Once again there were the reflections and shadows. Maybe the idea was to give the space the bright and sunny feel of California because this was the subject of the exhibition at the Queensland Art Gallery: California Design 1930 – 1965. Alas, it seemed not to be so, as these nuisances had been experienced before in different exhibitions on other occasions that had no reference to sunnier climes. The problem seemed to lie in the poor quality of displays at the Queensland Art Gallery and Museum. It seemed that the previous predicaments with budget presentations using standard galleries and existing lighting without any effort to specifically enhance the quality of the areas or the exhibits, has occurred yet again.
It might sound like a repetitive whine that is an individual's uniquely quirky perspective -perhaps a perversion of perception, (see http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2011/07/on-exhibitionism-art-of-display.html ); a personal, idiosyncratic gripe arising from a singular preference that another might dismiss - but this time photographs were allowed: no flash. Indeed, there was nothing flash about this exhibition space other than the glare! The images of the concerns were at last able to be documented. All of the lighting was high and general, pointed to make the best of what was there. Maybe a few more fittings got turned, turned on or turned off, but this bright, non-specific space lighting was being used for a special exhibition, a mini-blockbuster that charged for entry.
The video projection
The spaces were all open, bright and white with a high gray frieze. These areas were no different to any other exhibition space in this cultural complex. Very little had been done to these lights and walls for California. Even the usual large pieces of text pasted onto the walls were missing (c.f. http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2012/03/drawn-out.html ). One video was projected high in one location, making one stand awkwardly nowhere in particular to watch it. The irony is that this was an exhibition about quality design, the classics of the thirties, forties, fifties and sixties: the iconic examples of the era. These are works that transformed the world that was struggling to establish itself before, during and after the trauma of the Second World War. Even to this day, with all of the changes in technology and access to information, these works remain stunning examples of design excellence. It was the experience of the works on display that highlighted the problems with the exhibition design. Eyes that were being engaged by the delights of caring, quality work were, at the same time being bombarded by the problems of thoughtless exhibitionism: reflections and shadows, and carefully arranged viewpoints. It was a subtle interference, but it was at its worst.
The issues were familiar and numerous. There were multiple shadows shading texts positioned at ankle level, a location that meant that one had to lean over into the illuminating rays to read the words, hence the shading. There was glare from the light of the large overhead fittings that was caught by the shiny surfaces. There were layered reflections in glass cabinets and glazed frames that added a distracting, dazzling depth and intrigue to things. Even the detailing of the cabinets sparkled with the light catching on exposed glass edges. Exhibits were located for their display appearance, their stylish prettiness and classy arrangements, rather than for information. Again, most of the pieces were shown as one-dimensional objects, concealing parts that could easily have been displayed: see - http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2011/07/on-exhibitionism-art-of-display.html et al There was a slight movement in one of the hanging fashion items that gave some hope to the idea that it might be revolving, swirling, as though on a catwalk; but sadly, no. It was fixed on nylon suspension lines that were swaying with the air movements. The ‘rear’ appearances remained hidden. All of these issues have been written about before. Why do they get ignored? Why should it be so here, especially when the subject of the exhibition is good design? Why does the design of the exhibition not set the standard for its exhibits, or show some interest in approaching the quality of what it contains?
The works on display were supplemented with video clips, but were these trying to be just too clever? The screens were presented as old television boxes of the era, with a telephone hand piece hung on each side for viewers to use to listen to the sound. It was a quirky approach, perhaps trying to be contextual. One was invited to stand nearby, or in other places to sit down on a low stool and enjoy the display, only to discover that each screen had multiple presentations that would take significant blocks of time to watch and listen to them all. One was expected to linger just too long with these presentations. The ‘flow’ of the exhibition was broken. Why not use QR Codes so that this information could be reverenced in one’s own time at home? This technology needs to become more creatively useful to enrich the whole experience that could extend beyond the gallery space.
One comes to an exhibition not only to be a part of a social occasion, but also with some time scale in mind, and other obligations to consider. It is not as though the video presentations were not relevant or of interest - they were; but why should one waste time in the gallery standing or sitting privately listening alone to a video, for the situation did emphasize one’s isolation? It was a circumstance aggravated by the fact that these personal areas were a part of a large open space, squeezed against a wall. One was fully exposed. But why have two hand pieces creating a relationship between strangers? When two persons unknown to one another become engaged with the videos simultaneously, they discovered themselves linked to a shared screen, looking at the same vision and listening to the same sound, with a similar cord and hand piece. Does no one realize the sensitivities of the social implications of this arrangement? The telephone hand piece that was used as the speaker made it look as though each was talking to the other ‘on the telephone.’ Why, oh why are such matters missed? Are galleries only interested in the clever business side of arty exhibitions?
Design has it own rigours and demands, so why display explanatory words that are difficult to read, and images that are blurred with glare? Charles Eames and his wife would cringe at this poor, this very poor exhibition of such quality design examples, items that established the paradigm for the future, changed it. This exhibition will do little other than generate some income for the QAG at $15.00 per single adult entry. It will be the ‘nice little earner’ given the seemingly limited amount of money spent on setting it up. Anyhow, it looks like it might have to subsidize the current GOMA exhibition - Cai Guo-Qiang’s Falling Back to Earth. A discounted entry of $5.00 was being offered to the GOMA show if one purchased the two tickets together: two for nearly one! Gallery visits have become like shopping at Tesco!
But more of this later. One was introduced to California Design with a couple of iconic items in the foyer: an Airstream Clipper caravan, (the Americans call them ‘trailers’), and a Studebaker of the era had been placed in the public area in front of the ticket counter that held a few scattered Eames’ chairs and tables. A large map of California had been fixed to one of the walls off to one side. The caravan and car gleamed, glowed with reflected light and dazzled with distorted reflections. They astonished, such was their stylish slickness. Here the sparkle was an integral part of these beautiful objects that held the aura of a glossy advertisement in a fifties fashion magazine, such was their wonder. They floated in light. Alas, such delightful glare and haze only became a nuisance distraction for the majority of other displays inside the exhibition. These flashes of brightness added nothing to the general display, even though the subject was sunny California. The exhibits looked ill at ease in the large, white empty voids. They held an awkwardness that was only aggravated by the impromptu reflections and shadows.
What might one say about the exhibition without referring to these phantom nuisances? It was indeed a stimulating display that highlighted memories of these times when first revealed to a young architect. The 'new' startling graphics; the different ways of thinking; the ‘new’ forms; the ‘unusual’ materials; the commitment to an idea and ideal; the zeal; the vision. These were truly inspirational works. It was the Life magazine publication, its photographs and typography that emphasized the limitations of the techniques of printing and manufacturing of the era, an awareness that made the emblematical outcomes even more astonishing. The difference accentuated the modest boldness of the ‘new,’ the continual pushing of all limits. There were ideas here that still thrilled: see - http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2014/02/on-inspiration.html The concepts continued to enshrine a rigour and hold an intrigue that arose from rational research and factual analysis as well as a ‘new’ understanding of lives, and a love of experimentation. Did California make this possible, its fresh, energizing climate and open, natural, invigorating landscapes?
The work involved a particular skill and interest in matters of design that are rarely seen today. There was a certain communal commitment evident in all aspects of art, sculpture, interior design, industrial design, architecture, graphics and more: a broad allegiance to coherent quality outcomes based on facts and envisaged futures, not style or image alone. As Charles Eames said in his movie, (it was a video of an old movie, one of many that were available to watch if one had time), everything was considered to be inter-related: everything from design, to research, to making, to designing the production, the packaging, the promotion and the sales. All matters were approached with a coherent philosophy in order to tie everything together with the one ideal, the one intent, the one strategy, the one quality. Where do we see this today? Today’s interest seems to be with the big bang of identity and promotion - whatever it takes to be different, irrespective of relevance to anything but profit and reputation, or so it appears.
The exhibition was memorable because of the recollections it stirred. There was some sense of nostalgia lingering here as old feelings were relived with these gentle, stimulating reminders of living ideas and youthful energy. The exhibition held the prototypes for all of the ‘terrible’ kitchenware that pervaded the sixties and seventies - even the eighties: the odd, abstract, ‘scribble’ decoration and the randomly asymmetrical shapes that were so easy for anyone to adapt when it looked as though anything might be possible. The classic, over-familiar, salt and pepper pieces with the matching sugar shaker can still be seen today. They remain in production. Oh gosh, even the furniture was there, the teak rectangular boxes with sloping, tapered legs, sliding doors and neat teak handles, flush and recessed: and the unusually inventive tables, all Mondrian-inspired and decoratively geometric, again setting the example for easy commercial replication and insensitive adaptation.
There were odd screens with ad hoc assemblies of ‘abstract’ wire, mesh and colourful baubles. Anything seemed possible in this nonfigurative game if one was game. Many sought to replicate these images but sadly failed. These works are far subtler than they appear. Experimentation was alive and vibrant, even in, perhaps especially in the ‘new’ graphics of the arty architectural magazines. The exhibition was truly a modern archive. It had the beginnings of many things now ended or distorted, or forgotten, ignored. The ‘new’ Neutra house still surprised as it must have originally, even though it was familiar. There remains something simple, raw but alive in this work. Even the Disney house of the future was there to remind everyone of its rotating, fiberglass crucifix plan - to catch the sun. Like most futuristic predictions, this house was out of date before it is completed. Houses, cars and the like ‘of the future’ that can be fabricated today carry their own inherent contradiction. Perhaps the idea is trying to say more about future public acceptance, possible future mass production and future sales and profits? This place stayed until it was unceremoniously demolished some years later in the future that it tried to predict.
Given that the problem of displays never seems to be acknowledged or addressed, one is left wondering if shadows and reflections are just no longer seen. Is it that everyone's involvement with glossy screens has blinded eyes and closed minds to these plays of light? One used to be able to get matt screens on laptops and computers, but now these, as well as those on tablets and mobile phones, have all become the glossiest of glossy surfaces, reflecting and mirroring everything nearby, leaving us to work with this glary background in everything we do: and we are using these gadgets more and more every hour. Maybe such problems in exhibitions are tolerated because these concerns are no longer ever noticed. Have they really become ‘everyday’? Still, this is no excuse for poor design. The problems need to be addressed everywhere so that the subconscious strain on the observer can be eliminated. Surely this care is owed to the exhibits even if no one cares for the comfort of the visitors’ experience? One is left wondering if this lazy acceptance of nuisances makes us blind to bad design, just too tolerant of any indulgent diversion or distraction that might be promoted as art. It may be so, because the lack of any critique seems to be an inherent part of the response to California too. Questions to colleagues who had seen the exhibition prior to our visit failed to raise answers that included any comment about the poor quality of the display. “It’s OK,” was the most common response: not stunning, but OK.
One must add that the harsh lighting did provide some very beautiful shadows, shapes that were attractive, interesting, stimulating, and explanatory too. One could learn about the piece casting the shade; but the nuisances bothered one more. If the light effects had been more than a mere accident, the work of chance, the whole exhibition would have been enlivened and enriched; totally enhanced.
. . . . . . . . . . .
We decided to move on, to use our discounted entry to GOMA, (Gallery of Modern Art), to see Cai Guo-Quang’s Falling Back to Earth. We knew nothing of this exhibition. We moved in through the giant glass doors of this ‘look-alike’ building, (see http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2012/05/pairs-3.html ), with an open mind. This show was promoted as a ‘major solo exhibition, spanning the ground floor galleries of GOMA, (that) presents major, large scale installations by one of the world’s leading contemporary artists.’ The tickets were taken and we moved up a ramp into one of the large gallery voids: it did feel of emptiness. A cluster of stuffed animals was arrayed around a blue pool. Was it water? Were these real? There was a spooky naturalism here that obviously wasn’t there. It would just not be politically correct. The display looked like one of very doubtful taxidermy, a collection of Noah’s animals stuffed: in every sense. The explanatorily words only created a frustrated puzzlement. Why do artists try to extract complex meanings out of so little? - see http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2014/01/swell-sculpture-festival-2013.html
The art drip.
A stroll around the animals’ rear ends was met with a surprise: a splash. As the supervisor did not flinch, one supposed that this was not a coin being thrown into the water, even though one was tempted. It might have been fun! A drip of water was discovered to be a part of the ‘art.’ It was even nominated in the words that described the work. One was separated from the animals by what one assumed to be a large, synthetic membrane, (holding water), that was covered with what one eventually learned through observation was sand. Perhaps the enforced distance kept one away from the crude detailing of the animals? Maybe exposing one only to the tail ends made it easier to conceal the poor structuring of the heads that could only be seen opposite, on the far side of the pool? Still, the sand kept the supervisor busy. He was constantly brushing it smooth with a duster, and sweeping it back to the defined line with a broom. Children! This search for sand perfection in a large, pure white void gave the place a sense of the surreal, as did the catalogue of ‘99’ look-alike animals. Apparently ‘99’ was meaningful for the artist. The vision of the drinking animals, all at peace and in harmony, in love, apparently came to the artist at Stradbroke Island. It seems a strange notion to arise from the Australian landscape, ending up as something eccentrically ad hoc, a little like a zoo experience. It seemed a somewhat naïvely structured, artificial vision - strained?
Moving out of the single-drip zone brought one back to another large central gallery space. This taller, narrower void was filled with a tree, a huge tree on its side - a lovely spotted gum. This immediately gave rise to the concern: was it cut down just for the exhibition? How did it get in here? How will it get out? Why? Its torn and ripped roots only highlighted the trauma it had suffered for this ‘art.’ What is the relationship between life and art?
The stroll past the tree took one to the wolves, unannounced. A pack was discovered dramatically leaping like Santa Claus’s reindeers in the classic Christmas cartoon image of the sleigh in the sky. The wolves were arcing through space as if in a back room of a deserted warehouse. There was an equal sense of the surreal in this large gallery too, but a different one. There was a profound vacancy here, a true nothingness, even though it was partially and dramatically filled with pretend animals. Bare corners emphasized the void’s emptiness. Here, instead of gliding confidently into the stars as the reindeers do, these animals crashed into a glass wall that was supposed to mean the Berlin wall, or any wall at all that could be brought into the story of art and its meaning. Any story to try to create some sense of complex ‘deep’ meaning seemed to be useful; but these explanations became, in reality, somewhat farcically forced, a little like the art itself. The display did give one a chance to get very close to the taxidermy. One could stroll around amongst the ‘99’ wolves, (again), all hanging on nylon fishing lines, and peer closely into the crude, epoxy-moulded mouths and crossed, glazed eyes. Apparently all of the animals were sculptures clad in natural fur. Just where the fur had come from remains unknown. Something had died for this art too, even if not the wolves or the other selection of Noah’s beasts.
One left to browse in the gallery shop, not to buy anything, but in order to forget the feeling of befuddlement, while trying to get over the bland disappointment of apparent meaninglessness. It seemed that more effort had been put into this exhibition than the California Design show opposite. Are we too polite to complain? Do we just not care? Do we no longer think or feel? Are we only seeking different entertainments? Tolerance is a virtue, but open debate is also needed as part of this forbearance – along with the willingness to listen and to change attitudes. Maybe the next exhibition might understand the issues and manage them much better. As for the ‘art.’ This is a much more complex matter that does need more discussion too. It does not need more words.
Home again, home again . . . .
So let us now leave the words and browse the images; look at the evidence, as it were, if such is needed to prove a point. Remember that no camera flash was allowed.
It is interesting to look quickly at some of the gallery details that shape the environment for this exhibition.
The gallery seat,
The 'NO ENTRY' solution.