Visitations: entering the public dimension

04 Jun 2010

Special shipping labels

Part 1, labels -- sticky or otherwise

Spending a few days at Tatton (I am invited back for the last bank holiday in May to conduct a couple of artist talks), gives me a better grasp of the public/art/private dynamic here. It’s not quite summer yet and although there seem to be an awful lot of folks milling about public numbers, I am told, are nowhere near those expected for average daily turnout at the season’s peak.

This is the second biennial, so it would be daft to expect that the majority are coming for the art. Watching these initial public encounters, the works appear to provoke the full gamut of responses depending on the individual’s outlook and how much they are prepared to bring to the experience of negotiating art in unexpected places. There is certainly a sense of dust rising around the 'usual' visitor terms of interaction with the site. The curators’ tours are pretty well attended but it’s clearly hard on this massive site to roundup and capture (in mind and body) potentially interested parties.

One of the major difficulties for me, however, is the understandable red-rope culture of the house and the viewing conditions this sets up for visitors, inside and out. Being told explicitly where to go and what and what not to touch can encourage a free-for all approach to the works indoors if not labelled with instructions. Yet labels, for makers and those that frame what’s made, are intensely problematic – whether the price tag, the textual description, or the ugly institutional sign – limiting the view in every sense.

Outside, meanwhile, beyond the ropes, the signage is comparatively spartan and the rules of engagement harder to interpret. It’s always possible that without the benefit of the biennial map and other available information relating to the commissions, contexts for, meanings implicit within, or even the physical reality of, certain works may escape the uninitiated viewer entirely.

The issue of how much information to give, particularly at each commission site, arises during my discussion with Austin Houldsworth. His inspired fossilisation machine is reliant to some extent on public interaction. A red metal handle, set with a craftsman’s hand, in the wooden framework of the structure at child-height, requires cranking to sluice the complex chemistry of fluids over the objects the artist wishes to preserve: a partridge and a pineapple.

And the kids appear to have little problem getting to operative grips with the machine itself, it’s the adults that hover around this functional, yet in many ways unnecessarily attractive, object wondering what it is they should do with and think about it. While Houldsworth ponders the benefits of more information, several of us posit that directions of any kind might stifle one’s innate curiosity on approach and therefore the sense of suspended disbelief required to entertain the eccentric claims of his mission. Are they really in there, will it work, does it matter?

Fossilisation machine

Posted by Rebecca Geldard at 3:13 PM