If you are like me, you get mildly annoyed when people wander through a museum and feel the need to run their hands all over some ancient sculpture. Chances are they will be ignoring a number of prominent signs saying to keep their grubby hands off. They may also be ignoring the security guards, who will be looking the other way or simply too lazy to intervene. In contrast, if an artist produces a sculpture today, it is as likely as not that touching is not only permitted, but encouraged. Which leads to a quandary: without reading instructions every time we enter a gallery, how can we know the rules for engaging art?
Of course, the really annoying thing about people who put their hands over sculptures is not that they break the rules. The annoying thing is that you respect the rules. You would like to put your own filthy sticky mitts over every great work you see, but you know you are not supposed to. Instead, you allow an invisible convention to erect a force field between your natural inclinations and the object of desire. So whilst you stand there, rendered impotent by your own superego, you are forced to observe others who gleefully take their orders straight from the id.
Some of the problems with the rules for engaging art comes down to inconsistent enforcement. I was in Japan last year, and I was lucky enough to watch a musical performance at a Shinto shrine. There were prominent signs in multiple languages, warning people not to take photos. There was also a guard, presumably paid to wrestle cameras from the meagre throng who would assemble to see the hourly routine. An Italian woman stood boldly at the front of the throng, holding her camera to her chest, with the lens pointed straight ahead. Only a moron would fail to notice her click-de-clicking at regular intervals. The guard did nothing. So, I took it upon myself to do something. My plan was to gently sidle forwards and sideways through the crowd, until I had obstructed her view of the stage. Having accomplished my goal quite easily, I felt satisfied, but only for a moment. The Italian woman reacted in the only selfishly rational way, by moving to a new position further forward, where I could no longer obstruct her view. From there, she resumed her even more obvious and incessant photo taking. At this juncture, the guard waved a finger, vaguely aimed at me, and remarking “no photo”. To which the Italian woman responded by waiting a minute and then resuming her photo taking as if nothing had happened. For the remaining half hour of the performance, the guard had to perform the difficult task of pretending not to notice what the Italian woman was doing. He achieved this by somehow finding the right balance of vague but earnest gazing into the audience whilst never seeing the big woman at the front clearly breaking the rules. Contrast this guard’s approach with that of a fellow I encountered at the Parthenon. Now, perhaps we are not comparing like with like. A fiery Mediterranean defending his country’s history may well be expected to do more than a placid Japanese guy just looking for an easy life. However, you have not heard what I did yet. As a young man, I had some daft and romantic notions. Being at the Parthenon, and away from my then beloved, who was too busy with studies to take a week’s holiday to Greece, it entered my head to take a souvenir to represent my love for her. Now, we are not talking about a Lord Elgin smash and grab here. I was walking along the rubble, and I picked up two small pebbles, one reddish and one bluish. Not whitish marble bits that had once fallen off the Parthenon during the many calamities that had befallen, just common stones that happened to be lying on the same ground as this historic building. I had the idea that my love would have one, and I would keep the other. Yeah, it was a stupid idea all round, but I was lovestruck – an affliction known to impair the capacity to reason. As I was bending down to pick up said pebbles, there was a loud whistle. Then a shouted instruction: “Halt!” Naturally, I froze. An athletic and muscular fellow sprinted at full pelt towards me. For a moment I wondered if he intended to rugby tackle me to the ground, but thankfully he applied the brakes and came to a skidding stop directly in front of me. He loudly demanded that I show him what I had picked up. Seeing the modest pebbles that I meekly held out in my hand, the guard shrugged his shoulders, nodded, and said “fine”. And that was that. Fair play to the Greek guard – rules is rules, and if he had been around a century earlier, Elgin would have left Athens empty-handed.
Why is this in my mind? Well, yesterday my good friend Paul took me to the Psycho Buildings exhibition at the Hayward Gallery. He might as well have been taking me to an interactive workshop designed to explore the rules of what you are allowed to do in a gallery. For example, there was a sculpture by Atelier Bow-Wow called Life Tunnel which the audience were expected to walk through. It was, in short, a metal corridor from one floor of the gallery to another. Prohibitions about touching this would have been silly. Contrast that with the work called Show Room by Los Carpinteros. This depicted a frozen moment in time, during the blowing asunder of a conventional house. The rooms had been hit by some imaginary unseen projectile that had come through one of the walls. All of the objects were hence hung from the ceiling by threads. Some sides of the exhibit were fenced off, indicating that intrusion was not allowed, but others were not fenced off. To what extent was the audience allowed, or even encouraged, to step inside the imaginary walls and see the devastation close up? Touching was presumably not allowed, but only a modest amount of wriggling was necessary to put yourself in a place where you were literally surrounded by the shrapnel of this domestic scene. The more persistent could have relived scenes from Entrapment, Ocean’s Twelve, Ali G Indahouse or Tenacious D and countless other movies where the jewel thief gracefully contorts themselves around the laser beam sensors. Or they could simply have crawled on their bellies and ended up right in the middle of the devastated room, without ever disturbing anything. Either way, you could, in theory, stand well inside the exhibit without ever coming into contact with it, and without having transgressed against any explicit prohibitions. I only took modest steps within the exhibit, not wanting to relive any memories of whistle-blowing guards, but someone more determined – or an eager young child – would probably see it quite differently. And the artists seem to be teasing us too. If you followed the link to Los Carpinteros’ website, you will have seen that they photographed Show Room from the inside, not the outside. All of which rather begs the question of exactly how you are supposed to look at it.
Moving up a floor, we found ourselves in Mike Nelson’s recreation of his To the Memory of H.P. Lovecraft. By this, I mean we walked through a door that said “do not touch anything” and entered two large rooms that looked like someone had smashed the walls with a sledgehammer. Given that rubble was strewn across the floor, and inevitably would be stepped upon by many people, it was hard to conceive how the prohibition against touching anything was meant to be interpreted. Perhaps Nelson had intended to procure a zero-g antigravity device so we could float around. Of course, we ignored the stupidly-stated rule, else we would have found myself unable to open the door and ever leave again. Quickly leaving this brazen example of why modern art is rubbish, Paul and I found ourselves immediately re-entering the reality of normal life, stuck at the back of a long queue whilst standing in the rain. However, this particular queue led to Tomas Saraceno’s Observatory. Air-Port City. We queued, and then were asked to participate in a lottery to go either to the top level (and hence enjoy the exhibit as it is really intended) or get the consolation of being allowed inside to the bottom level. Paul and I both lost, and went through the airlock to the ground level of this inflated dome. Our role was to join the crowd sat around and peering up at the lucky three people who were rolling about the transparent membrane suspended ten feet above our heads. They looked down, we looked up. The structure itself, though interesting, was a sideshow. The people inside were the centre of attention. Rolling around on a plastic sheet, in plain view of everyone, was evidently the purpose of this artwork, so a ‘hands off’ rule would have made no sense at all. Indeed, if you lie on your back and stare up at a buxom woman lying face down, arms and legs splayed, and staring right back down at you, you appreciate that this work of art permits an unusually high degree of contact with the surface area of the audience. It also encourages an unusual degree of immodesty. The closest analogy would be those porno films where bikini-clad lovelies manage a carwash and insist on cleaning every windscreen with their D-cups.
Prior to entering Saraceno’s dome, we had been instructed to take our shoes off. With hindsight, this made no sense. Once inside, I put my shoes on the floor like everyone else, meaning the degree of shoe-to-ground contact would have been no different if they had remained on my feet. On leaving the dome, with queueing crowds pressing to get in, nowhere to sit, and the rain still pouring, I decided to get inside first and put on my lace-ups second. What a terrible error. Back in To the Memory of H.P. Lovecraft, I rested my bag against a big concrete stool so I could bend over and put my shoes on. There was no whistle, but the officious guard was on me like a shot. A long lecture followed about how the concrete stool was part of the exhibit, and hence not to be touched by hand, bag, and certainly not my bum. The fact that the stool looked like an ugly lump of concrete that had been carelessly tossed to one side was irrelevant. That was all part of the artist’s illusion. This illusion would be spoiled and diminished by the merest human contact, never mind – heaven forbid – that a mere amateur like me might actually slightly move anything. One can barely imagine the intricate precision with which Nelson must have bashed those dirty great holes in the plasterboard wall. To an untrained eye, it looked completely random, and the kind of thing any genuine psycho could achieve in just ten minutes of effort, but doubtless Nelson spent many painstaking hours getting the size and shape of each hole just so. So I made my exit, skulking down the similarly concrete stairs and putting my shoes on there. The first step of the stairs represented some kind of imaginary boundary between the artwork and the rest of the world. The artificiality of this dividing line was all too apparent when Paul commented that the concrete stools in the artwork looked exactly like, and probably were, the concrete stools placed around the gallery for people to sit on. It seems a lump of concrete originally intended to be sat upon can becomes an artist’s untouchable creation, so long as you take it from outside the gallery and put it somewhere inside.
The uneven exhibition was saved, at the end, by Rachel Whiteread’s Place. Whiteread is one of those few conceptual artists that actually deserve the description. Her works make the audience think, as well as take wonder. Some of her contemporaries just make you think how they get away with being so talentless. Her village of doll’s houses, each gently lit from inside, presented an eerie and emotional scene. And there was no doubt about the nature of audience interaction. You stood there, and walked around, and looked, and there was no need or confusion about whether to touch. The displays were mounted, making it clear where the thoroughfare of the gallery stopped and the artist’s work began. And it still told you something about the world and how we look at it, irrespective of the traditional nature of the interaction with this compositions – one enjoyed purely by the eye. The artist’s genius had been in collecting and presenting these second-hand playthings. I was lost in Whiteread’s miniature settlement, and could have happily stayed there all night. But then again, I can be a sentimental sort, what with still having that pebble somewhere. Mine was the reddish one. Knowing where art starts can be tricky. But there is no doubt where good art ends. With good art, the end is not found by touching it with our hands. What really matters is that we reach out with hearts and minds.