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Experience as an attitude

Is the unusual organisation of ‘wssohwte?’ in a city, the countryside, and as a Net version, a means of attracting a new audience or does it perhaps have an unexpected effect upon the normal spectator?

Although the concern with gallery space as such has been a major issue over the past decades, this tends to question the white cube’s (and more recently black cube’s) neutrality and perhaps suggest different architectural solutions. Can or should architecture be a mere backdrop for self-contained objects of art, or should the surroundings comment upon the (perhaps not so self-contained) works, function as a continuity of them, etc? If the art gallery building is made to participate more in the actual exhibition space it inevitably creates new problems. Unusual angles or colours may work perfectly with one particular type of exhibition yet constitute a total clash with the next. Although the two galleries involved in ‘wssohwte?’ are very different architecturally, a common denominator is that both interiors seem to be relatively easily adaptable, perhaps because neither of them was initially conceived as an art gallery; or they come across as modifiable since the approach of the exhibition is one of integration rather than negation. Some of the original furnishings at Galleri F15, the old tile stoves, have become an integral part of Zeger Reyers’ works. Toril Rygh expresses a similar attitude with her confusion of latex nipples and light switches. Having wandered through the TENT. exhibition on the website only, my distinct impression is that the original layout of the interior has been a determining factor also here. Architectural elements are, at least to some extent, made use of where they are found. This approach is quite common in Norwegian public art where works are often commissioned to be on permanent display in a particular setting facilitating the integration of beams or fire alarms, etc. However, the permanence of such works gives room to a more extensive use of the architectural environment. The latter type of works are rooted in the tradition of architectural decorative elements and still tend to be dismissed by some artists as mere embellishment (1).

What is particularly interesting about ‘wssohwte?’, however, is the concern not only with the interior that frames the exhibition but also with the surroundings in which the buildings are set. There seems to be general agreement that the presentation of an exhibition is essential to the reception of it, along the lines of the importance of the layout of a c.v. Although an exhibition obviously entails much more, the c.v. is an interesting parallel because its physical appearance is so fundamental. Moving a step further, to the actual job interview, it is common knowledge that an austere office with grim-looking representatives of the firm on one side of the table will make the interviewee more nervous than a relaxed lunch situation in an atmospheric restaurant. Applying this kind of thinking to exhibitions seems to be more unusual. Clearly, most galleries tend to be located in the real rather than the virtual world and in the former one cannot simply change the surroundings to match each individual exhibition. One can, however, take the gallery’s context into consideration when planning exhibitions. For although it is well-known that the presentation is of great importance, studies of the reception of art tend to be concerned with the spectator’s educational and cultural background, age and sex, rather than the influence that the surroundings have upon him or her. Naturally, the above mentioned factors are important but the impact an exhibition has in a particular setting is also likely to be a determining factor. The subtitles of ‘wssohwte?’ underline the specificity of the different settings. Interestingly, in the densely populated Netherlands the exhibition was held in a city, whereas a gallery situated in the countryside houses ‘wssohwte?’ in Norway. However, Rotterdam is not a typical Dutch city, dominated as it is by modern architecture and without the old centre that is found in the majority of Dutch cities. Galleri F15 is an old country house surrounded by a landscape that has been cultivated for centuries. The wilder landscape, so much more common in Norway, is seen only in the distance. One may draw the conclusion that, although most of Norway’s population is now urbanised, the most natural locations have been chosen in the two countries. Although the Dutch often go wild about hiking in the mountains it remains an activity which is embedded in Norwegian culture. The possibility of combining walks in nature with experiences of art seems ideal in this setting. Yet ‘City’ may seem a little less natural when considering Rotterdam’s above mentioned uniqueness in the Netherlands and ‘Nature’ is not necessarily the concept that immediately strikes the average Norwegian, so familiar with apparently unspoilt scenery, when approaching Galleri F15. Although the references are clear enough they are not absolutely unambiguous and may even question our concepts of ‘City’ and ‘Nature’.

The use of two different locations accompanied by suitable subtitles functions as a key to the art experience. One of the major problems of present-day art communication is that the spectator tends to misunderstand the possibilities of open art. The non-elitist beholder is normally looking for art which gives him or her more of a clue to interpretation. In a society crammed with forms that have to be filled in in exactly this or that manner and tons of information on how to interpret even the least significant event or item, what one really needs is art without instructions. But as long as the non-specialist audience tend to see this more as an insult than an eye-opener, how may one best present open art? The creation of communication between an exhibition and its surroundings, not just by employing certain aspects of the interior, but also, as at ‘wssohwte?’, by providing a dialogue between the works of art and the context in which the gallery is set, may result in a more eager audience. Perhaps, then, by suggesting that Paul Devens’ Roller has rolled in directly from the field outside Galleri F15 and by letting Zeger Reyers’ mushrooms grow inside a building in an area where many probably pick their own chanterelles, the spectator may see nature in art as a starting point. At TENT. Devens’ vehicle may have been interpreted as a steamroller; his roof-floor may have alluded to the noise always present in the city and at Jeløy it suggests the roof of a barn albeit with an unnatural sound. Many of the works on display can be interpreted very differently depending on whether one sees them as rooted in nature or in the city. The subtitles may in a subtle manner give the spectator the instructions she is likely to start looking for the minute she walks in. Nevertheless, the exhibition demands great openness on the part of the beholder, and although the works of art can gain site specific meanings in different exhibition settings, both the works themselves and the galleries clearly belong to the white cube tradition. Yngvil Teigen’s Birdess video may seem less odd in the countryside than in an urban area but it nevertheless refers to the world of art just as much as it does to (in this case) nature. Connecting such works of art with the ideas of city and nature thus remains an ambiguous project. This ambiguity is underlined by the above mentioned unusualness of the landscape surrounding F15 and the uniqueness of the city of Rotterdam. The exhibition, then, makes various references to the white cube and art itself as well as to its own subtitles.

The seemingly contradictory title of this article, ‘Experience as an attitude’, implies that today’s open art requires a certain attitude. Although open art is no longer a novelty, it still meets with a largely suspicious audience. The spectator must set himself in the experience mood and be willing to fill in the blanks or contribute something of himself whilst taking in the works. Contemporary art often questions our choices regarding what we wish to perceive and how; it is not merely open but indeed activating if we allow ourselves to experience it (2). The great challenge for galleries and curators is how to invite spectators to do this. Entering an exhibition through the Net may in fact underline this aspect, although it is more likely to affect those who take a keen interest in new art than the doubters. However, the active use of a Net version or a website supplement can provide both the information modern society yearns for and explore new means of expression as part of an exhibition. Simple concepts are used for the two physical exhibitions of ‘wssohwte?’: ‘City’ and ‘Nature’; they could easily be exchanged for ‘country house’ and ‘school’, etc., as long as the gaps remain for the opening up of the spectator’s experience. The initial question cannot be answered without empirical evidence, but it is not unlikely that the exhibition actually provides new ways of viewing art and that it seems more appealing to a larger audience. The method employed is certainly worth exploring further.