An exhibition is an essay in three dimensions

Posted on July 13, 2012

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Preface: In a moment of unexpected synchronicity, it seems that Ed Rodley and I have both been thinking about metaphors for museum exhibitions, with reasonably divergent conclusions. My recommendation is that the two posts should be read together, allowing us to cover some different but complementary ground.

 Two of the greatest luxuries that accompany doing a PhD are those of autonomy of time, and the odd opportunity to participate in events like a masterclass with curator Helen Molesworth. Prior to the start of the AAANZ conference in Sydney this week, the AAANZ invited one-two PhD/Masters students from Fine Arts research programs around Australia and New Zealand to participate in masterclasses with each of the two conference keynotes. It meant that around 55 students got to sit down for free for three hours with either Thierry de Duve or Helen Molesworth, and discuss their work, their research and their thoughts.

Conversation in my masterclass crossed a reasonably diverse range of subjects, from feminism and gender perspectives in art through to the power or otherwise of objects. Where things got really interesting for me, however, were discussions about curatorial practice. Helen spoke of her belief that the essay exists as the best or primary way for making an art historical argument, and that when she curates an exhibition, she is motivated by the urge to make an essay-like argument in three dimensions. It was a perspective that really resonated with me. Many of the most compelling exhibitions that I’ve seen are those that make a case for a particular reading or understanding of (art) history – whether I agree with the argument or not.
(The same could be said for the best dissertations, which are often those that make a single clear argument and leave out unnecessary chaff and distractions, but that’s a topic for another day.)

But if the best exhibitions are indeed those that make three-dimensional an essay or argument, how do we carry such an urge into the digital space? How do we make digital an argument that involves physical objects? Are there elements unique to the digital environment that museums can exploit, much as the best exhibitions utilise the things unique to their medium to construct material statements? And what does this mean for current thinking about crowd-curation and getting public input into the exhibition during its creation?

Following the masterclass with Helen, fellow PhD student Travis Cox and I went to explore the current exhibitions at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, happening upon a Sol LeWitt display. Travis is a bit of a LeWitt junky, and we spent some time discussing the LeWitt retrospective at MASS MoCA in the USA, which is on display for 25 years. If an exhibition is an essay, then this is a textbook; a tome dedicated to defining (and fixing) the impact of LeWitt’s work. Of course, the analogy is not perfect, because a book has an order in which it must be approached, whilst an exhibition can often be sauntered through in any order, leafed through page by page without concern that the order will be wrong.

Still, here we have an idea that a great exhibition is an argument, it’s a proposition. It does not merely reflect what has been discussed before, like oh-so-many undergraduate papers. Instead it makes a stand, it pokes at a new way of thinking without necessarily pretending to the only approach to the topic.

And with this in mind, what I want to know now is how we continue an argument that starts in the museum proper onto the Web? In David Weinberger’s Too Big To Know (p95), there is a discussion about Robert Darnton’s The Case for Books, and a new model for physical books that could make possible the communication of “the fathomlessness of the archives and the bottomlessness of the past.” Weinberger offers this succinct capturing of the ideas in Darnton’s essay.

“[S]tructure it in layers arranged like a pyramid.” At the top would be the “concise account.” Second, there would be “expanded versions of different aspects of the argument.” Third, there could be documentation to support the top two layers. Fourth, include “selections from previous scholarship and discussions of them.” Fifth would be teaching tools. The sixth layer would aggregate reader commentary and exchanges.

Could we take a similar approach to the link between the in-museum essay in three dimensions and its online counterpart?

Finally, I cannot explore these subject even for a moment without linking to this amazing description by Elif Batuman of Orhan Pamuk’s museum of innocence, the “world’s first synergetic novel-museum.” This is a completely off-beat way of thinking about this problem, but an interesting and wonderful read and project, and absolutely worth considering in this discussion.

For the next ten years, writing and shopping proceeded in a dialectical relationship. Pamuk would buy objects that caught his eye, and wait for the novel to ‘swallow’ them, demanding, in the process, the purchase of further objects. Occasionally an object refused to be swallowed, as happened with some carriage lanterns and an old gas meter. Pamuk published The Museum of Innocence in 2008. It resembles less a museum catalogue than a 600-page audio guide. A ticket printed in the back of each copy grants one free entry to the museum. By that point he had already acquired nearly all of Füsun’s belongings, so the museum could, in theory, have opened the next day. But Pamuk was worried about the example of Edouard Dujardin, the French writer sometimes credited with pioneering, in a largely forgotten text called Les Lauriers sont coupés, the stream of consciousness. Pamuk didn’t want to be Dujardin. He wanted to be Joyce. It wasn’t enough just to build the world’s first synergetic novel-museum. The museum had to be a thing of beauty. He hired a team of artists and curators and worked full time in the museum for several months, taking naps on Kemal’s bed in the attic.

So, what do you think? Is an exhibition an essay (or an album or a mix tape)? And if it is, how do we continue an argument that starts in the museum proper onto the web?