Every now and again I try to put up a post about presentation techniques. Third year students will have to put proposals in for spaces and outline how they are thinking about final show and module assessment hangs in the next two weeks, so its a good time to remind everyone how important presentation is. There are several links at the bottom of this post that could therefore be useful as they bring together earlier reflections on various other aspects of presentation.
Johanna Unzueta has a show of work on at Modern Art Oxford at the moment, her freestanding geometric drawings inspired by natural patterns, are being displayed in a format that echoes the one that Lina Bo Bardi used for her easels display format back in the 1960s. Lina Bo Bardi's easels consisted of a pane of glass supported by a concrete cube and were an attempt to integrate the display of artworks into the structure of modernist architecture.
Lina Bo Bardi's 'Easels'
The iconic glass panels that Bo Bardi designed and exhibited at the opening of the Sao Paulo museum of Art in 1968, were designed to ‘resurface’ art objects dating from the fourth century B.C. until the 1960s. “Floating” them in glass panels anchored by a concrete block, art objects were positioned in no chronological order, and they revealed their backs. “My intention has been to destroy the aura surrounding museums,” said Bo Bardi at the museum opening. She wanted to disrupt the contemplation of works hanging on white walls, and diffuse the hierarchy between artists and artistic periods, being amongst the first to undo the sacralisation or spiritualisation of the museum experience. By “making walls transparent,” and through the showing of the back of the images, notes, records, and processes were revealed that had previously only been seen by museum staff.
Lina Bo Bardi exhibition displays
Unzueta says of her work that it is “a body you can walk around, not a flat thing”, a concept that reinforces my own thoughts about both drawing and painting being in reality very thin sculpture.
Lina Bo Bardi's ideas have become fashionable, but not necessarily understood. She wanted to give audiences a view of what went on behind the images presented in museums.
Johanna Unzueta's use of Lina Bo Bardi's idea is questionable. Why in photographic views of her exhibitions, do we never see the backs of images? Is there nothing to reveal? Has Bo Bardi's concept now become a style of presentation for Unzueta, rather than a way of revealing something about the way the work is displayed?
An exhibition of Lina Bo Bardi's drawings
A recent exhibition of Lina Bo Bardi's own work was presented with her drawings fixed to scaffolding posts. It was obviously curated in this way as a 'nod' to her ideas. However I'm not convinced that the exhibition worked because her intention to destroy the snobbery surrounding museums and wanting to disrupt the contemplation of works hanging on white walls, seems to have been replaced by yet another presentation idea centred on preserving art's 'aura'.('Aura' as used by Walter Benjamin in his influential 1936 essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction)
It is important to remember that the aesthetic of the white wall for presenting work was introduced in the early twentieth century in response to modernism. Art groups like De Stijl set off a trend of exhibiting their works against white walls, in contrast if you visit Leeds Art Gallery they have a Victorian room, all the paintings are hung against red or green painted walls. The white walls were also thought of as a type of frame, think of a photograph with a white border. Modernist architectural design was heavily influenced by the need to eliminate decoration, which itself was seen as capable of hiding germs. All those decorative flourishes made things much harder to wipe clean, so decoration became associated with ill health and hidden causes of disease. As an introduction to these types of ideas you could read 'Ornament and Crime', by Adolf Loos. He tells us:
'Because we have stagnated for a long time and we are stagnating still. Over the last decade the whole world of the applied arts has taken great strides under England’s leadership. The distance between us and everyone else is becoming ever greater, and it is high time that we took care not to miss our connection. Even Germany has been catching up at a gallop and will soon be joining the victory procession. Such new life abroad! The painters, the sculptors, the architects are leaving their comfortable studios, hanging ‘high art’ on the peg and taking their place by the anvil, the loom, the potter’s wheel, the kiln and the carpenter’s bench! Away with all drawing, away with all paper-based art! What we need to do now is to wrest new forms and lines from life, habits, comfort and utility! Get to it, journeymen, art is something that must be overcome!'
From the introduction to 'Ornament and Crime'
'High art' is seen by Loos as a crime and we are told that it is in design and craft that true value lies. He points to the problem of art's use value and questions what art is for.
In 1976 Brian O’Doherty wrote a series of essays for Artforum magazine which were collected together in his book 'Inside the white cube'. In these essays O’Doherty highlighted the different types of meanings that the white walls of a gallery implied. In particular he pointed to the new church like aspect that galleries were now imposing on the 'read' of contemporary art. As an architect Lina Bo Bardi would have been very aware of these issues, and her work to expose the myths of the white cube, was an early example of the need to fight back against what had become an unquestioned norm. Art had by the 1970s been clearly separated out from design and craft but an all white aesthetic space for art's appreciation was still accepted as common practice.
The point about this and other posts about presentation is that it is never neutral, when we are told the clean flat white wall is simply to allow us to see the work without distractions, we are actually being subtly inducted into a particular modernist idea.
Whether you are making static images using traditional materials, or working with contemporary media, choices made at the point of exhibition or presentation will determine how your audience receive your work.
Drawings as exhibition proposals
Trapping and framing
Framing a large drawing
The frame and the banner
Fixings and fittings
Hanging large drawings
More on framing
From drawing to installation