Ways of Seeing Photo Exhibitions (1): Reflections on Faint Light, Dark Shadows (2017)
Ways of Seeing Photo Exhibitions (2): You can only obtain useful nutrients from an exhibition by walking through it three times at least
Ways of Seeing Photo Exhibitions (3): Seeing the exhibition for the third time
Seeing the exhibition for the third time
After seeing the exhibition for the second time using the nine methods mentioned above, it is now the time to see it for the third time, which is the most important and requires the most discernment.
Seeing an exhibition for the third time is the most important step to learning from great artworks and curators of great exhibitions.
First, try stay away (step back) from the exhibition walls, squint your eyes to look at each artwork. Basically, it is a reversed step of what you did during the second time looking at an artowkr. You try to “dig out” the most exquisite details of the work in front of your eyes during the second time. But then, during the third time, when you squint your eyes looking at it, you “leave behind all details” and simply look at the backbone structure of an artwork; usually this backbone is the key to success for a masterpiece.
I suggest that if, while appreciating artworks using this method, you spot an artwork with a backbone structure that offers you a good laugh in the heart, you should immediately draw it down.
After that, you still maintain your distance to the exhibition wall. This time, still squinting your eyes, you should find out the contextual relationship among works on a whole exhibition wall with your squinting eyes. This way of seeing is to learn from the curator. Other than the choice of artworks and artists in an exhibition, the greatest wisdom you can take from an exhibition is usually found in the contextual message revealed in the order and size arrangement of the exhibited artworks.
For the same artist, which of his or her works should be placed at the beginning of an exhibition? Which work should be displayed at the end? Which work should be placed at the place that audiences should first look at when they walk into the exhibition? Which piece should be the main visual of an entire exhibition? (Why?) Then there are also questions like, how big an artwork should be? How to pick the background colour of each exhibition wall?
Similarly, for joint exhibitions, whose work should be shown in the foremost place? Which artist’s works should be displayed at the end? Which artists comes before and which artist follows, and what kind of content is on display in the other artists? What kind of arrangement of the artworks makes an exhibition appear more vivid and rich? How to make the style of the exhibition complement the artworks? Will interesting content be emerged when comparing the contents shown on the right and left side of a wall or the front and back side of a wall? Or if there is a big wall inside a gigantic room, which work is to be displayed on one side and which on another side? Usually, these two artworks contain interesting content with a certain view that artists or curators want to convey.
In Faint Light, Dark Shadow, which is a joint exhibition with works from various artists, works displayed at the beginning of it are Lee Cha-yu’s In the Dark and Invisible Hours. Works of this artist are not only shown first but also occupy the biggest space. The audience can then infer that the curator holds the artist in high regard. If we enter the exhibition from the exit, the first work we see will be Chang Chien-chi’s Side Chain. Ho Ching-tai’s Occupational Injury Victims is displayed in the Circular Theatre inside. There are two rooms on its left, the first one is used to show Hou Peng-hui’s Self-Portrait, and the second one for Hou Shur-tzy’s Japan-Eye-Love-You. Therefore, works of these four artists can be thought of as being ranked behind the works of Lee Chia-yu and are the second most important works. All in all, if we pay attention to messages like space and position of artists and artworks in an exhibition, we can figure out the importance of these artist and artworks in the mind of the curator.
If you have gone to the Exposition du 30 Anniversaire du Musee d’Orsay Taiwan held in National Palace Museum, and have examined carefully the way that each artwork was presented, I believe it is not hard for you to notice the unique display of a work by Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890). The work La méridienne ou La sieste (d’après Millet) (73 x 91 cm, 1890) is displayed independently (shown at an obvious distance to other works on its left and right). The exhibition wall was also specially designed that there was a recessed area of nearly 10 centimetres from the wall. Through such special treatment of the exhibition space of the work, I believe the curator meant “As time passed till the time of La méridienne ou La sieste, it is a foregone conclusion that Impressionism became the major trend of printing.”
I suggest that you can deliberately take the end as the beginning. Try entering an exhibition from its exit and seeing the exhibition backwards. You may gain a different message from the exhibition. It might be an accident, but then when I saw Exposition du 30 Anniversaire du Musee d’Orsay Taiwan in such a way, it really offered me a special feeling.
For a solo exhibition with a certain topic, the contextual relationship shown in every work and in between each work is of exceptional importance. If the works are displayed in the “semantic spreading activation mode,” the size and shape of each work may be more meticulously designed. Also, what are the contextual messages?
I usually suggest students use pen and paper to jot down the flow of exhibition and the displayed artworks of the whole exhibition venue when there is major exhibition. It is the quickest way to learn from the great artists. It may be time-consuming and requiring lots of physical and intellectual energy, but it is absolutely worthwhile for students of art.
Photo exhibitions have been using scaled-down models of the exhibition venue to design the contextual relationship of displayed artworks, a practice that started in 1950s when the photo exhibition The Family of Man was held in 1955 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Prominent artists and curators nowadays all use such method (constructing a 1:30 scaled model in a workshop) to consider the contextual relationship when arranging each artwork in the exhibition. While artists use such techniques to construct the flow of an exhibition, we as audience can also learn about the essence of the artists’ creativity by recording and drawing the ordering and contextual relationship of each artwork in an exhibition.
Let us have a look at Blind Date, an exhibition by Japanese celebrated contemporary photographer Lieko SHIGA held in Marugame Genichiro-Inokuma Museum of Contemporary Art between 10 June and 3 September 2017. From the way she showcased her new works in the exhibition, we immediately realise that in the concept of contemporary art creation, exhibition is not simply about how artworks are displayed anymore.
In the first and second space inside the exhibition, she used 21 Kodak Carousel Slide Projectors, projecting images or red light beams with similar ganzfeld to various walls at various projection distances. Besides, in these two separate spaces, one bigger and another smaller, 23 coloured and black-and-white pictures of different sizes were hung at different height so that each was partially illuminated by point lamps. In the third space, heartbeats of baby could be heard. There was a small coffee table, on a wall next to which and on the floor near which a hand-drawn blueprint of the exhibition by her was displayed. The forth space was a narrow corridor. From left to right, it was divided into five areas that were covered by her with a few thousands handwritten words, creating a narratives similar to a novel.
Nineteen slide projectors were installed in the first space and each had a slide tray that could house 80 slides. But then, between every two slides, Lieko Shiga inserts a blank slide so that only white light would come out of the projector. Two projectors were used to only give out red light, while some projectors repeatedly displayed images with only slightly different tones for three to four times. Each of the 21 projectors had a number and each projector’s image had a theme. Such as:
#26 Mourning – Was Somebody Awake?; #27 Mourning – Demon’s lair; #28 Mourning – Shave the corpse’s hair and soak it in an amniotic pool of sugar water; #30 Mourning – Altar; #31 Mourning – Planet Nine; #32 Mourning – Open Grave; #33 Mourning – A song never to be sung again; #34 Mourning – Remembrance, Remembrance, Remembrance, until you can stand it no longer; #35 15.03.2011; #36 02.07.2009 – 18.07.2009. Bangkok; #37 Last Moment; #38 Iroha ni Konpeito; #39 Daybreak; #40 46 billion years; #41 Empty Casket; #42 Dried-up Well; and #43 Lovers.
Projectors #38, #39 and #40 were projecting images to various directions onto walls far away from them in the first space, the size of the images projected was therefore very large. Though projector #37 was installed in the first space, it gave out red light to the second space thought a door between the two spaces. Meanwhile, projectors #42 and #43 projected gigantic images onto walls on the two far ends of a space which was longer and narrower than the first space. In the fourth space, a narrow corridor, theme names were given to words written on the walls: #44 The Ghost; #45 Mourning; #46 The Reality and #47 A Song.
Lieko Shiga’s latest exhibition demonstrates that contemporary art photography has reached the level comparable to “making an exhibition like a concert.” For exhibitions of this level, all works created by artists before the exhibition assume the role of “elements.” A contextual collaboration of these elements will be formed as a new metaphysical entity when they are displayed in an exhibition. The messages that this entity conveys can only be experienced by the audience attending the exhibition in person. When elements of this kind of exhibition are published as printed catalogue, the audience will experience a totally different content.
I believe friends who visited Faint Light, Dark Shadow in the Taipei Fine Arts Museum between March and June this year would agree that the display of artworks and the arrangement of the exhibition was meticulous. While visiting the exhibition, audience had a vivid visual experience. (Those who could not visit in person could only make an educated guess according to the floor plan shown in the exhibition’s catalogue.) Though the design of the exhibition was regarded as great, when we compare it to Lieko Shiga’s Blind Date, would Faint Light, Dark Shadow be considered too plain, too simple? This may be the consequence of “ten times speed age” brought to human civilization.
Today in 2017, world photography civilisation has been part of the era of Photography 4.0 for nearly 10 years. Human civilisation is experiencing earth-shaking changes so that almost all photographic traditions have been replaced by new alterations. Robots with AI has already started intensive learning programs and are trying to replace jobs done by human beings. The obstacles of photographic techniques have vanished, digital photography is omnipotent and almighty, and the number of images stored on the Internet is so enormous that describing it with an astronomical number is an understatement. These progresses that once shocked the general public in the first 10 years of the era of Photography 4.0 now look like a piece of cake. With progression at such a fast pace, not only the world looks different, but the meaning of photography is also completely altered. Now that the word “photography” has almost become extinct, when two persons talk about things relating to photography, it will be better to first offer a definition to it and discuss which photography dynasty the word is referring to. Or else, the discussion will fall into a deadlock similar to comparing between apples and oranges.
The change of era is so fast, everything has become different.
Indeed, if we see our passion of photography as simply taking photo during holidays and travelling or just as a form of entertainment, then these rapid changes of photography can be ignored. But if you want to achieve something in the field of “photography,” which is called “image,” “image information communication” or “photo literacy;” or if you are an indicative individual, being one of the 14 indicative elements moulding the evaluation criteria of a region’s photography culture, how can you turn a blind eye to the rapid change of this era?
If you want to continue staying in close contact with the civilisation, please pay close attention to any news of art exhibitions in neighbouring first-tier cities! As mentioned at the beginning of this article, lifelong learning being a norm nowadays; visiting big art exhibitions in public art museums is the best source for us to obtain nutrients for life.
May I ask, what is the photography dynasty you are referring to for the photography you are talking about?
19 July 2017 Tienmu, Taipei.