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How to Look at Contemporary Art

This was a study visit to Edge and Shift, the work commissioned and curated for the HOUSE2015 Festival, apart from hundreds of artists’ open houses, HOUSE is the visual arts section of the Brighton Festival. HOUSE present contemporary work in gallery and non-gallery public spaces, this year there were textiles, drawings, paintings, films, sculptural installations, multiscreen video and sound, text and film and an interactive listening playground. Locations included an old covered market, a churchyard, an old wood yard and a listed Regency town house.
I want to discuss the range of work we saw, some of which might be called difficult, with the help of Ossian Ward’s recently published guide to experiencing contemporary art, Ways of Looking (2014), referencing John Berger’s Ways of Seeing. Ward asks how we can make sense of the post-everything ‘soupy dustbin of history and culture’ that surrounds us. His premise is based on the tabula rasa approach, looking at each piece as if it is our first experience with that kind of work, whether it’s a painting or an unidentifiable multimedia art installation. Can we encounter an artwork as if we knew nothing about format? I think not, but we can try and put ourselves back into that state of innocence. One way is to go back to the fundamentals, what are we looking at, and in this study visit hear, touch and smell?
With an exhibition like Gauge this is not difficult. Gauge is a sonically orchestrated environment activated by the weather and people within it. It offers a hands-on encounter in a space filled with sound made by all sorts of contraptions. Drops of water fell onto the strings of a grand piano; people sploshed about in mud and water, mist drifted across a the surface of a pool water and spiralled up into a funnel.

Gauge, Madeleine Flynn and Tim Humphrey (artists and curators)
Gauge, Madeleine Flynn and Tim Humphrey (artists and curators)

Ward suggests that we first take time to stand still and take stock, what he calls his five-breath rule. In Dawn Chorus there was a lot of waiting to see what would happen. It’s a multi screen video installation featuring 19 individual people singing birdsong and moving in an uncannily birdlike way. Inspired by a childhood spent out in the natural world Marcus Coates has a long-term project to explore the human species through investigations into other species. An interview with Coates accompanying the exhibition is available here.
The next stage in Ward’s guide is asking if we can we relate to the work, do we have a reaction, can we make associations. I found Dawn chorus resonated with me on many levels. At one point I see an elderly man reading in an armchair in front of his mantle piece and electric fire, every now and then his breathing quickens and he croaks like a male pheasant. Dawn Chorus is as much a poignant observation of the British, our homes and our work places as it is about birds and their song.
The Regency town house is a space of crumbling splendour and worth a visit just for that. Nathan Coley’s sculptures played with the disintegration of architecture. We spent a long time looking at these pieces, discussing the quality of making and technical skill that we all recognised; the choice of materials about which there was strong disagreement. Ward’s third and fourth points are background and understanding.  By reading the wall labels Coley’s intentions are straightforward, however we felt some of his work was didactic and he had overworked aspects of his pieces. One of the attendants told me we could not rely on the wall labels, Coley had said they might not be true.
Ward goes on to to suggest that we look again, unfortunately there was no time on this visit. Finally he comes to the subjective nature of assessment, but in this case it is a subjectivity that comes out of enquiry not just a knee jerk reaction. In a way we could say that if we don’t immediately like an artwork, i.e. we meet the edge of our appreciation then Ward’s suggestions can help us to make a shift, to a better understanding if not an actual liking.
I want to end with a couple of comments from the students, one had learned that it was OK not to like artworks but it was important to make an attempt to understand why.  Another said,  “I looked at art I might previously have passed by, learned lots and had a thoroughly enjoyable day out. It was great fun.”

Posted by author: Angela Rogers
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2 thoughts on “How to Look at Contemporary Art

  • It’s interesting that ‘understanding’ an artwork comes quite low down in Ward’s list. First there is the looking, then there is the taking stock followed by relating to the piece. Before ‘understanding’ comes background information and before subjective assessment comes looking again. This relates very much to the discussion I had with my group of students at the Royal Scottish Academy Annual Exhibition. I didn’t know about Ward’s list, but we came to agree that we should not dismiss a piece of art if we can’t immediately understand it.

  • This was my second study visit. I learnt on my first that without immersion, I am missing so much, so now I leap in, regardless of subject. These were not exhibitions that I would have considered visiting alone, and that would have been my loss. Angela’s selection of venues and her gentle challenging of perception, opened my eyes to different perspectives. From rain drops on piano strings to cascading legs in creamy sculptures, from a sculpture memorable only for it’s questionable presentation to the emotionally charged stitched figures, from the samples of scrumptious cake to the pleasure of a shared lunch. A memorable day. Thank you Angela.

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