in Opinion | 01 JAN 07
Featured in
Issue 104

Doors of Perception

Is contemporary art overpackaged?

in Opinion | 01 JAN 07

Entryphone crackles: ‘Hello?’
‘Hi, I’ve come to see the show.’
On a recent Saturday afternoon trawl around London’s commercial galleries I counted no fewer than six establishments with windowless, brushed-steel door entrances. A further six fronted the street with opaque, frosted glass thresholds. An additional proportion (apologies for the absence of precise statistics – I lost count somewhere near ten) made a feature of whatever pre-existent lintel-work there was before each ex-office/warehouse/pub/shopfront space emerged from the chrysalis of economic neglect as another dynamic avatar of boom-time art real estate sprawl. As with high-end fashion brands that utilize understatement to signify luxury (cue breathy French voice-over – ‘Dior … Paris’), you don’t have to be Brian O’Doherty to understand how ‘neutral’ gallery design can obscure the product it contains, not least in the way the ‘clean, white space’ of the large commercial venue or small Kunsthalle has become an architectural vernacular from Amsterdam to Tokyo.
Entryphone crackles: ‘Yes?’
‘Um, sorry, could you buzz me in again please? The door seems a little stuck.’
The past year of gallery-hopping, and egressions through minimally ostentatious or decrepitly chic doorways, has led me to ask myself just what it is I’ve been looking for, rather than looking at, over the last 12 months. Is art, in all its exponentially spawning forms, wrapped in too many gift boxes and ribbons, exponentially proliferating structures and frameworks for presentation? Or, to misappropriate Aldous Huxley’s famous phrase, is it tucked behind too many ‘doors of perception’?
‘You need to pull the door.’
‘Uh, how? There doesn’t appear to be a handle.’
By ‘doors of perception’ I mean the gateways and filtration processes that demarcate art as a cultural activity: catalogues, magazines, explicatory pamphlets, gallery signage, wall labels, press releases, merchandise, lectures, symposia or architecture. Hinterlands of significatory landfill spread between ‘the viewer’ and ‘the work’, on the one hand providing a useful service and intellectual discussion around a project, yet on the other sometimes mollycoddling with contextualizations – the imprimatur of a curator’s name on exhibition publicity, for instance, or the cordon sanitaire of certain exhibition formats. Don’t get me wrong: I love nice catalogues, I enjoy looking at snazzy architecture and it’s fun to buy postcards from the museum shop. It’s just that this Dance of the Seven Veils can get in the way of understanding the function and effect of making and exhibiting art today.
‘Yes, there is a handle.’
‘On the right-hand side, near the ground.’
Writing too is a form of cultural door-policy, and as a critic it’s important to be conscious of this. When asked to contribute a text to an artist’s catalogue, one of the first questions that crosses my mind is: ‘Does this artist even need an essay?’ I recently saw a monograph for a very young and quite successful Belgian artist – a two-volume affair, presented in a slipcase, running to an incredible 600 pages, produced with a variety of paper stocks and printing treatments. Along its spine was the artist’s name in large, serif letters, reminiscent of a Modernist master’s catalogue raisonné. This handsome tome struck me as taking itself far too seriously, yet fascinatingly so; this wasn’t a book chronicling five or six years’ worth of work by someone near the start of their career but rather the materialization of someone’s desire to project themselves into the boots of a successful artist twice their age, a kind of early self-canonization. Not that anything is wrong with ambition per se; it’s just that this was less of a book and more of a brushed-steel door with entryphone access.
‘Near the ground? I can’t see anything … Oh, hang on … you don’t mean that tiny indentation do you?’
Crackles: ‘Yeah, that’s it. Just pull.’
‘But … there’s nothing to pull on …’
In a recent interview with Alexis Vaillant, published in the Dutch art magazine Metropolis M, artist Enrico David articulated a case against loading art with too much explicatory baggage: ‘I am aware of the economic dimension of signs, and the element of reassurance that clear meanings provide for people. When you look at a work of art that invites you to interpret its meaning via externally recognizable signs, you can find refuge in that meaning. You don’t feel challenged to explore your internal anxieties and motivations […] When confronted with an unclear meaning, it’s inspiring, challenging and appropriate to ask myself: “What do I mean?” instead of “What does it mean?”’
‘Look, seriously, I’m trying to pull it, but the handle isn’t a handle; it’s a cavity so small it keeps slipping from between my fingertips, and the door’s so heavy it won’t budge! How can you pull something that needs to be pushed?’
The question of opacity, ­and of achieving proximity to that elusive panacea ‘meaning’, seems one of increasing acuity and contestation. A good deal of recent art practice is dependent on and activated by context, much of which requires freighting with intelligent interpretation. I write this as the Turner Prize battles its annual way through the dung and thicket of media-led crypto-philistinism. Many sectors of the mainstream British press suffer from the paranoid conviction that contemporary art is some kind of elaborate scam. This position is an intellectual hypochondria that demands diagnosis and treatments from artists and institutions in the form of exhaustive explication. The challenge, of course, is in generating necessary and vital dialogue, not unnecessary waffle.
‘Can you please just come and open the door for me from inside?’
‘Sorry, we’re now closed.’
‘We’re closed. It’s gone 6 p.m.’
‘But it’s impossible to get past the door!’
‘Try again tomorrow.’