Until around 1880, most art exhibitions in Europe where based on the idea of fitting the maximum number of works onto dark red, or green, painted walls in buildings not specifically designed for the exhibition of fine art. This style of display was known as a "Salon hang". Since then, the art world developed or began to arrange art in linear arrangements of single rows of works on walls, usually surrounded by large white borders in a white cube room, specifically designed for the display of art, or specifically redesigned for such a function. This can be referred to as a "Modern hang". Today’s contemporary vision of how to exhibit is to allow the viewer to find their own way through an exhibition without being over-controlled by the curatorial view. We are, in a way, asking the viewer to turn off their art gallery eye when looking at art and engage with it as the art is engaging with its environment. For the sake of these exhibition case studies, I will call this the "Contemporary hang". In the following four sections I will write about exhibitions I have been involved with during my Masters in Fine Art and discuss the challenges and the difficulty’s faced in each case.
Exhibition Case Studies
The Gallery on the Corner,
The initial idea for this exhibition was to work with artists whos work evolves and changes during the creative process. Myself, Ana Milenkovic, Catherine Leon, Mary Furniss and Luke Fuller sat down to discuss what we had in common and what might be the theme for the show. We all talked about how we used an initial drawing process to explore themes in our work and how we purposly used painting, drawing and sculptor techniques that we did not have complete control over as we where lookin for new ways to create marks and build shapes. Common themes in our work were layering, spontanious mark making, the process as the subject, the subconscious and the procces of transformation.
We did talk about collaborating during set up and possibility of having a table of our drawings all mixed together in the centre of our room. This didnt happen as people arrived with their work with already fixed ideas of where they wanted to be and some work was so large it was very limited in the options for hanging. The exhibition then split into two sections, upstairs and downstairs. Downstairs was a modern hand with paintings hung at the correct height and as much space as was allowed around them. There didn't seem to be much oppourtunity for negotiation of how to hang this room as people wanted a straight modern hang showing off their work to the best of its ability or what they thought was the best.
Upstairs myself and Ana Milenkovic had a slighly more relaxed attitude to how we installed our work. I think the experience of the course and exhibitions we had been involved with had made us realize you can sometimes get the best results by keeping an open mind and just reacting to a space. We just had fun and tried stuff out.
We placed three of my paintings on a window still just because we liked the idea of being able to see the back of the paintings from the street. We used two small feet stands that Ana had created to prop up one of my paintings in a small alcove. We placed two of our works on the ground beside each other and then I made two little plints out of bubble wrap and canvas that we had brought to wrap our work. We put two of my painting leaning against a wall facing into each other in a childish act of provocation to the viewer. We wanted to remind the viewer that we where in control and to think how this work was made and presented.
I really enjoyed working this way as it was playfull but also very relevant to our practices which talk about process and what art is and why it matters. It wasnt maybe a complete contemprary hang but it was at least referencing the options we had in a concious way.
The Rag Factory,
Brick Lane, London
Every artist has a desire to describe, depict or communicate a message and often from disparate topics that have to be handled with respect when trying to organise an exhibition. The main problem I feel we faced when organising this MFA interim exhibition was everybody had different expectations of what they expected from the show and what they were willing to put into the organising of it.
Some people were doing site specific work that they had done specifically for this show while others saw it as a chance to showcase the field of research they were currently investigating. Probably because of these two different trains of thought an individualist spirit was very evident with everyone during the set-up. The site specific people had developed their work with the space in mind and so had already envisioned how and where it would be presented .The rest wanted their work to stand out from the crowd and advertise their abilities as artists.
For these reasons any attempt to bring people together in any collaborative way failed. The video artists could not come to an agreement on exhibiting together on any form of show-reel, anyone whose plinth was taken away objected and put it back and even suggesting an unconventional presentation of some ones masterpiece could cause an uproar. Everybody felt they were equal partners in the running of the show and so authority was only possible by politeness and coercion.
The curating team did the best they could by communicating and discussing with most people where their work was to be placed. We had an outside curator come in as part of the curatorial team but she was not in charge. She was just part of the group and the group could only achieve what they wanted if they could persuade people to accept or go along with their ideas. This meant any ideas or experiments for the greater good of the show or that where slightly left of field where nearly impossible to come to an agreement about. Everybody felt they had paid their money in equally and so they wanted their individual space for their individual work. Along with all this you had people who hadn’t finished their work or left adequate instructions on how to set it up.
We as artist will fight for our corner as if you are trying to deny our very existence by suggesting we change our vision for the greater good. Unfortunately this passion can blind us to ideas that can be beneficial to us and the group as a whole.
The Menier Gallery,
London Bridge, London
This was an exhibition I was invited to take part in, organised by a variety of students from art colleges across London such as Chelsea, Goldsmiths, Central Saint Martins and Wimbledon.
Interestingly the exhibition managed to have elements of a Salon hang, a Modern hang and a Contemporary Hang running throughout it. This happened for a number of reason mainly due to the fact that there was a free for all at installation time. The idea was to collaborate with other artists but in the end we really only worked or existed together as individuals for the duration of the show. We never discussed how we would hang the show. It was everybody turn up on the day with their work find a space and start installing. First come first served.
This did have some interesting consequences because of the miss mash of display choices on view. Some people hung their work using the galleries wire hangers, which was not mandatory but the idea of having to fill drill holes after the show was too much for some people. These people would end up in the Salon category for me because their main aim seemed to be to get as much work on the walls as quickly as possible. I belonged in the modern category with a few others who spent a couple of hours with measuring tapes and levels organising our work into nice linear rows with polite areas of white space surrounding them. The final group where the contemporaries. Artists who installed their work either responding to the environment or adapting to it.
The show did have energy and vibrancy in parts but it was on a sliding scale of excellence and there where zones of darkness where all the vigour and sparkle seemed to have faded away strangled by hanging wires and conservative dogmatic thinking. It did help me to see more clearly the variety of mind-sets you can face when hanging an exhibition and the categories we belong in or choose to belong to.
MFA Summer Show
Wimbledon College of Art, London
Presented with a space usually used for designing and manufacturing clothes we were trying to create a contemporary looking exhibition where we used the difficulties of the space as an asset and left any preconceived presentation ideas at home. Work was placed in the kitchen, on window sills, in letter box holders and I ended up propping my painting on two tin cans against the wall.
When a space is so far from the white cube or salon style exhibition it actually makes it easy for an exhibition to seem edgy and contemporary. I was surprised how good and engaging the work looked when you allow understated spectacle to overlap with dingy practicality.
Ordinariness of presentation seems to imply or give a sense of social value. Maybe to challenge conventional understanding in society we simply need to highlight or point out that which we take for granted. What I realised from this show was that a place I wouldn’t choose to exhibit in might be the one place that I should. Having standards are good but they sometimes blind us to the possibilities of the ordinary and the irreverent.