The increase in visual documentation regarding art in galleries has insinuated elaboration as a necessary component in the practice of exhibition. The art writer Daniel Grant has stated that art museums “have made their wall labels longer and longer, offering paragraphs of background information and interpretation to visitors who now spend as much time reading as looking.”
This practice of offering elaboration in the very context of exhibition is a two-edged sword. The functions of explanation and interpretation are important precisely because they are a means of exploration. They can provide pathways through which one can engage the work and consider its significance.
If there is any warning being offered here, it is that elaboration and explanation can blur as much as it illuminates. In presenting a pathway for our understanding, elaborations and explanations focus our attention. However, in doing so, they simultaneously detract our attention from other elements and possibilities within a body of work.
I would express my concern about the presence of these elaborations in an exhibition space to the direct extent that they insinuate that the work is deficient to express itself. My concerns are also proportional to the insinuation that the viewer is lacking an ability to parse out the significance and meaning of the works placed before them. Beyond these concerns, there is the fact that there are many ways to enter into a body of exhibited work.
I would like to suggest the notion that art always transcends the intentions and understanding of the artist who makes it and the understanding of the public spaces and curators that exhibit it. If this is true, and I think that it is, it suggests that there is something more to the work than can be immediately understood in the context of our initial encounter and the context of the exhibition itself.
Art, itself, is an object of consideration – a pathway for exploring and considering aspects our context, our perceptions, and our selves. Because of this, it requires prolonged periods of engagement and consideration in the very presence of the work and beyond it. We must ruminate on our experiences of an encounter with art in order to extract the most significant aspects encased in any artistic expression. Our considerations of the work and our dialogue with others about the work help us to find the treasure troves that are locked within the art itself. Often, this process extends well beyond the exhibition itself.
As I have said, I would tend to extol the presence of text panels in an exhibition to the extent that they aid in this process of consideration and I deprecate them to the extent they don’t. However, having said this, I can’t help but suspect that their verbose presence on the very same walls as the work itself is not only a form of institutional mediation, but institutional imposition as well. Practically, I understand how these panels can foreshorten the interpretive process in order to mediate access. However, this is precisely the form of my anxiety about their presence. I have a growing concern that this practice serves to subvert the mediation that happens through the individual and collective reflection of viewers upon their own encounter with the work.
Regardless, there is always a danger that helping a piece of art to speak can be a way of silencing that work and effacing it through interpretation. There is always the lurking problem that interpretation and elaboration can get in the way of a direct encounter with the work itself.
I guess the question at hand is the extent to which a work of art is able to speak for itself.
“I don’t allow statements in the rooms where exhibitions take place. They are generally cryptic, esoteric, ungrammatical and besides the point.”
Ivan Karp, director of New York City’s O.K. Harris gallery