Feb 4, 2017

Hierarchies in the Exhibition

Yesterday I finally managed to go see the Whitney’s exhibition, Dreamlands: Immersive Cinema and Art, 1905-2016. It was the first large exhibition that I’ve seen devoted exclusively to moving images and related works. To create the exhibition, the fifth floor was broken up into different spaces. Some rooms resembled the expected museum gallery, with multiple pieces arranged on white walls. Other spaces, sectioned off by temporary walls, made dark theaters. These were often devoted to a single work. In general, I found myself spending considerably more time with works in the latter type of space. The other visitors seemed to as well.

There are several practical reasons why people may have preferred the theater-like experience. Many of the enclosed rooms had comfortable seating like beanbags and cushions. As someone mentioned in class, seating gives people permission to linger, even when there isn’t enough space for everyone. The fabric walls creating the rooms helped isolate sound, preventing distracting spillover from other works. Another advantage of the enclosed spaces was a sense of immersion, the very quality emphasized by the exhibition title. In some cases the walls were part of the installation and created an environment. For example, Hito Steyerl’s Factory of the Sun was in a room designed to look like the motion capture grid present in the video component of the installation.

I always appreciate when fine art museums borrow from the theater experience to display moving images because it often feels more native to the format. However, walking through Dreamlands, I found myself frequently thinking that I inherently preferred the works that were presented in their own rooms, which is distinct from simply preferring the display. This made me wonder to what extent exhibition design causes visitors to perceive the exhibition works as existing in a hierarchy. Creating an enclosed space requires additional resources, which seems to suggest that the piece is worth it. Presenting a video with muddled sound that is dominated by a louder piece suggests that the full experience of the piece is not essential. I was also interested in how display size affects perception of a work. Whenever I go to art museums, I think of a scene from Stephanie Barber’s movie, Daredevils (not part of the exhibition). In it, a young writer interviews an established artist. The artist tells the writer that she thinks creating large pieces of art is a way of saying that she is important, that her art is worth the resources. For moving images, the question of size is interesting because the technology does not require an image to always be displayed at the same size. Unless an artist indicates a fixed size for a piece, the curator may have to choose a display size. Such decisions are undoubtedly given a lot of thought, however, the process is invisible to most museumgoers who must evaluate the work based on their viewing experience.

While merely selecting a piece of art for exhibition confers value and potential canonization, I think it is worth considering to what extent exhibition design creates a distinction between lesser and major works.

Manon Gray

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