by Michael Langhoff
When I go to a gallery or museum I don’t expect a breaching of my own security or imposition upon my rights as an individual. Art, more often than not, is safe. This is not to protect us as much as it is to protect the institution. Rarely, do I expect the delicate lines between viewing and experiencing to blur in such a way that I find myself thrown, misled, or disoriented. Funny as it is though, disorientation plays a key role in bringing us back to reality, as disorientation is the initial move towards re-orientation
Sometimes, the wedge that separates viewing from experiencing does blur and what I initially thought was distant from me has now become a part of me. I am in it. The occurrence of art meeting life is arguably the golden mean from which to measure the greatness of art.
The process of art making in this instance is not to create an object that is good, but rather an effort to reveal a simple truth embedded in the makeup of our existence. This might sound grand and perhaps a bit too ideological, but it is what has been driving the history of art for centuries while movement after movement digs deeper to uncover new truths. Take for example the work of Francis Alÿs. In 2007 Alÿs exhibited 300 paintings of St. Fabiola at the Hispanic Society Museum in New York, none of which he painted. Rather, these renderings were collected and accumulated by Alÿs and his colleagues through his travels at flea markets, from street vendors and through private dealers. The 300 depictions of St. Fabiola are all nearly identical as each one borrowed from the 19th century French academic painter Jean-Jaques Henner.
St. Fabiola is not a particularly famous saint, nor is Henner’s portrait of her considered a masterwork. Fabiola resurfaced in 1854 following a novel authored by British prelate Cardinal Wiseman. He would raise her to something of an icon of virtue and humility, a figure who rebelled against the Church’s authority only to return to that church following her lover’s death.
This however, was not the story told when these works made it into the 19th century wood-paneled gallery of the Hispanic Society. The works, rendered in media ranging from painting to colored coffee bean seeds, to cameos plates and needlepoint, gave the story itself a history. And this story cannot be found in art history texts, for it is a cultural as well as a social history that, by way of this exhibition, forces itself to be recognized as such.
In an interview Alÿs had with Gianni Romano from Flash Art he said that “Not all ideas need to turn into products though, the best ones tend to become stories, without the need to turn into products.”
The exhibition Fabiola was not about the virtuous this saint, or even the diverse renditions of her portraits as they were hung salon style, filling the gallery walls. The exhibition revealed an important relationship that each painting had to the other, telling both a variety of individual stories while maintaining a collective story that understands the whole.
Each individual piece with its own history, its own story and its unique form resonated with a richness that could have only been observed because it been placed among all of its fellows. One of these paintings alone is hardly a thing to stop for, but when placed in the context of the larger story surrounding it, the painting begins to breathe newness. This is the story of an idea with a relationship to all things, that when placed within its natural context of the whole, brings a new life in the form of dialogic relationships.
As artists continue to move away from making objects, and curators move deeper into the allegorical, institutions are re-creating models that will adequately house these gestures while audiences are no longer being called upon to view, but rather to engage and experience art differently. Roles are clearly shifting, responsibilities are blending and practices seem to be merging within and without the art world.
This shift has forced upon us to rethink, restructure and re-systematize the way we approach art as an artist, a curator, an institution and as a viewer. Our reception of these non-object forms is determined primarily through the framework by which those forms are exhibited. It is with this in mind that I move our discussion away from refurbishing the old system and press onward towards undoing the system entirely.
Let’s unlearn what we know of as a gallery, unstructure what we know as the traditional and un-systematize the systems that always seem to be of interest to our institutions. One question that immediately comes into mind is why apartment galleries and alternative spaces are simply imitating galleries and institutions?
I’m not saying this is inherently wrong, for I am an avid apartment gallery supporter, but I just question how these alternative spaces are positioning themselves (alternatively). Perhaps, if that is not their end goal, fine.
But if we’re going to establish spaces for new forms, perhaps imitation (or even refurbishing the old system) is not our greatest plan. There is so much potential in the things we do not know, why not explore by starting from scratch rather than playing into the model we are so familiar with?
Let’s get disoriented, if only for a moment.