Sunday 17 July 2011


It was the promotional text on the rear cover of the book that attracted the interest. The text was located at the top of the page, the first blurb of six pieces. The words were clear and blunt:
[Michael Sorkin] is brave, principled, highly informed, and fiercely funny. Read him and laugh; read him and weep; but read him, to see why the ‘80’s were so bad for American building.
I was tempted but flicked down the list of other reviews to see if this opinion was shared. I chose another randomly – the fifth one down:
A thorn in the flesh of America’s more complacent architects – especially the postmodernists – Sorkin proves that it’s possible to write with wit, passion and insight about architecture.
This was a more muted, measured appraisal that suggested a few characteristics similar to those noted by Hughes. I was still interested.
Who was Michael Sorkin? The smaller text on the back cover below the blurb told me:
Michael Sorkin is an architect based in New York. He was, for ten years, the architectural critic of the Village Voice. He is the author of three previous books and is the editor of a collection of writing on the modern American city, Variations on a Theme (1991).

I checked the publisher and publishing date : Verso, London and New York, 1991; paperback edition Verso, 1994. It was an old publication but the hype of the Hughes review had tempted me to indulge. One is strangely interested in seeing another being parodied. It’s a voyeuristic indulgence that hums with John Bradford’s proverbial refrain: ‘there but for the grace of God . .’ So I decided to buy the book. It might revive memories of events now over twenty years old and reshape them. How would I view these now? Would I laugh? Cry? If the writing was so good, it might be worth reading just to experience this skill - perhaps to learn from it.

I carried Michael Sorkin’s Exquisite Corpse  Writing on Buildings in my hand as I strolled down Darling Street back to Balmain away from the dim shambles of the volumes that shrouded the proprietor who was obviously addicted to books and cared little for order. The title of my purchase was itself as alluring as the Hughes blurb - corpses? Is necrophilia involved? I don’t recall the 80’s buildings being that bad. Still, I was looking forward to reading this book that was a collection of articles that Sorkin had written over the years for Village Voice, The Nation, Architectural Record, Architectural Review and more. It would be an easy to pick up and read as a random sequence to suit my mood and the time available - a bit like a book of short stories. But were these tall stories?

It wasn’t long after I had started reading that I formed the opinion that Robert Hughes had not even opened the book. I saw nothing ‘seriously funny’ even though I searched through the pages. I neither laughed nor wept as I read Sorkin’s words that were, however, informative and principled on various matters and buildings, some of which, to my great disappointment, he actually liked. I was looking forward to some provocative ‘Tom Wolfe’-styled sarcasm. But no, I was reading how Wright was one of the greatest architects of the century; how Wright’s and Aalto’s plans were the most beautiful of the modern era; and I even found out why Paul Rudolph, after such an amazing early success with the Yale School of Architecture, disappeared from the architectural world. I read how the bitchy world of this profession established itself and its opinions, and forced real skill out due to greed and envy. What’s changed?

I started reading an article on SITE, hoping for a good laugh at the expense of this somewhat startling and provocative body of work. Surely these unusually quirky buildings would be an easy subject to deride and mock? But no; even here the approach was principled with appropriate, and deserved prods at Venturi, Eisenmann, et. al., but not SITE. Indeed, the client was praised for such a bold appointment and the work was given glowing appraisals. What on earth has Hughes seen? Sorkin wrote beautifully about Aalto’s sensitive flower plan for the Neue Vahr Apartments at Bremen, cleverly recognising how Aalto is able to make every apparently casual and randomly kinked, curved and skewed line appear essential for the organisation of form and its function – necessity itself, yet appearing so ad hoc and arbitrary. The writing was fair, caring and careful, with praise where it was due and criticism likewise - never ‘fierce’ or funny.

Hughes must have scribbled off his piece without ever looking at this collection. Was he remembering other pieces by Sorkin or someone with a similar name? While I enjoyed the articles, I felt duped. The Guardian reviewer seems to have read the book - or some of it - prior to preparing this review. Hughes must have been busy, or just too arrogant or his usual haughty self to carefully consider any thorough analysis. No, just whip off some ‘blurb-type’ words as a quip. He is a master of the acerbic phrase.

On reflection, Hughes’ words seem like a conglomerate mix of contradictory gobbledegook that he could have collaged from other blurbs. Being ‘brave, principled, highly informed, and fiercely funny’ seems an incongruous mix of characteristics. One with highly ‘informed’ principles might choose not to be so rude as to be ‘fiercely funny’ at someone else’s expense when writing about another’s work, even if ‘brave.’ As for this approach apparently highlighting the parlous state of American architecture in the ‘80’s - ‘to see why the ‘80’s were so bad for American building’ – it seems that this is Hughes’ own personal opinion about the work of this period. Sorkin is much more sensitive towards and thoughtful about this work, even while being critical of some of it. Maybe Hughes is describing what and how he might have written on these subjects chosen by Sorkin, such is the apparent discrepancy in his judgment? Dare one even think that the publisher selected the words and the name ‘Hughes’ just to sell more books? Perhaps the words tell us more about Hughes than Sorkin? Hughes has a much more fiercely biting style that can bravely deliver savage sarcasm.

Still, if this is the only disappointment with the book, nothing is lost other than, perhaps, Hughes’ reputation. The book does revive past times that are interesting to assess with hindsight. Old experiences surface; ideas and emotions from other times well up; old feelings and enthusiasms flitter into being once more. These were good times. Some things still vibrate, while others struggle to be. The era held energy and vigour and a genuine searching interest in things architectural. Here we see criticisms confirmed and doubts erased as familiar images are recalled and reviewed. We are in a different era today - of course - but is it any better? Where is the rigour - the interest? Where is the lust for architecture today? Where are the dreams for the future that appear proudly as the present, and prod, test and challenge? Where are the texts that excite, redirect and drive? We seem to be drifting along on a digital ooze of discovered ‘interesting’ forms arising from games engaging the possibilities of distortion - proving that ‘morph is less’ and that ‘form follows . . . ,’ well, whatever you want it to: deformity? Style lives. To be different and attention-grabbing is the amusement that is dragged into certainty by digital electronics. ‘Shake, rattle and roll’ may have been the cry from other times interested in space and place, but today we have other more four-dimensional movements, with ‘deform, buckle and warp’ being the theme rattled off to the harsh, thumping rhythms of introspective and indulgent architectural rap. As for plans and their beauty – who cares? Beauty? It’s the interesting shape as plan, section or elevation - or all three, perhaps all differently - that seems to hold sway today. Things, it appears, must wave, lean, skew and extend thinly, as wiz-bang knife edges: illusions. Has theatre taken over?

Bitchy? No, we do have some beautiful new buildings but we need more writing - more critiques that can be truly ‘brave, principled, highly informed, and fiercely funny;’ to be read with a laugh and a cry. Such reviews should be written and read to sense why our era might be so bad for building - for architecture. We need ‘a thorn in the flesh of architecture’s more complacent practitioners – especially the post-neo-postmodernists,’ to highlight issues by writing ‘with wit, passion and insight about architecture.’ Here less is certainly not more: just a bore - and just an easy way to carry on mindlessly in our self-centred, indulgent ways. If we can learn anything from Sorkin, it is the need for rigour and review. This is so missed today with even architectural publications seeking more style than content - more white paper, selected coloured images and smart graphic layouts rather than the dense content that Hughes’ words allude to. If only . . . – if only architecture . .  .

Why is it that there is no longer any debate in architecture? Why is it that everyone is right and has rights in this non-critical world of false and pretentious tolerance that lacks any ideals and all humility. Sponge comes to mind. It absorbs anything and everything, just as it can exude it, and remains the same in spite of all impacts, proud and certain of itself - unchanged. Being malleable is one thing; being careless and thoughtless is another. Is turning a blind eye the style? No, this suggests that there is substance somewhere when there appears to be nothing but the self-appointed glory of self-centredness all enriched by smart electronics. It was said of the electrical guitar that it would take many years for it to find its role in the production of quality music. Is it the same for architecture? Are we just too engrossed with and entranced by gadgets that make us feel like gods, to usefully engage with them? The touch; turn; flick; press; shake . . . change us. Gestures and performances create their own feelings in the body with their grandiose ease and false sense of smart power. One is made to feel like a king nonchalantly waving a limp hand and declaring ‘off with his head’ as he reaches for a glass of wine or smugly replaces the pod or tablet back into a pocket with a considered and self-satisfied intimation of careless pride.

Where is architecture today? No, where is there feeling, care and respect for others? Where is the desire to discuss issues, to learn from debate rather than to preach? Is ours a ‘hacking’ era where others are seen as subjects to break into, or just break; and where things are better if broken too? It certainly looks like an era interested in building ruins. We see the blasted windows and the pockmarked walls of Sarajevo presented as a new creation, and the images of the recent disasters looking just like the latest vision of genius to be promoted as news for the world. These apparent wonders make Sorkin’s book of articles, all previously published prior to 1991, look astonishingly interesting, leaving one mourning the lack of any similar output in our times.

Sunday 10 July 2011


Why are art galleries so apparently careless about their displays? Is anyone really bothered? Perhaps the question should be: does anyone really understand? Could it be that the notion of ‘art for art’s sake’ has polluted the galleries to give us ‘displays for displays’ sake’? Or does a bland ‘hang it all’ attitude and strategy come into play, literally, leaving matters to be distributed just anyhow, willy-nilly, thoughtlessly, doing only what has always been done – perhaps artfully? During every gallery visit the same problems seem to arise - again and again. Is there a learning difficulty here?

There is the classic corner congestion problem noted in SURPRIZES. Here two paintings are hung on an internal corner, with one on each return, equidistant from the line of intersection of the walls. These works usually hold no integral or necessary relationship other than sharing the corner zone in the one exhibition. This symmetrical arrangement places the viewers of the paintings - let’s use paintings for this example - in one and the same location, a frustrating circumstance that has folk bumping into one another or otherwise getting into each other’s way as positioning attempts are made to get into a spot to look at the displayed items from a comfortable location. Viewing a work - a painting, a sculpture, a piece of pottery, etc. - involves a certain stance both physically and mentally. One engages with the work in an intimate way that is sometimes explained as ‘letting the work speak.’ Distance, location and concentration are all involved here in varying degrees - as a considered nonchalance - giving the work space for its presence to be quietly revealed in different ways. Whatever this intimate experience is, it is a circumstance that is much disturbed by another forcing an aggravating adjustment in one’s position or orientation; or accidentally knocking into one; or worse, just standing in front of one. It may be that, no matter how careful one is, one might suddenly discover that one’s own position is disturbing another’s, quiet unintentionally - innocently - causing one embarrassment because of the rude and thoughtless disruption to those nearby who only want to do what you are doing - or are trying to do. These distractions are just as annoying as those caused by loud and irrelevant (frequently self-interested) chatter about the works or (more usually) otherwise - about ME and MY - coming from other viewers who seem to be interested in getting noticed by standing out from the crowd rather than anything else - just being a different nuisance.

This confusing corner complication creates chaos at the so-called blockbusters when groups in the crowds try to adjust for the right angle viewing, causing significant turbulence as an eddy in the mass movement that seeks to maintain its momentum as a constant flow through the gallery maze - such is the nature of crowds. The annoying thing is that in spite of this corner problem being such a simple matter to remedy, it just keeps happening. Has it not been noticed? It seems clear that the gallery staff must never put themselves in the place of the visitor, spending more time, perhaps at best, admiring their own ‘arty’ efforts, or maybe the artworks, in the pleasant and comfortable leisure of voided gallery rooms. The geometry of this annoyance is seen repeated in other arrangements too - internal corners of exhibition showcases; and combinations of wall hangings with table displays opposite or nearby. The only attention asked for here is that curators might consider another’s experience with others nearby when pondering the possibilities for any display. What might be fine for an individual private assessment and appraisal of a situation could cause chaos when two or three, or more, are gathered together for a viewing. That some thought might be given to this matter is not a big ask, nor is it a difficult challenge to understand and resolve. Simply, the number and the density of works in displays, and their relationship and juxtaposition, all need to be constantly reviewed and reassessed in the context of the circumstance where there are groups or crowds, so that all patrons can enjoy all artworks all of the time, free from all hassle, distraction, aggravation and concern. Surely the art works deserve this attention if they are worthy of being exhibited?

Then there are those notices - both large and small - that supposedly have something useful to say about the works being exhibited. One is lucky if they are at eye-height. Sometimes one has to bend knees or crouch hunchback-style to get the eye into a reasonably comfortable position for reading a notice located as if for a height-challenged adult or for a child, when there is no intent to cater for such folk or any particular need for it. But even when more conveniently positioned for ordinary viewing, one has to frequently play the game of discovering just what the plaque/notice is referring to: which space; which artwork; which place. The challenges presented by larger signs and posters are usually easy to resolve - such is their scale - but smaller notices create conceptual chaos. Is the work being referred to above, below, right, left, second-from-the left or right, or in the middle of the floor? It could be anywhere, as the experience of these displays reveal.

The irony here is that one frequently has to know the artwork in order to decipher and comprehend the sense of the notice, its reference and its message. This is a regularly occurring problem that, because of its persistence, seems to be considered an irrelevance by gallery staff. I recall standing in front of a display cabinet, (one of many along the walls), containing beautiful oriental ceramics with a long notice at table height that described the various exhibits behind it, all gathered as a collection of somehow randomly- related items. Just what was where and how, was nearly impossible to discover without guesses and hypotheses - simple trial and error. Which cream bowl was which? Which decorative plate was which? The annoyance was that it appeared that the curator/gallery staff must have been concerned that any useful explanatory directive numbers or coding, or even some matching relationship between placement and diagram would have disrupted the aesthetics of the display. Whoever set out this display appeared to remain totally unaware of the confusion their choices had created – thoughtless; unconcerned. The worry was not only that the notices could not be easily related to the works without some mental gymnastics, but also that the exasperation of this confusion interfered with the enjoyment of and any understanding of the work. Do curators/gallery staff understand this problem? It involves a very basic principle of order - organisation and communication - and some understanding of and care for another’s experience - another’s comprehension.

Then there is the situation where one has to search for the information. It is not that the relevant notice may take distracting time and effort to decode; it is that a notice takes time and effort to be discovered. I once found a notice only after looking high and low, left and right, front and back - yes, in the same Oriental area of the same gallery referred to above - around the corner from the formal address of the exhibit; and further along, the notices were at my toes, 150mm from the floor, with exhibits that were nearly two metres high. There seems to be an assumption that the texts are superfluous, for why else would they not be more rigorously and purposefully positioned? One does not want them in one’s face, but located so that an easy disinterest can interpret their messages effortlessly, making the reading of the notices and the comprehension of their information an organic and integral part of being there and understanding the display. Was I supposed to get down on my hands and knees to read these toe-plaques? I had to bend just to be able to see parts of them. The size of the text is rarely modified to suit any particular plaque or position. Was I really meant to explore the gallery as a hide and ‘seek the relevant notice’ game as a hunchback? Should there have been another plaque directing one to the plaque around the corner or below? The stupidity of a dual notice is clear, but the circuitous circumstances requiring discovery seemed to demand one.

On another occasion, in yet another space of the same gallery, there were two notices on a wall, so close that they seemed to be related – twins? On analysis, it was clear that one was referring to the painting about a metre to the left. The other? Did symmetry suggest that it could refer to another an equal distance to the right? There was an empty wall there. Had this work been removed? There was nothing that might indicate this - no message, marks on or holes in the wall. It was only after strolling on after a shrug to view other works and then, by chance, turning around, that it became clear that the notice was referring to a sculpture in the middle of the room some eight metres away from the notice. Why not place a notice near the sculpture? Why do works and notices always require effort to decipher, and sometimes ingenuity to be discovered, in order for them to be placed in their complete, interpretative context? The silliness of the situation is that the notices are there apparently to help explain something about the works.

Then there is a situation that often occurs with the physical reading such notices, where one, perhaps, has to manoeuvre into a suitable position that interferes with another’s enjoyment of looking at the artwork. This could be a different work, unrelated to the notice being read, depending on how the notices have been ‘artfully’ arranged. To politely manage this physical adjustment to enable basic reading with some guile often requires a yogic manipulation of the standing body, with the trunk leaning twisted at sixty degrees, and the neck further cranked as an extended cantilever distorted to get the eyes in front of the notice while minimising the possibility of any interference for others. It is yet another version of the internal corner cramming, having the same problems with intimacy, but in a linear arrangement where layering is forced by ill-considered proximities.

It does not involve rocket science or any other mystic knowledge or unusual skill to understand these problems of juxtaposition and their implications, but they rarely seem to be addressed or considered, merely repeated. Frequently the graphic design of the text on the notices is given more consideration than legibility. Only the appearance of the display seems to be important. One might hope, if a plaque/notice is required or is seen to be an essential part of an exhibition, that a notice and its related a work might have a considered connection so that viewers and their experiences are not bifurcated, left in a swinging limbo of: look at the work; read the blurb (if you can do so without relocating; no); then look at the work again - oops, spot gone; etc. If information is meaningful, as one hopes that it might be - why else bother to have notices? - its role in any reading of the work needs to be carefully considered as a functional relationship that is just as critical as that of the suspension of a work might be when considered as an engineering problem. Good, significant and purposeful relationships are a simple part of any design strategy and need to be considered and attended to as self-consciously as the prettiness or slickness of the display seems to be.

Of course, it is the substance of the text that is critical. If a text is to be provided, then one assumes that it might be both essential and useful - that it might add value and depth to the gallery experience. Sadly this rarely occurs. Only too often do these notices offer bland descriptions of what is entirely obvious to even the casual viewer, e.g. 150mm white glazed ceramic bowl with base; or grey porcelain bottle with long neck, perhaps with a name, century and a country or district added - sometimes just a general guess, if you are lucky. Why bother advising folk of guesses? Occasionally you might discover ‘date and artist unknown’ displayed with as much pomp and grandeur as other texts in situations where those details are known. That information might be self-evident seems to be as irrelevant as the lack of any constructive information.

The obvious pointlessness of the words becomes yet another frustration, especially as one has often invested so much time and effort in the discovery of the notice, getting into a position to be able to read it, and establishing its reference point. Really, to put it bluntly, such notices are insulting. To display a name of an artist, perhaps a year and a title, with the materials used and maybe the size listed might be necessary protocol, but something more and different is needed if the whole is not to turn into an attractive or diversionary farce – or both. The impact of information never seems to be contemplated. Naming can so easily place a biographical screen over any meaningful viewing, (see NAMING), just as a date can dominate or interfere with any understanding, and itemised materials can initiate a distracting analysis. Here there is a twin but reversed problem. While today there seems to be a demand to know the names and dates related to the works - the genius - traditional art had no requirement for this information, for this art was never considered as mere personal expression. It is in the display of this traditional art that the unique context, and frequently more - culture, belief, social pattern/structure, symbolism - needs to be explained if this art is to be properly understood. It is just too easy to always bring one’s own prejudices to any work - new or ancient. The concept seems to be that new can be mangled by details but the old requires it. Curators should be aware of this subtlety.

Ananda Coomarswamy was most articulate about this in his paper ‘Why Exhibit Works of Art?’  It is very specific: there is no point in exhibiting works of art of another era and culture in a void. Our times see art as the personal expression of individual genius. We cannot assume that this is or has been the case for other eras and places. If we are to come to know more about art and how others see/saw it, then we need to make visitors better informed. Fumbling through another’s expressed intimate personal concerns takes on more than an experience of the work - it redirects it. Looking at all art in this manner distorts. It is never proper to assume that a traditional work can bring its qualities to the fore using the same stance or by applying the same expectations as those that we might bring to today’s work.  Perhaps we need better-informed gallery staff? Imagine how an awareness of these subtle complexities could transform the visit to the gallery. This seems to be the most difficult part of the problem to get addressed, let alone recognised. Is standardisation in production the problem; or is it the challenge of conceptualisation – of ideas? Or is it the cliché budget and time?

Sometimes the descriptions of objects are just wrong or contradict one another. One gets the feeling that the only important thing is the appearance of the display, never its content, for gallery staff never seem keen to correct errors, or happy to have them raised. The idea of everything being considered ‘aesthetically’ by ‘arty’ staff or hired consultants seems to be deeply ingrained: stand back; shuffle aside; turn the head slightly; arms akimbo; one leg bent; look important; finger to mouth with hand on chin; eyes squint; and knowingly assess with a pompous switch of the head to formalise the image of what might be an empty mind pretending to consider - well, everything, it seems, except another’s mind and its possible experience. Put simply, the request is, in the ordinary world, to just be considerate, not selfish. Thoughtful, selfless understanding is the basis of good design - as if this matters: it does - and of good manners. Rarely is there any effort made to clearly show, say, the inside, underside or reverse of a bowl or vase - or even all three - even when there might be some spectacular detail hidden in these locations: and worse, even when the notice might refer to something that is obscured, e.g., ‘plate boldly decorated on the underside’ - that cannot be seen. Why? Why not seek to explore and expose all aspects of a piece without any ‘blind-mans-bluff’ games? Why leave voids in the viewer’s mind? Why leave an urge to know and understand unquenched? Surely the exhibit seeks to expose something more than a pretty placement or some self-confident razzmatazz to be reproduced on the gallery: brochure; calendar; book; bookmark; mug; placemat; tee-shirt; etc. etc. - all available at the gallery shop? How many art works have been abused in this callous kitsch manner? Is this merely art for profit’s sake? The serious impact of reproduction on experience rarely seems to be entertained. Its relevance is given the same neglect as the messages on the notices.

There is another problem with text too. Sometimes it can give just too much information. Standing in front of a painting, e.g., with an A4 sized notice crammed with 12pt text - sometimes it can be an A0 crammed with 24pt lettering - is asking the viewer to read a page out of a book while at the same time attempting to visually engage with the presence of the work. The issue here is somewhat like a person with a camera walking through – well, anywhere. The eye is constantly assessing the surroundings as an arrangement for a potential image, choosing angles, framing and cropping masses and forms, and assessing the qualities of the colours, and light and shade in its attempt to anticipate what the camera might produce, rather than just enjoying the experience of being there and learning from it - feeling its qualities; its atmosphere, not deciphering and analysing them. Text has the danger of doing likewise with its distractions that can change the way in which a work is seen, or interfere with the ordinary process of looking. Reading and looking are two different and separate tasks. Looking with the understanding of reading is somewhat like detective’s task: discover the connections and their relevance. It turns the artwork into an object of interrogation just as biographical details add layers of other stuff to the looking.

But how can one really worry or be concerned about this detail when there is usually so little attention given to the most critical of all issues - lighting and its impacts: shadows, shade, glare and reflections. Displays seek to show something. Having poor lighting or interfering reflections only hinder all ambitions to exhibit the best qualities of a piece. Light needs careful attention, just as reflections and glare do, for these can change how an item is seen and how a viewer can feel. Glare annoys, distracts and sidetracks, but light can enlighten if thoughtfully used. Why display translucent jade and light is so that it looks opaquely solid? Why talk about fine porcelain and glass objects in texts and never reveal their delicate and surprising luminance? Why have glass cases, screens and enclosures that blind or confuse the eye with reflections and highlights? Why have lighting that casts your shadow when you seek a closer look at a detail? Why shade an important part of any object? Why light glowing gold to appear dull, dark yellow? Why? Why does one have to get on hands and knees to be able to enjoy the glorious gold on, say, Islamic paintings or Japanese fabrics? Such poor and ill-considered exhibitionism insults to the work itself. Perhaps this affront can stimulate a change because no one seems concerned about the disturbances being cast onto ordinary experience. The only matters involving people that appear to get considered seem to be those ensuring that visitors: pay to enter; move quickly and efficiently through the display; and cannot get back in without paying.

Strolling around the modern section of a gallery after visiting the main exhibition, I was surprised by an amazing layering on one work, where blue neons were reflected deeply in the glass with other images over other shallow lighting that was a part of this piece. It was exciting - eye-catching depth in a void of nowhere. What a realisation of space in so thin a skin! Then I discovered that this effect was just an ad hoc, random and never-considered reflection: one of many throughout this gallery - pure chance. The work was far more mundane than first expectations had suggested - just extraneous pieces of junk screwed to a very long wall, as if size and extent alone mattered. Then, when leaning over to read the notice - who could have done such a piece; who could be blamed? -  my profiled shadow shaded the text. I never really needed to know anyhow. Lighting is critical. Sometimes when peering at a work, I am blinded by the light that is aimed at another piece, or dazzled by a glossy glazed gleam off the work itself, shrouding the form and detail. The circumstances just go on and on. There is often a lovely sensitivity shown in the holding of a displayed item, in the structuring of its suspended poise - its cradling; its engineering. But rarely does this sensitivity get stretched into the total presence of a display. Here it is not just the single identity, but the relationships with other works and infrastructure, and elements and illuminations and explanations, that become important. It is not as though we are limited by lighting, or any other technology in this endeavour.

If we are to be enriched by art - which hopefully is the aim of exhibitions - then we need to do better. Why else exhibit works of art? If art is to be merely part of a profitable business for entertaining distractions, then we need do no more - for it will not matter. The PR hype and the shop will stimulate interest and provide the desired profits. What would be wonderful to experience would be a consistent attitude to display: that as much care goes into the display as into the artwork being displayed. Does this mean poor art, poor display? No, the display should work hard to be the best that it can. The gallery experience is as critical as anything in this milieu. Spending time and money only on a few flash shows - that frequently repeat same mistakes - is not good enough. The concern is that those who are supposed to know about beautiful things can be so careless about how these works are displayed. The sadder matter is that galleries do not seem interested. The correspondence below was sent to the New South Wales Art Gallery. It has never been acknowledged or responded to. Yet the New South Wales Art Gallery displays still continue to exhibit the problems spoken about here, as do other galleries – it is not alone. This article was written after yet another visit to Sydney to view the Archibald and its associated Prizes: see SURPRIZES. There was no surprise here - the problems remain. The question remains: who cares? Is it considered un-Australian to complain? Is the attitude to just ‘chuck out the chronic winger mate - bugger off’?

Yet there have been a couple memorable shows that should be acknowledged - shows that did enrich and surprise. These need to be noted. Monet at the National Gallery in Canberra was memorable. Here the lighting was shaped precisely to the inner frame of each work creating an astonishing display. It made the work, itself painted light, glow in the dark. It highlighted this unique aspect of this Impressionist’s work - painted light - even though the crazy corner crisscross remained. Surprisingly heads never intercepted these singular, specific beams of framed light. The simplicity of the concept and its implementation were wonderful. The Walter Burleigh Griffin exhibition at the Powerhouse Museum was the other remembered display. It showed skill and invention, seeking out the best way to place every item into a more complete and well-considered context. It managed to do this without the design of the display dominating. Let’s hope we can get more of this quality of display; no, not as an occasional one-off, international blockbuster, but as an ordinary exhibition standard. Once we get the little things right, then the big ones will usually look after themselves. Experience will involve less self-conscious effort and head banging by the interested public, and, with a growing understanding, things will become easier for the curators too. One could crow that it will be a ‘win-win’ situation. It would be one for the artworks too. After all, they are the core items in this exhibitionism - not the smart art of display or any lack of it.




N.S.W., 2000.


RE:     “I believe there has never been a greater need for the wealth and imagination of Islamic cultures and artistic heritage to be revealed. The power of art can open our minds.”
Edmund Capon, Director, Art Gallery of New South Wales

My wife and I visited your art gallery on Friday 8th September 2007 to see ‘The Arts of Islam’ and other exhibitions. Unfortunately, after reading the small sign on the inside of the closed doors, we confirmed our guess as we approached: that the gallery was ‘Closed for APEC.’ One is left wondering: Does the power of politics have the power to change art and its public display? We could not think of any other reason (than political) why APEC might cause the gallery to be shut. Surely it was not the Australian love of a day off that prompted this closure? We were not the only members of the community with expectations that the gallery might ignore APEC. Folk continued to arrive at the portico, only to be disappointed, left to retreat to other possibilities in the rain: like a walk in the park under the helicopters and through the crowds of police.

One might have thought it acceptable if the gallery had closed to allow a private viewing for our politicians and leaders who could have learned about the history and culture of what is now popularly promoted as the enemy of the free world, and being blasted for this reason. But it seems that this did not happen. Sadly, other distractions and entertainments were invented for our leaders – meaningless diversions that can only further aggravate the perceptions of the ‘terrorist’ opponents.

We did return early Saturday to enjoy the gallery (that is ageing well) with its much-reduced APEC visitor numbers (apparently only 305 Islam/70 Jade). There appears to be very little to thank APEC for other than this, as it gave us time for relaxed review and reflection. What surprised us were some of descriptions of the pieces on display. One ‘dove’ was obviously a ‘hawk’ or similar bird of prey. The ‘grasshopper’ in jade was obviously a ‘praying mantis’; and the jade ‘magpies’ looked much more like ‘sparrows’ – a situation that the precise eye of these artists of other ‘less progressive/more primitive’ times should never be blamed for. The problem is that any changes to the descriptions will also require modifications to the stories attached.

The text that boldly declared that the object that looked like a doorknocker, was definitely not a doorknocker, was made look very silly by the film shown on the same day. Here a similar object was not only described as a doorknocker, but was shown being used as one. It was a bit like the text that advised that illuminators never signed their work – only calligraphers. Then, just two works down, the text tells of a piece signed by an illuminator. Should this have been ‘calligrapher’? One is left wondering: Is anyone giving thought to these displays?

These problems only aggravate the situation where texts accompanying the objects are used to very dumbly describe what is before one’s eyes, e.g. ‘bowl with floral decorations.’ It reminded me of an occasion when once on a bus, a young man opposite me spent his whole trip verbalising every passing thing that appeared before his eyes with a simple, almost involuntary, meaningless eye/mouth interaction. Ananda Coomaraswamy wrote about exhibiting works of art, asking why this should be done. In summary, he argued that it was an opportunity to inform in detail - to explain and interpret the work as it was in its original context, so that we might learn more about another era’s art and its time, not merely drool over its appearance in ours.

That there might be errors in some descriptions is one thing; to miss the opportunity to inform is another. ‘Bowl with inscription’ says nothing when the inscription could be told – and more. One little inkwell was miraculously changed by just such a simple translation of its miniature, almost invisible engraving – sadly an unusually meaningful event. As in archaeology, simple line drawings could easily be used to clarify fine details as difficult to show as this and other obscure parts of pieces.

That one might have to bend to one’s knees to see the other side of, say, a bowl, is disappointing when a considerate mounting technique (or illustration) could overcome this. It appears that displays have their own aesthetic intent that is allowed to overcome any possibility of a useful or informative viewing if the outcome of this objective gets in the way of understanding. One does get sick of seeing and avoiding one’s reflection and/or shadow in the beautifully detailed boxes. One also is annoyed when a blown light bulb leaves an object in the dark – as though no one even knows or cares. The dark finial forms in the void could only be understood by looking at the other that was illuminated. If it is worth displaying, it is worth lighting – and lighting well. Are the gallery ‘watchers’ all as anaesthetised as they appear so that such things go un-noticed? Surprisingly, even the flashlight of cameras did not stir them.

It is more than depressing to discover the wonderful transforming effect of light reflecting off gold on the illuminated pages only once one has bent into a crouching, upside-down position in front of the art that has been located on the wall for full frontal viewing. It is a viewpoint that flattens the painting into a mundane image, as photographs do. It is as sad as seeing a beautiful glass lamp appearing as ceramic (yes, even on your web page) – and when on display, one is left puzzling over the lost opportunity for the same object to be revealed as it might appear glowing in a glorious mosque. When the clever design of the exhibition and its appearance takes over from a clear reading of an object and its understanding, there is a problem, as the power of art has been modified – lessened: made less of a challenge to our comfortable ways that it is forced to accommodate.

I was constantly wishing that I had carried a torch with me so that I could see the detail of the jade pieces – and through them. Ducking and darting around hoping to catch a glimpse of the detail in the shadow became frustrating. The publication makes it clear that careful, individual lighting can show a piece to its full and almost complete advantage. One got the idea that the gallery was a ‘Reader’s Digest’ art gallery: happy with the easy, popular appearance and minimal, quick information that avoids any challenge, with the quantity and scope of things and their outward show overcoming the quality of any understanding. It is sad, because the power of art can indeed open our mind. One only has to be totally responsive to it and allow it to speak, not just let its appearance be on grand display as though it were a superstar or an international pin-up - perhaps a leader – with the satisfaction of perception being limited to the happy recognition of the image ‘as seen on TV’ (perhaps on the Internet) or in the gallery’s attractive graphic promotions.

Then, in all the glory, there was white – only white: well, off-white? Does this show our weakness too? Surely the wonder of colour can highlight this quality in art too? Or do we just have to believe only in the ghost of things past and whitewash their roles and meanings by placing them into a ‘neutral’ context? The power of art is not harmed by forthright sensitivity and honest interpretation: and vice versa.

We were pleased with the work of the winner of the Dobell Prize for Drawing – magically exquisite; and we were equally surprised at the happy discovery of the scope of Bertram Mackennal’s genius.

We did enjoy our visit. The observations and thoughts above just kept nagging so they have been passed on to allow us – and hopefully your gallery - to now pass on to other things too: into a new and informed future.



Is one seen only as a nagging idiot - a crank? Schumacher, author of ‘Small is Beautiful,’ described a crank in a more positive vein: as a small bent object that can get things going. Do we need more of cranks to get changes made?

Friday 1 July 2011


If we are to take heed of Ananda Coomarswamy’s words – that traditional art can only be properly understood in its context, not with our modern eyes, then we need to know more about Islam if we are to understand anything appropriately about some of the world’s most beautiful buildings – the mosques. S. H. Nasr probvides us with one text that seeks to explain things for the west:

In the Islamic perspective, religion is not seen as a part of life or a special kind of activity like art, thought, commerce, social discourse, or politics. Rather, it is the matrix and worldview within which these and all other human activities, efforts, creations, and thoughts take place or should take place. It is the very sap of the tree of life as well as the total environment in which this tree grows. As has been said so often, Islam is not only a religion, in the modern sense of the term as it has been refined in a secularised world in which the religious life occupies at best a small part of the daily activities of most people. Rather, Islam is religion as a total way of life. Islam does not even accept the validity of a domain outside the realm of religion and the sacred and refuses to accord any reality to the dichotomy between the sacred and the profane or secular, or the spiritual and the temporal. Such terms as “secular” and “profane” in their current understanding cannot even be translated exactly into the Islamic languages in their classical form, and current terms used to render them in these languages are recently coined words usually derived from the idea of worldliness, which is not the same as “secular” or “profane.”

Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Islam Religion, History and Civilization, Harper Collins, New York, 2003, p.26.

As for the written text, it was the response of the soul of Muslims to the Quranic revelation that created the art of calligraphy, which was closely associated with the text of the Quran from the beginning and which constitutes, along with architecture, the supreme plastic sacred art of Islam. Architecture itself is a sacred art because it grows from and finds its highest expression in the architecture of the mosque, whose very spaces are defined by the reverberations of the recitation and chanting of the Quran.
Ibid., p.40

"Ihsan  is that thou adorest God as though thou didst see Him, and if thou seest Him not, He nonetheless seest thee."
ibid., p.58

A prophet owes nothing to anyone save God. He brings a message that has the freshness and perfume of veritable originality because his message comes from thre Origin, a message vis-a-vis which he remains the passive receiver and transmitter. Revelation (al-wahy) in Islam is undedrstood in the precise sense of reception of a message from Heaven through an angelic instrument of revelation without the interference of the human substance of the receiver, who is the prophet. It needs to be added, however, that the message is always revealed in forms that are in accordance with the world for which it is intended and with the earthly receptacle chosen by God for His particular message.
ibid., p.63

The Quran refers constantly to the world of nature as well as the human order. The sky and the mountains, the trees and animals in a sense participate in the Islamic revelation, through which the sacred quality of the cosmos and the natural order is reaffirmed. . . . Natural phenomena are not only phenomena in the current understanding of the term. They are signs that reveal a meaning beyond themselves. Nature is a book whose ayat are to be read like the ayat in the Quran, in fact, they can only be read thanks to the latter, for only revelation can unveil for fallen man the inner meaning of the cosmic text. Certain Muslim thinkers have referred to the cosmos as the “Quran of creation” or the “cosmic Quran” (al-Qur’an al-takwini), whereas the Quran that is read every day by Muslims is called the “recorded Quran” (al-Qur’an al-tadwini). The cosmos is the primordial revelation whose message is still written on the face of every mountain and tree leaf and is reflected through the light that shines from the sun, the moon, and the stars. But as far as Muslims are concerned, this message can only be read by virtue of the message revealed by “the recorded Quran.”
Ibid., p.p.70-71
One of the most important economic institutions through which religious values and attitudes have been propagated in Islamic society is the guilds (asnaf or futuwwat), some of which still survive in parts of the Islamic world. Futuwwah (jawanmardi in Persian), which can be rendered as “spiritual chivalry,” was originally more closely connected with the military class than with craft guilds and merchants. Towards the end of the ‘Abbassid caliphate in the seventh/thirteenth century, it became more associated with the crafts and has remained so during the past eight centuries. Futuwwah – which means the combination of the virtues of courage, nobility, and selflessness – was associated from the beginning of Islamic history with the name of ‘Ali, who is considered the master of futuwwah and in a sense the “patron saint” of the guilds. Some guilds, however, are considered by their members to have been founded at the beginning of human history by the son of Adam, Seth. The qualities associated with futuwwah gradually became incorporated into the guilds, which were often linked to the Sufi orders and in which the art of making and producing objects from cloth to buildings was combined with religious and spiritual considerations.

The guilds were usually headed by a master (ustadh), who not only teaches the disciple the techniques of the art or craft in question, but also inculcates moral and spiritual discipline in the student. The process of the production of objects, which then enter the marketplace, is thus combined with religious and spiritual training. The profoundly religious character of Islamic art, from the central sacred arts of calligraphy and architecture to the art of creating objects for everyday use such as carpets, textiles, or utensils for the home, is related to the structure and nature of the guilds, which over the centuries have produced most of the objects of Islamic art. In Islam, art is not considered a luxury, but an integral part of life itself, and everything has its special art (fann) by virtue of which it can be made or done correctly. Through the guilds, Islam was able to imbue its arts and crafts, which are inseparable form the arts, with the deepest values of the Islamic religion and thereby to Islamize completely the atmosphere in which the traditional Muslim lived and functioned. Without doubt, the guilds are among the most important of Islamic economic institutions, responsible for linking the production of objects to the deepest ethos of Islam. If Islamic art reflects what lies at the heart of the Islamic message, it is because this art issues from the most inner dimension of the Islamic tradition and is executed and produced, thanks to the guilds, by those for whom the process and technique of making things has remained inseparable from the supreme art, which is the perfecting of the soul and drawing it nigh to God – a goal that constitutes the heart of the Islamic message.
Ibid., p.p.104-106

Baghdad soon became the greatest cultural center of the Islamic world, perhaps of the whole world, in the third/ninth and fourth/tenth centuries.
Ibid., p.121

Note 3: The date on the left refers to the Islamic lunar calendar, which begins with the migration of the Prophet from Mecca to Medina in 622C.E., and the date on the right to the Western calendar.
Ibid., p.187

To understand the total reality of Islam as a religion and also the interactions of Islam with the modern world, it is necessary to be aware of this rich intellectual tradition of a religious character that is over a millennium old and contains some of the most profound meditation on God, the universe, and humanity in its existential situation in a universe in which human beings are condemned to seek meaning by virtue of being human.
Ibid., p.173

At the heart of this revelation stands the doctrine of the Oneness of God and the necessity for human beings to bear witness to this Oneness in this earthly life. The vast majority of Muslims remain fully aware of this truth today, as they have since the dawn of religion, and their struggle is to preserve the message revealed to them, to live according to its tenets, and to fulfil the end for which men and women were created despite all the obstacles that a powerful world living in the forgetfulness of God has placed before them today.
Ibid., p.180