Museum of Modern Art. Photo courtesy: Nilofar Shamim Haja

The Influence of Space on Art

Does the space within which an artwork is exhibited “change” the work, or have an impact on the way it is received? Parvathi Nayar explores.

Museum of Modern Art. Photo courtesy: Nilofar Shamim HajaImage: Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Having exhibited in a variety of venues, from gallery to public spaces to museums, it’s interesting to note that each venue represents a different journey in terms of the experience, the audience and the impact of the art work on viewers. Certainly, the journey of the artwork from artist’s studio to the point of exhibition is a significant one, a major supplement to that other journey the work takes, from concept to execution.

Read: Curating Exhibits: Difference Between Museums and Art Galleries.

If a museum was once about history and ownership, the advent of the contemporary art museum has shifted some of these paradigms. For a visual artist today, the opportunity to exhibit in a museum represents all sorts of complex achievements. The changing notions of what comprises art and where it can be exhibited may be reflective of the changing attitudes of museums accepting the transitional and provisional nature of contemporary art. However, we cannot deny that exhibits in museums are representative of a certain patronage, a signal of support or of co-opting.

At the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Photo courtesy Nilofar Shamim HajaImage: At the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City.

In 1964, an edition of eight artist’s multiples was commissioned of Marcel Duchamp’s most famous work, Fountain (1917), also referred to as ‘readymade,’ essentially a porcelain urinal presented as a work of art. While the originals were lost, the eight multiples made their way into important museum collections, including those of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Tate. Fountain is influential and controversial in many ways. To me, it speaks of that journey made by a work of art from thought to exhibition, and the roles that museums of contemporary art play – rightly or wrongly, in determining what constitutes art.

A museum exhibition offers an ideal opportunity to get the essential modes of display correct, such as the lighting, the space needed for an artwork to breathe and the wall text. But ultimately, this display is subjective. How do we, and who determines, how art works should be shown, as with the Fountain, whether on a plinth, behind a plastic acrylic box, laid bare on a pedestal, in which part of the room, corner or foreground, and so on.

WP_20150609_14_46_05_ProImages: Art work on display at the MoMA, New York. 

In my experience, museums offer opportunities for contextualization: to place the artwork within a time or space or idea by itself or by grouping it with other works of art, to look at the concerns being dealt with by the artist singly or as part of a theme or subject, or epoch is something that is unique to museums.

While the debate rages on about how much information is to be given, the advantage of a museum show is that there is scholarship and intent, the will, and funds to have enough entry points into the work for the general public. This could be through signage, catalogues, audio guides as well as website content that provides additional material about the exhibit that allow the interested viewer to have a deeper conversation with the work of art.

Read: Writing Text for Museums: Talking to Your Visitors

Contemplating Artworks MoMA Photos courtesy Nilofar Shamim HajaImage: Contemplating Artworks at MoMA.

Many international museums have trained docents who contextualise an exhibit through tours for visitors, including school groups, for persons with disabilities and international tourists. This personalized guide into works of art can make all the difference in how the circle of art making-exhibiting-viewership is completed. Sure, “explaining the meaning” of an artwork tends to close it down and sends the signal as if that’s the final viewpoint on the topic. On the other hand, such kinds of discussions and resources offers newer ways of interactions for audiences with art works that might not be treated as ‘art’ in a conventional sense of the word.

In his provocative book The Invisible Dragon, Dave Hickey puts forth, among other things, the problems inherent in the institutionalization of art and of institutions, for instance, museums becoming the arbiters of art. It is a valid point – and crucial for a healthy art scene – that we as individuals, art makers and art appreciators develop and trust our instincts about art, and how we can converse with art.

At a gallery in the Museum of Modern Art, New YorkImage: Visitors at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. All Photos courtesy: Nilofar Shamim Haja

But this does not take away from the importance of contemporary art museums – very often, it is at a thoughtfully put together museum exhibition that few find the space and time to have these conversations with artworks and with each other.

Dear readers, tell us about your recent visit to an art museum and how you engaged with the works of art on display? We would love to hear your comments.

About the Author 

Parvathi NayarChennai-based Parvathi Nayar is a contemporary artist known for her drawing and video practice. Her works were part of the Kochi Muziris Biennale 2014/15; her 20’ sculptural drawing A Story of Flight is part of Jai He art programme at T2 Mumbai airport. Her solos include The Ambiguity of Landscapes (2014, Chennai), I sing the body electric (2008, Mumbai), Win Lose Draw (2007, Singapore).


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