Outside the box

The legacy of modernist architecture on the display of contemporary art cannot be underestimated. The social relation and intimacy previously involved in the making and display of art was greatly altered through this progressive step. The new scale of the gallery and museum meant that curiosity cabinets and sculpture gardens of the 19th Century were seen as oddly diminutive. From the 1940s onwards the artist began to make works for the public setting of the museum rather than the intimacy of the domestic setting. Many of these works could no longer be shown in a domestic setting and had to move from the studio immediately through to the gallery space. A vast number of these works have also remained within the museum and gallery system. As such the referencing framework for the artwork became the museums and galleries; spaces often tied to positions of power and systems of exclusion. In 1967, Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle proposed that ‘images detached from every aspect of life merge into a common stream in which the unity of that life can no longer be recovered. Debord argues that ‘fragmented views of reality regroup themselves into a new unity as a separate pseudoworld that can only be looked at’. In art-terms the presentation of art in the gallery space provides ‘a monopoly of appearances, its manner of appearing without allowing any reply’1. The object chosen for display is a fragment of a greater project. As such, the viewer is placed in the ineffective compliance of observer.


From the 1950s a cogent style in art has failed to develop; what has come in its place is a multiplicity of approach that is wide-ranging and dynamic. SFMOMAs 2008 show The Art of Participation 1950 to Now included works by Marina Abramovic and Ulay, Vito Acconci, Joseph Beuys, John Cage, Janet Cardiff, Hans Haacke, Allan Kaprow, Yoko Ono and Nam June Paik. The title of this exhibition alone shows the approach to artwork since the 1950s required a dynamic change, one that is still in development. Prior to this, static work was shown to its full effect in the white walled gallery spaces of the cities; creating a place for pause and proposing a gentrification of the work within the hallowed spaces they occupied. The Art of Participation in its manifold forms opened up further expectations for art – the artists themselves asking more from the artwork-viewer relationship. The failure in the spaces of art to develop into relationship enhancing places has meant that much of this work cannot be shown within the gallery or museum except in their archival form.


Rather than the examination of space directly involved in the display of the work, museums have seen a complete re-evaluation of the external space. The notion of spectacle has been applied to the gallery. Often linked to big-name architects the development of museums have sought to draw the eye to the building itself. Since the Guggenheim in New York, architects such as Zaha Hadid have created buildings with greater and greater complexity, often leaving little attention to the internal dynamics of the gallery space. The gesture here is the building and not the artwork inside. The flip-side of this is the work of Yoshio Taniguchi at MOMA; the architect is quoted as saying: ‘If you raise a lot of money, I will give you great, great architecture. But if you raise really a lot of money, I will make the architecture disappear’2.   As the approach of many to the internal space of the museum remains for the most part modernist in style, the artwork therein, and artwork in general, has been deeply affected. Certain forms of artwork sit well within this type of space and they are the ones that do not require a dynamic exchange between viewer and artwork; painting and sculpture. Because of this genres such as Minimalism and Modernism are now being re-addressed. Minimalism was posited by Michael Fried to be a literalist relationship between artwork and viewer, the relationship between Minimalist object and viewer becoming that of compliant object and observer3. To what extent is this situation posited on the historicity and layout of the gallery space? Space is organized into places often thought of as bounded settings in which social relations and identity are constituted. It remains a designate geographical entity4. What one terms as relational or cognitive space is more complex; this place is defined and measured in terms of the nature and degree of people’s values, feelings, beliefs, and perceptions about locations. Thus relational place is consciously or unconsciously embedded in our intentions and actions5. For such a relation to exist however, emotional cues need to come into play, the lack of visual cues within the gallery space can make it difficult for the space to be viewed in a relational capacity.  A relation may exist between the objects within an exhibition however not necessarily with the viewer. If such a relation is obfuscated can one engage properly with the work?  What seems to remain the focus of art buildings is more a case of relative space, one wherein the space is devised with a view to location of, and distance between, different phenomena in terms of geographical inquiry. In this case gallery spaces remain just that – a space.


For a nomenclature of place to be proposed a sequencing of personal referents need to exist. This problem of place and the display of art are exaggerated in the case of the rural practitioner in Ireland. For artists working in the countryside the art world focus seems to be permanently fixed on Dublin. A culture of curatorial practice coupled with a wealth of venues; the capital has the means and space to actively encourage a wide range of artistic practices. Also the presence of national institutions such as IMMA, The National Gallery and The Arts Council amongst others, affirm the centralization of art in Dublin. The development of countryside art spaces in the 21st Century was immediately linked with exciting architects that held a pre-fixed vision of what a gallery space should look like. Though not unusual, these sites did stand in contrast with pre-existing museums throughout Ireland that have utilized existing historical buildings in the display of their collections. Regional hubs were expanded; The Model Sligo, home to the Niland collection was extended and completely redeveloped by architects Sheridan Woods in 2010. Similarly Visual Carlow was developed by Terry Pawson Architects; the scale of whose main gallery is unprecedented. The development of these new vistas within the countryside landscape seems to defy the point. Because of this, the artwork shown in these venues is of a high international standard, works that would usually be shown in large city spaces; there is very little referencing of the environment around the gallery. The landscape is extant but ignored. Just as the museum structure that we know today expanded, the depiction of landscape as a style became undermined.  It is as if the contextualization of a vision of the land could not coincide with a futurist building. Complexity exists within the landscape, also a changeability that belies the cool edifice of the gallery space. And yet the land is an important part of the artists work; artists such as Camille Souter, Barrie Cooke, Fiona Woods and Tim Robinson, continue to reference the land in their work and yet this connection to the land is often broken when the work is exhibited. For many rural artists the challenge of the land still exists.


The dominance of the space of art and the objectification of the art therein has been challenged in many ways. The ready-made, Kinetic Art to Performance to OP Art are amongst a plethora of genres that have challenged the expectation placed upon art by the gallery space. OP Art defined in basic terms the commercial aspect to the display of a tangible sellable object. Kinetic Art enabled the viewer to mindfully connect with the work and performance art imbuing the space within the theatrical. And yet for each of these references the terms of engagement seemed stymied within the singular – as in it pertains to either the viewer alone or the artist; never both. Nicolas Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics (1998) proposed an art form that required the interaction of the viewer and the work6.  Relational practice is wide-ranging and encompasses most social activities; eating food together (in a gallery), sitting and conversing (in a gallery).  Because of the nature of this work the referencing of the gallery space was required more than ever; it provided an ‘artwork’ indemnity. Following the success of Bourriaud’s publication and the wealth of relational artists, in 2009 curator Nancy Spector created the anyspacewhatever at the Guggenheim. The exhibition was ‘conceived in collaboration’ with relational artists such as Maurizio Cattelan, Liam Gillick, Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, Pierre Huyghe, Jorge Pardo, Philippe Parreno and Rirkrit Tiravanija7. The Times critic Roberta Smith noted “The goal of ‘relational aesthetics’ is less to overthrow the museum than to turn it upside down, wreaking temporary havoc with its conventions and the visitor’s expectations of awe-inspiring objects by revered masters” “The larger point is to re-sensitize people to their everyday surroundings”8.  And yet the biggest convention of all – the museum space, remains more pertinent than ever. Furthermore this overtly relational format has been accused of forcing participation upon the viewer without their acquiescence and full understanding. Such a manoeuvre however does allow for discourses and practices to develop that have farther reaching consequences in the dissemination and teaching of art. This attempt to alter the dynamic of the museum and gallery seems at odds with the fact that the work is resolutely displayed in these spaces, the artists themselves gaining significance through the promotional network enabled by these establishments. Furthermore the relationship proposed by the work is significantly loaded in favor of the artist. In 2012 both Maurizio Cattelan and Carsten Holler had large museum retrospectives in the Guggenheim and New Museum respectively; both shows breaking attendance figures for each establishment.

Rather than the manipulation of the artwork artists have used interventions within the work to manipulate the space itself. Mike Kelley’s Educational Complex (1995) created an architectural model constructed from foam core that amalgamates the floor plans of every school that Kelley attended. The artist reconstructed the floor plans from memory whilst claiming that the spaces he could not remember were sites where he had been abused. In this manner the artist has used emotive referencing for the space rather than referencing the physicality of it.  And yet this work was small in scale and elevated in a glass vitrine, the emotive nature of the work being protected and removed from the space of the gallery. During the 1990s Brian O’Doherty used the structure of the labyrinth to alter the manner in which one encounters the gallery. The acknowledgment of geometry here also references the internal mechanism of how one processes visual stimuli. Furthermore O’Doherty’s rope drawings allow for a complexity of spacial awareness that avoids the usual expectation of the basic gallery cube, as such, there is an immediate interaction between the viewer and the space. Jorge Pardo’s 2009 exhibition at IMMA went so far as to completely de-objectify the art work and reference only the space. Reminiscent of Andy Warhol’s 1966 Cow Wallpaper and Silver Clouds at Castelli Gallery, Pardo wall-papered the entire gallery with 2D images of actual 3D objects. What works were featured were everyday in their focus – tables and lamps. The artist arguing that if the focus here is the space itself than the artist is mere decorator. Irish artists such as Clodagh Emoe, Brian Duggan, James Coleman, Jaki Irvine and Amanda Coogan have employed a variety of interventions to offset the totality of the gallery format. By filling the space with the work, the artist advances the notion that the viewer encounters the work first, rather than the space. In many cases there is a spectacle to the work that entices the viewer in. The work developed by Brian Duggan for his Rua Red show Three Lives employs a complexity of objects, historical referents and projection to situate the viewer within the work rather than the space.

One does not wish to ascribe homogeneity to either artwork or gallery and one can argue that this constant challenging of the space in which art is shown provides an exemplary point of departure for new and exciting art forms. Admittedly aspects of the everyday in art would make art a more relatable sphere and yet are we downgrading the artwork by allowing this to take place? Art cannot always be placed within the landscape or be ephemeral, tangible artworks do exist and oftentimes need to be protected both literally and historically.  The spaces that provide this function are also given the difficult task to display these works in new and inviting ways in buildings not decided upon by either the staff or artists that are left to use them. Such is this legacy that we now have a wealth of venues that cannot adequately address the complexity of contemporary art. What we do not want to see is progressive art forms lost or not fully developed simply because they cannot sit easily within the gallery space.


  1. Guy Debord, La société du spectacle, 1967, numerous editions; in English: The Society of the Spectacle, Zone Books 1995
  2.  ‘This New House’ by Alexandra Lang, New York Magazine, May 2005
  3. Michael Fried, Art and Objecthood: Essays and Reviews, University of Chicago Press, 1998, p73.
  4. Geographical Approaches:  Space, Place, Identity (e-book) http://socgeo.ruhosting.nl/html/files/geoapp/Werkstukken/SpacePlaceIdentity.pdf
  5. Holt-Jensen, A. (1999), Geography, History & Concepts, London: Sage Publications Limited, p. 216, 226, 227
  6. Nicolas Bourriaud Relational Aesthetics. Les Presse Du Reel, Franc, January, 1998
  7. theanyspacewhatever, Guggenheim, 2008-09, http://www.guggenheim.org/new-york/exhibitions/past/exhibit/1896
  8.  ‘Museum as Romantic Comedy’ by Roberta Smith, The New York Times, October 2008


 This essay was published on the occasion of the ‘Of All Places’ seminar at RUA RED Gallery.


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