mining the museumgeek – meta-museology in the art show

You museumers have something to answer for! You’ve started getting into my head and disturbing my otherwise sane thoughts and now I’ve spent the last three days installing my first “meta-museological” experiment in my local student gallery.

Every year, my University Art Gallery holds an art prize focussed around a central theme. The exhibition usually passes me by, but this year the theme – Classify Me – caught my attention. The exhibition was premised on a political discussion that took place in Australia earlier this year, when a Senator called for all art to be classified prior to exhibition, in order that age limits (similar to restrictions placed on television) could be imposed. Tantamount to a call for censorship of the arts, it was something that Amy Hill – curator of the 2011 Prize – thought would make a great subject.

And she was right! The topic has garnered some great responses. However, my take on the subject was very different from that of the other participants.

Calling my work Classify Me2.0, I conducted a museological exercise in which I “classified” every work of art in the exhibition according to the ICONCLASS classification system, and through tagging. I then uploaded all of my classifications to a website (the first I’d created!), which could be accessed via either a computer in the Gallery, or utilising proximate QR codes in situ with the works of art themselves.

It has been an incredibly interesting experiment.

First of all, I am not an expert at classification, and so my categorisation of works has been inexact at best. I was armed with very little information about the works themselves. I had not read any artist statements, and so I was only able to make the classification based on the appearance of the work, and its name. In some ways, this is different from the way objects would be classified within a museum – although it did reflect a situation in which a politically driven classification system might work, including some of the difficulties that might be encountered.

I expected that I would find the process of classification interesting, but I didn’t realise that it would significantly affect me. Classifying objects into categories that in no way reflected my feelings about the works was strangely emotive. Of particular note was a small bronze sculpture of a pregnant girl, with one foot shod in a ballet shoe (in a nod to Degas), and the other limb a silver prosthesis. It’s a beautiful sculpture – gentle and delicate. However, the prosthetic limb is the most outstanding element of the piece, which placed the work in the category 31AA4 disabilities, deformations and monstrosities; diseases – AA – female human figure.

It shocked me that something so lovely could be associated with such ugly concepts. Similarly stunning was the fact that disability was, and is, classed as a monstrosity in the classification system. The system is obviously derived from a particular historical art paradigm, but given that it is still used, the grouping together of such concepts is pretty dismal. More than anything else, classifying this work really brought home the fact that classification has no room for nuance.

The second aspect of this experiment that has been fascinating is the conversations that it has started.

During the classification process, the curatorial and installation team in the Gallery (mostly artists) would talk about what I was doing. Until I started classifying works actively in their presence, many had only ever thought about classification in context of censorship. Few were cognisant of the fact that museum objects are always categorised – whether by genre, materiality or era. They had never considered that classifications create proximal relationships between works that might be completely unrelated, and give works different meanings from those originally intended.

One member of the installation team was even concerned for me, worried that in creating this piece and categorising works like the dancer in particular ways (as honestly and fairly as possible) I would be opening myself up to hate in the local arts scene. Although it had crossed my mind that this piece could provoke some small reaction, I had not really considered that Classify Me2.0 could be really controversial.

And is still might not be. Most likely no one will blink. But even these conversations demonstrate that the classification of works of art – in public – has the potential to be very powerful.

Yesterday, too, I chatted to some exhibiting artists and discovered that a painting I had classified as 25G21(+1) fruits (+ plants used symbolically) based on first impressions was both that… and something else. What looked initially like a giant purple apple hanging upside down was also a painting of a well-disguised-but-instantly-obvious-once-you-know-it’s-there vulva. My classification of the object as a fruit was both accurate, and not. Yet to someone with access only to the ICONCLASS classification, this plurality of meanings would be lost.

So Classify Me2.0 has proved to be a great experiment. As a piece of art, it’s terrible. The in-gallery QR codes are inaccessible to audiences who don’t know what they are, or what to do with them (or who don’t own a smart phone). Because I’ve entered the work as part of a competitive art prize, I was not allowed to give too much explanation about the codes in the space (as it was thought to be disadvantageous to the other artists). Additionally, the computer upon which the Classify Me2.0 website is accessible is in an odd place in the Gallery, and people don’t seem to know how to interact with it. The website, too, has faults since it’s my first one. The design isn’t ideal, and the works of art are mis-ordered (because many works changed location between me classifying them and the final hang).

Yet as a conversation piece, and an experiment on the nature of classification, Classify Me2.0 has been incredibly successful. I’ve had rich and deep discussions with people about art and Museology – something that I hope will continue (I’ve approached the Curator and Director to see whether we can organise some kind of forum on classification in the Gallery within the coming weeks). And I’ve learned heaps from putting my ideas into practice in the real world.

The exhibition opens formally tonight, so I will keep you posted on any updates. But regardless, I hold you all accountable for starting me on this path.

Visit Classify Me2.0.
UPDATE: Well, apparently it turns out that Classify Me2.0 actually won the art prize. I wasn’t at the exhibition opening as I was on the train home from the Powerhouse Museum, but I just received a text from the curator, telling me I came first. I think the first prize is a $1500 travel scholarship – which will nicely pay for some of my flights to MCN2011. Um, I’m in a little shock right now.