There’s the one I’m seeing, feeling and responding to. And there’s the one spelled out on the interpretation boards. The one telling me I’ve got it all wrong.
I’m standing by a jumble of wooden posts, and gaudily painted slogans. I’m standing right next to it. And it looks and feels like one of those old house clearance shops you get in Kirkdale – the piled up detritus of a life extinguished. A funeral pyre.
But no, the interpretation board chides me “‘Bonfire’ resembles something between a demonstration and a building site”.
Really? Who says?
And, more to the point, why say anything at all?
Why the need for ‘subtitles’ below the canvasses – as if art is a foreign language. Isn’t its interpretation our job? Take that away and what’s the point in my even being here? And this isn’t an accessibility issue – sure, provide headsets, big bold type, audio description and, of course, Braille – but don’t give the game away: why would you want to spoil it for anyone? (not that I saw any audio description here, though).
“Nobody is wrong, everyone is right,” says Tate Liverpool’s summer artists in-residence Kerry Morrison, “But to tell someone what it is they’re seeing? That’s wrong.”
But don’t misunderstand me, the exhibition, part of the ongoing DaDa Fest is affecting and keenly curated – a mutated version of an original show in Amsterdam, the event forms part of the London 2012 Festival programme.
Karin Sandler’s shaker maker-esque 3D inkjet models taken from actual bodyscans are breathtaking – a mini roll call of Dutch exhibition-goers, in all states of dress, undress, age and health, arranged on metal racks like Lilliputians in a Star Wars cantina. Here, there is nothing more to be said.
But, again, the interpretation board is determined to spell out what it is we’re actually seeing. In front of us. It’s if we’re sitting at home listening to Front Row.
‘What is the norm, and who decides?’ asks the event. Well, it would seem, the interpretation boards are going to have a pretty good stab at it.
It is, sadly, another example of the growing phenomena of art galleries desperate to unpack the tricky stuff for us, to break it down and spoon feed the answers.
Why the show’s original curators feel compelled to do this, when the Playhouse manages to get by without surtitling Hamlet with placards saying ‘he’s really fed up now, his uncle’s shagging his mum’ baffles me.
“You don’t get this in museums – they tell you dates, materials, facts. Well meaning curators think it’s opening the art up – it’s not, it’s closing it. If you think you’ve misinterpreted something it alienates you,” Morrison says.
I move on to the main gallery – a vast glass-topped display case is crammed with a colourful array of blister-encased pills – the lifetime medical regime for a single patient.
“This allows for discussions to emerge around the growing culture of dependency on medication” – the board says.
Does it? Or does it make you wonder at how pharmacology is finding ever more miraculous ways to keep cancers and life-shortening illnesses at bay? There’s something about that phrase ‘culture of dependency’ that, to my mind (and as ex carer for someone with a terminal illness) rankles. Try telling someone on anti rejection drugs, or chemotherapy, they’re part of a dependency culture. Does it sound a bit too close to benefit culture? But, again, maybe I’ve misinterpreted the boards.
So why are they here, if not to frustrate and castigate, to manipulate your reaction in such a way that you comply? How ironic that an exhibition subtitled ‘Difference on Display’ should be so fixated on a zero/sum response. A gallery filled with glinting strips of pills is powerful enough for you to join the dots, isn’t it?
“My motto is most definitely show, not tell,” says Bluecoat Exhibitions Curator, Sara-Jayne Parsons “But be ready to help interpret, as opposed to ‘tell’, through opportunities such as exhibition tours, artist talks or accompanying pieces of print, reading areas or digital sources. It’s not my job or the responsibility of the gallery, or the artist’s, to tell viewers how to respond. Meaning is your own.”
“For some shows it doesn’t make sense to have any writing. It becomes intrusive to the visual experience, so any guides or accompanying catalogues can give you enough text but don’t need to be on the wall.”
I’d say Niet Normaal is one of those shows. But it singularly refuses to let that happen, and is the weaker for it.
A grainy looped film of a patient with neurological illness hopelessly trying, and failing, trying and failing to stand is accompanied with the cool text: “the artist moves our thoughts from a perverse voyeurism to a more neutral, respectful observation of the human body.”
Maybe your thoughts, curators. For me, it was anything but neutral. It was the saddest, most moving piece in the whole show. Perverse voyeurism never even crossed my mind. Until you said it.
“In many galleries interpretation panels go too far,” says Laura Robertson, who, before running the Double Negative website, oversaw the respected Royal Standard Studios (and who’s recently co-curated a show at the Victoria Gallery).
“I always go with less is more, I prefer not to use many text panels or labels if I can help it. A separate gallery plan does this job without being too distracting. I don’t think you ever, as a visitor or a curator, want educational content to overshadow the exhibition itself. You want an exhibition that is open to discussion and interpretation – otherwise where’s the fun?
Robertson singles out the Tate’s Turner Monet Twombly a good example of a minimal approach to interpretation – the curator Jeremy Lewison preferring for visitors to make their own minds up.
“If you wanted to hear more about the artists and how they worked, you can watch a film of him being interviewed on the fourth floor,” she adds.
As Parsons is keen to point out, some of the Bluecoat’s touring exhibitions come complete with interpretation text panels already drafted. And it’s true that some artists have very particular feelings on the matter.
My feelings on the matter? Well, if anyone’s interested, I’d like to rip up the interpretation panels, pile them into a pyramid and make them resemble something like a bonfire. In fact, no, I’d actually set fire to the lot of them.
Niet Normaal: Difference on Display
The Bluecoat, to 2 September, Free