Close encounters: art and words

18 Jul 2010

Old man at an art gallery

My brain is still spinning following an excellent conference (on July 9th), staged by Tate Britain: ‘Interpretation, theory and the encounter’. Although the premise was built around the museum experience, the four eminent speakers (James Elkins, Griselda Pollock, Donald Preziosi and Tony Bennett) variably led one out of the institution to many rich points on the cultural map between Plato’s 'The Republic' and Zigmut Bauman's 'Liquid Modernity'.

I’ve squirrelled away enough notes to feed countless posts on many topics, but there were one or two specific trains of thought of particular relevance to my recent comments on the challenges of presenting and receiving works of art in unusual places. Sylvia Lahav, museum education specialist and former curator of adult learning at Tate, introduced the event with some ideas on the rise of interpretative text in the museum and the effects of this on the visual encounter.

While Lahav acknowledged the cultural benefits of an all-inclusive approach to educating visitors she also observed the potentially limiting effects of the museums' relationship with text and “the single-plane approach to viewing” this set up. Naturally, the institutional concerns are very different at Tatton and very few works are reliant on any of its listed walls. But, having been focused on the presence or lack of information about a work affecting one's interaction with/perception of it I was interested in the questions she posed, such as whether or not text becomes a substitute for looking and with what aim (and in who's name) the public is 'demystified'.

I then got lost pondering the point at which the explanation for a work might void one's encounter with it, idea, for example of having to explain an artist's intention to irritate to avoid irritating the spectator out of readable proximity.

During Donald Preziosi's brilliant paper on the muteness and agency of objects, he raised the obvious but overlooked issue of how difficult it is to view the “staged encounter” independently -- to “extract visuality from the essential modalities of everyday life”, as he perfectly put it. It led me to think about the site-specific work which by the very nature of it's response to a location acknowledges the place's “history of stage-managing encounters”. How does one's relationship to site and works change when the conditions for viewing both have been purposely shuffled one into the other?

Image above by Brian Bantog of

Posted by Rebecca Geldard at 5:11 PM