PHO703 Week 6: Exhibitions

This week has been about thinking what an ‘exhibition’ really means and perhaps whether what we think of as an exhibition is really the best thing to be doing at all. In the end, one is offering one’s work to an audience and there are many ways of achieving that beyond the traditional gallery-style art exhibition. Installation art and participatory art are two of them, although the terms are double-edged. Is one going to allow the viewer to decide what the art is or is one going to impose an idea of art upon them?

I do agree with Brian O’Doherty (O’Doherty 1999) that the traditional gallery exhibition can be a trap. These spaces can impose an idea of what ‘art’ is and, in fact, their day may already have passed. In his words about these specialized and denuded places, ‘The ideal subtracts from the art work all cues that interfere with the fact that it is “art”. The work is isolated from everything that would detract from its own evaluation of itself. … Unshadowed, white, clean, artificial – the space is devoted to the technology of aesthetics. Works of art are mounted, hung, scattered for study. Their ungrubby surfaces are untouched by time and its vicissitudes. Art exists in a kind of eternity of display’ (O’Doherty 1999: 14-15).

And, one might say, in an eternity of boredom, as a visit with teenagers to a large gallery or museum will soon reveal. I suspect that audiences today want more than these traditional forms of ‘high art’ that fix what ‘art’ means in the definitions of 150 years ago. They want an experience and they want to be involved. Pictures on a wall offer neither to most visitors. That might well not have been true before the era of mass media. Today, however, one can visit any gallery anywhere and view any work of art online. So the question is, what does the real, physical version have to offer that is compellingly different?

One answer is suggested by Claire Bishop who emphasizes that installation art is an experience of being there and being in it, something than an online offering cannot match:

‘Installation art therefore differs from traditional media (sculpture, painting, photography, video) in that it addresses the viewer directly as a literal presence in the space. Rather than imagining the viewer as a pair of disembodied eyes that survey the work from a distance, installation art presupposes an embodied viewer whose senses of touch, smell and sound are as heightened as their sense of vision. This insistence on the literal presence of the viewer is arguably the key characteristic of installation art’ (Bishop 2005: 6).

Another aspect of installation art is that it is decentring: ‘fantasies of “centring” perpetuated by dominant ideology are masculinist, racist and conservative; this is because there is no one “right” way of looking at the world, nor any privileged place from which such judgements can be made. As a consequence, installation art’s multiple perspectives are seen to subvert the Renaissance perspective model’ (Bishop 2005: 13). I think the same would probably apply to participatory art, community art, events and happenings, and in most contexts in which the viewer’s involvement is integral to the nature of the artwork being offered. And in the era of Black Lives Matter and the yearning for true equality among peoples, an awareness of centring and decentring is more important than ever.

No doubt there are other ways of approaching photographic art and its display. Charlotte Cotton (Cotton 2014) looks at many contemporary artists whose work combines different media and is very far from the nature of a traditional print: a flat rectangle with a probably indexical image inside, against a bare white wall. As she says, ‘In combination with other media, photography becomes just one phrase in an overall statement, subjected to a consciously ambiguous but highly specified treatment’ (Cotton 2014: 229).

How might these ideas affect my practice? I am not yet sure. A conventional gallery-style exhibition of my work at Falmouth has never figured in my plans, largely because exhibitions here in Oxford are difficult and expensive due to lack of suitable venues. However, a participatory event or an off-gallery collaboration of some kind might be easier to arrange and sounds far more attractive and enjoyable. So, I am glad to have had these new ideas put before me.

I think the challenge is this: how to offer something that allows the viewer to make their own choices about the ‘art’ involved, that engages and involves the viewer as an experience, and that does not offer the traditionally indexical photographic image as the be-all and end-all of the affair. To sound a little cheesy, perhaps, how does one allow the viewer to fall in love with the experience and remember it as an event that was really worth turning up for?


BISHOP, Claire. 2005. ‘Introduction’. In Claire BISHOP (ed.). Installation Art: A Critical History. London: Tate, 6–13.

COTTON, Charlotte. 2014. ‘Chapter 8: Physical and Material’. In Charlotte COTTON (ed.). The Photograph as Contemporary Art. New York, NY: Thames & Hudson, 218–49.

O’DOHERTY, Brian. 1999. ‘Notes on the Gallery Space’. In Brian O’DOHERTY (ed.). Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space. Berkeley, Calif: University of California Press, 13–34.