyhole, nor through an open door. The space is not only meant for the eyes, it is not a painting: one wants to live within”. He also added that it was an odd experience, “a genuine and moving experience” that could not be reduced to a sole instant. “During an exhibition, one strolls around. This is the reason why the space should be planned in a way to allow visitors to move around freely. He explained how important it was that the public physically react to the pieces shown in the exhibition [2] ”. During the same period and with a similar commitment of “involving” the visitors, Frederick Kiesler perfected several systems of displaying paintings that he called “vision machines”.
These machines allowed visitors to adjust the height of images and objects, (consequently modifying the “whole cohesion” of the exhibition [3] ). Other display designers incorporated the concept of “physiological” factors in the disposition of the space. This is the case of Herbert Bayer, whose “limitations of the field of vision” diagrams meant to define the “conditions of the visit” from a “scientific” and “deterministic” point of view. He explains that “an exhibition… paintings… or photographs, are only a part… of new and complex means of communication. A particular theme in an exhibition… should penetrate and move the visitor inside. It should… lead him to a direct and pre-planned reaction [4] ”.

Recently, the question about the limits between the artist’s involvement and the exhibition designer’s has been debated. Would the way that light is projected on a work of art be part of the design? Should the artist decide on the color of the walls, the choice of furniture, the labels and information signs? Louis Marin accurately remarked that: “displaying works of art is not a minor task unrelated with the art, but the continuity of the production of the work of art; the term of production - to bring, to move the work of art “forward”- implies that art display ought to be recognized as a full part of the art [5] ”. Installations shows are obvious and common illustrations of this type of problems. The work of art and its design are often overlapping and become almost identical. For example, during the 1999 Venice Biennial, a video installation by Scottish artist Douglas Gordon showed the same two scenes of Taxi Driver in a loop slightly unsynchronized on two opposite walls of a room. Obviously this was not a screening of Martin Scorsese’s film Taxi Driver, but rather a creation based on a “re-interpretation” and a different display of the same film. Many similar examples could be found. Actually, some site specific works tend to be practically inseparable from their design. The only elements that eventually escape being part of the work of art would be the “labels”, “information signs” and “paths” of access, the light and the architecture of the site.

Problems caused by transforming pieces that were not conceived to be shown in the field of fine arts are quite different: literature, sound pieces, films, performances, Internet sites… and to a lesser extent some forms of non-western art, design, graphics, architecture, etc…Then, the vocation of exhibition designers becomes the creation of pieces to be exhibited. In literature, it means isolating text fragments, creating reading lounges or public readings; in architecture, it could be working on “representations”, sketches, plans, photographs, models, prototypes, synthesized image animations, etc… In performing arts, sketches, photos, recordings or even performances and concerts are often programmed in the exhibition space, or close to the space. The case of non-western arts or “applied arts” is somehow different since it implies choosing between a “documentary” approach (movies, photos, documents, lectures, etc…) and an “aesthetic” approach (setting up objects on stands, isolation, light set up). These “adaptations” are implying that an exhibition cannot be planned without a “pre-definition” of the objects to be exhibited. Moreover, some of the objects needing to be adapted to an exhibition format are sometimes “re-invented for the occasion”. Recently the development of “reading spaces” within the exhibitions -for example, at the Palais de Tokyo – shows the need to constantly generate new ways accessing contemporary art. This is a crucial issue in the case of interactive creations; creations which are usually more “hands-on” than “meant to be exhibited” in the traditional sense.

In recent years, exhibition designers’ most prevalent problem in the context of their task in contemporary art exhibits is related to films or videos presentations. One of the main challenges is the length of the show: while movie theaters are adapted to feature films, art shows are not. Françoise Parfait questions: “How is it possible to stand in an open space watching an half an hour monoband screening (the audience not having any clue about the duration of the film) when it is primordial to watch the whole film from the beginning in order to grasp its meaning? Should we propose video rooms or viewing lounges in museums and art centers [6]? ”. ” This issue became critical during Kassel’s latest Documenta (in 2002) when hundreds of hours of video projection were presented (it was virtually impossible to sit through them all). How can one have a satisfactory level of concentration when the projection is drowned in the middle of the “flow” of an exhibition? How could the problem of sound interference be solved when several videos are screened simultaneously? Most probably, these issues initiated the introduction of expressions such as “exhibition cinema” or “installed cinema” to label some cinema styles foreign to a more “classical” cinema presentation that could only be achieved via contemporary art shows. The issue of animated images exhibitions highlights the way relations are managed - relations between works of art and the public as well as relations between members of the public. In fact, “an exhibition (…) is an installation setting-up things and people in a same place [7] ”. The space is not only organized around the art works, but also to meet the public needs in order to ensure a most satisfactory visit. During the 19th century, visiting large exhibitions , such as at the Salon’s, meant putting up with dreadful conditions which were a permanent source of ironic comments in the press of the time; it is not the case now, with an increased number of lounges, audio-guides, cafeterias and souvenir shops showing an on-going concern to optimize the experience.

Two points have been raised regarding visitors’ remarks and the ways to “utilize” the exhibition. The first refers to the fact that while studying visitors “habits”, it becomes necessary to “model” their journey. Thus, since the 1920’s, specific studies have been conducted to determine the optimum quantity of works of art to show and the best placement for them in the space provided. These studies showed that visitors behavior varied in a relatively “predictable” way, according to the background, the type of exhibition, the room layout, the paths proposed, the number of objects, etc., something that doesn’t go without consequences on the exhibition design [8] . The second point derives from the first and is a more “critical” one. It has been made by media-historian Jonathan Crary and is related to the fact that visitors of an exhibition are usually “observers”, in the sense that they “observe”, they “respect”- rules, codes, instructions and uses that are imposed. Crary thinks that: “ Evident as it may seem, a person who sees -an observer- is above all, a person who sees within the frame of a pre-determined range of possibilities, a person who is inscribed within a system of conventions and limits”. As announced by a text distributed at the entrance of the 1901 “Pan-American” Exhibition: “We are asking you to remember that once you cross the threshold, you are a part of the exhibition [9] ”.

The issue surrounding the value of the design of an exhibition has often been raised over the last forty years as it became obvious that these designs project a “sense” and various curators started claiming authorship over specific designs as expression of their “artistic creation”. A creative “set-up” could actually bring significant changes over to a work of art (or a collection of works of art). A painting by Manet positioned next to a painting by Velasquez develops consequences on their “readings [10] . An exhibition design is a largely subjective exercise based on permanent de-composition and re-composition”. It is never neutral: Éric Troncy chose to exhibit a naked woman photographed by Helmut Newton next to a plaster Virgin by Katarina Fritzsch or a Bernard Buffet’s painting in front of a mural by Sol Lewitt thus provoking some critics’ despair [11] . The “relations” between works of art are defined by the exhibition designer and highlight their specific “comprehensions” inherent in their design itself. Is it possible to keep intact the memory of such meaningful juxtapositions? As early as the 1930’s, the MoMA began exhibiting images and documents related to certain “historical” exhibition designs, regardless of their status [12] ”. More recently, and soon after the 1970’s, some display techniques have been re-created within the exhibitions. That was the case for “Paris-New York” (1977) and “Paris-Paris” (1981). A large number of recent exhibitions have followed this trend, notably the “Dada” exhibition wherein one found an approximate re-construction of the Picabia show at Dalmau Gallery in Barcelona and also another (also approximate) re-construction of the First Berlin International Dada Fair (1920) were launched. In fact, exhibition design has become a “genre” of its own: in 1989 at the “Stationen der Moderne” exhibition at the Berlinische Galerie in Berlin, up to twenty historical German exhibitions were re-created [13] .

Jérôme Glicenstein
Paris, May 4th, 2006

Notes :

[1] For a general history of the Salon, see Gérard-Georges Lemaire, Histoire du salon de peinture, Paris, Klincksieck, coll. Etudes, 2004.

[2] Many works on Lissitzky have been published. His main reference is Sophie Lissitzky-Küppers’s book, El Lissitzky : Life, Letters, Texts (1967), New York, Thames & Hudson. 1992.

[3] Among the well-documented catalogues on Frederick Kiesler, see specifically, Frederick Kiesler artiste-architecte (under Chantal Béret’s supervision). This book was published for the exhibition CNAC - Georges Pompidou , Paris, Editions du Centre Pompidou, 1996.

[4] Regarding Herbert Bayer, see in particular, Alexander Dorner, The Way Beyond “Art” – The Work of Herbert Bayer, New York, Wittenborn, Schultz, Inc., 1947.

[5] See Fabrice Hergott, « Réponses au questionnaire “Accrocher une œuvre d’art” », in Cahiers du MNAM n°17/18, « L’œuvre d’art et son accrochage », Paris, Centre Georges Pompidou, 1986, p. 207.

[6] Françoise Parfait, Video : un art contemporain, Paris, Regard, 2001, p. 170.

[7] Claquemurer pour ainsi dire tout l’univers. La mise en exposition (under the direction of Jean Davallon), Paris, MNAM/CCI, coll. alors :, 1986, p. 205.

[8] See, for example: Publics et Musées n°8, « Études de publics, années 30 », Lyon, PUL, July-December 1995.

[9] Jonathan Crary, L’art de l’observateur. Vision et modernité au XIXe siècle (trad. F.Maurin), Nîmes, Jacqueline Chambon, coll. Rayon photo, 1994 (original edition: Cambridge, MIT, 1990), p. 26.

[10] This is the topic of Victoria Newhouse’s book, Art and the Power of Placement, New York, The Monacelli Press, 2005.

[11] Daniel Buren, “Where are the Artists”, in The Next Documenta Should Be Curated by an Artist, June-November 2003; available at http://www.e-flux.com..

[12] Concerning this topic, see, in particular, Mary Anne Staniszewski’s book, The Power of Display. A History of Exhibition Installations at the Museum of Modern Art, Cambridge Ma-London, MIT Press, 1998.

[13] Stationen der Moderne. Die bedeutenden Kunstausstellungen des 20. Jahrhunderts in Deutschland, Berlin, Berlinische Galerie, 1988.

Jérôme Glicenstein’s biography:

Jérôme Glicenstein is an artist and Associate Professor in Fine Arts at Paris University (Saint-Denis).
His lectures and his field of research deal with theories and practices of exhibitions. In addition, he is in charge of a university gallery and of the cycle of exhibitions “ To place/to displace” at the Saint-Denis Museum of Art and History.
He is also a regular collaborator for various magazines, in particular la Revue d’Esthétique and directs the magazine Marges.
He published various articles on the relations between art and the new media.

Publications to come:

« Dispositif », in Dictionnaire du corps (sld. Michela Marzano), Paris, PUF, 2006.
« L’art contemporain peut-il être populaire ? Remarques à propos de Nuit blanche », Revue d’Esthétique n°46, 2006.
« From Spectator to Actor: Experiments in the Gallery of Paris8 », in Proceedings of the XIXth Congress of IAEA (sld Jean-Christophe Vilatte), Avignon, IAEA, 2006.

Main recent publications:

« Internet — Sites d’artistes », Encyclopædia Universalis (CD-Rom), Paris, 2000.

« Le paysage panoptique d’Internet. Remarques à partir de Jeremy Bentham », Revue d’Esthétique n°39, Paris, Jean-Michel Place, 2001, p. 97-115.

« Statistiques, rumeurs et anarchie », Parpaings n°25, 2001, p. 21-22.

« Le Guggenheim Virtuel », dans http://www.mudam.lu (sld Claude Closky), musée Grand-Duc Jean, Luxembourg, 2002.

« Qu’attendez-vous du Palais de Tokyo ? », l’Info Noir/Blanc n°23, 2002.

« Le Palais de Tokyo : un “cinéma de situations” », Revue d’Esthétique n°42, Paris, Jean-Michel Place, 2003.

« La muséologie d’Internet : quelques remarques à propos du Guggenheim Virtuel », dans L’art à l’époque du virtuel (sld Christine Buci-Glucksman), Paris, L’Harmattan, coll.Arts8, 2003.

« Changer de convictions ou changer de rôle ? Remarques à partir d’une enquête menée par le Site de création contemporaine du Palais de Tokyo », dans Art : changer de conviction (sld Jacques Morizot), Paris, L’Harmattan, coll. Arts8, 2004.

« La création artistique contemporaine face aux nouveaux médias », dans Arts plastiques et nouvelles technologies, Saint-Denis, Musée d’art et d’histoire, 2004.

« Quelques remarques à propos de Matrix », Revue d’Esthétique n°45, Paris, Jean-Michel Place, 2004.

« Le commissaire d’exposition entre auteur et interprète », Dossier signature n°57, Montréal, Esse arts+opinions, 2006.

Author’s recommendation / Current events:

Exhibition: Architects' Exhibition Designs
115 European exhibitions designed by architects
7/7/2006 > 22/10/2006

Pavillon de l'Arsenal
24 bld. Morland
75004 Paris France

Translation: Kristine Barut Dreuilhe

Original version:
La mise en scène des œuvres d’art. Remarques à propos de la scénographie d’exposition.

All text is available under the French license Creative Commons :
non-commercial attribution – no derived work. 2.0. In order to encourage a free pedagogic or associative usage.

-- pourinfos.org -------------- XAVIER CAHEN Direction de la publication xavier.cahen@pourinfos.org http://www.pourinfos.org

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