There are two exhibitions running at the Bluecoat right now. And they’re both called Niet Normaal.

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

30 Responses to “Don’t Tell Us What To Think About Art”

  1. Ummm. I think you might be shooting the messenger here Dave? The culture of over interpretation more often comes from funders than from galleries themselves.
    I’ve not spent any time with the show, so don’t know how the panels are phrased. But I do think that so called ‘disability arts’ is involved in a particular struggle at the moment about finding its own language. This show might be a misguided attempt to find the right balance between inclusiveness and reaching a space of ‘artistic legitimacy’ (whatever that might mean).

  2. yeah, I did say that the show came with pre-written panels, and was careful to ask Bluecoat for its policy. But as ‘messenger’ doesn’t Bluecoat (or any gallery) have a responsibility too? Surely if they disapproved of how a piece is described, within its jurisdiction, it’s a conversation they must have, as to how it finds a way to keep external and internal curation on the same page? I guess it’s the question of what is the Bluecoat – a space for hire, or a gallery with its own methodologies? I don’t see this as a disability arts issue exclusively, to be honest. Have examples of other shows where interpretation crosses the line into explanation.

  3. I do think it might be a disability arts issue, or that disability arts is a particular catalyst for this type of problem. Given my understanding of the Bluecoat’s relationship with DaDa Fest (who curated the show) it is most likely that a disability arts specialist wrote the text panels. As an Arts Council assessor I have gone to a number of shows where I have also encountered a kind of tension between the quest to engage in arts language and the need to be inclusive for a disabled audience who may not be arts specialists. Watching this process of ‘finding a voice’ is one of the things that makes art about disability very exciting to me at this time.

    Your point about the Bluecoat being ‘space for hire’ is of course a good one. I completely agree! But trying to tackle such a systemic problem through an argument about the text panels in the gallery is not, in my view, going to get us very far.

  4. I love the panels in art galleries like the Walker that tell me about the painter, his or her situation at the time they were painting this, what they may have been trying to paint, and perhaps a guess at the painting’s nuances, inspirations and sometimes hidden messages contextual to the time of painting.

    What I don’t like is exactly what is spoken about in this article: being told what it “is” and what it’s “meant to mean”.

    Ultimately, if it’s modern interpretive art then the message is in the eye of the beholder surely?

    Else, if an artist is aiming for a single interpretation essential to convey the singular meaning they are aiming for, and the work fails to achieve this without the presence of a message panel, then what is there to say other than to judge the corresponding work accordingly?

  5. I run a disability arts project in Somerset and always come to DaDa Fest, it’s something Liverpool does extremely well. I too saw this exhibition and wondered about the varacity of these boards too. I wondered whether they were written for a guided partially sighted person (couldn’t see Braille boards) but even then I think they overstepped the mark and strayed too far into imposed interpretation. I wonder whether it was a translation issue, if they came from Amsterdam? Vanessa is right about the complexities the disability arts world is wrestling with, but this exhibition is an example of how not to do it, I fear. Disabled people are more than capable of responding to the world around them in the same way other audiences can. More-so, I often find.

  6. Dada-ism has wonderful ideas but the end form usually falls short in the communication (my opinion) and many in the art world are hooked on the beauty of the “idea”. They “love” the idea of ideas and think that it is their duty to ram these ideas down our throats.

    True some help is welcome to those who are trying to educate themselves about art but the education they need is that which teaches them to let go of their mind when viewing art and develop an array of perceptions which coupled with their imagination will lead them to growth. Provided that the work does not represent a stupid idea in the first place.

    The lack of this form of education is criminal, it could make people altogether more creative in their approach to living and benefit all.

    I haven’t seen this exhibition but I am usually entertained by Dada so I may well pop along, and try not to read anything 🙂

  7. Bryn: just to clarify, this piece is about an exhibition from DaDaFest – the annual disability arts festival, rather than a Dadaism exhibition. Either way, it’s definitely worth checking out.

  8. Just as well you told me, I may have been disappointed upon arrival, hahaha.

    How did they come up with a name with “Dada” in it but it has nowt to do with Dada-ism? oh well I’m sure it has a good story behind it.

  9. Bryn – DaDa is “Disability and Deaf Arts”.

    As for the issue of gallery labels – no one forces anyone to read them. I quite often find that the ideas I take away from a piece are quite different from what it says on the label, but I don’t see any reason to get angry about it.

    I completely agree that art should speak for itself, without explanation. Viewers should be able to develop their own response to works on display, but once they’ve done so, what’s wrong with seeing what someone else has to say about it? Doesn’t this just provide another viewpoint and provoke further thought/discussion? After all there’s no right or wrong in this situation.

    Perhaps it would be better to view gallery labels as suggestions or possible interpretations rather than “this is what this work is about.”

    It’s easy to forget that not everyone who visits a gallery is used to engaging with/thinking about art. I’ve got friends who’ve said they don’t really know what to “do” in a gallery, they’re almost scared of spending more than a couple of seconds looking at something. For those people, gallery labels can be a really useful “way in” to art. They give people a starting point and allow them to spend a bit more time with an exhibition, hopefully have a more fulfilling experience and come back to visit the gallery again – then perhaps they can learn to develop their own responses to work, and become the David LLoyds of the future…. :p

  10. andyohare

    as an ‘amateur’ gallery-goer, I often come away wishing I hadn’t read the boards. If a piece has aroused some sort of response in me which has nothing to do with what I’ve read, am I ‘doing’ it wrong? Will I be more or less likely to enjoy my next visit?

    Perhaps a better option would be lots and lots of boards written from lots of perspectives. Or no boards at all.

  11. Roger Cliffe-Thompson

    Dear David,
    So sorry you have never heard of the Disability Discrimination Act. It is legislation which makes it an offence to discriminate against Deaf or disabled people and funnily enough both the Tate and Liverpool Museum are so keen to make their exhibitions accessible that they refer their intentions to an access panel prior to their opening. You see David; Deaf people can’t hear a sound track so that’s why the films have subtitles. Also a large font size is used to enable people to make it easier to read. But wouldn’t it be better if you attended a Disability Equality Training Course, save me a lot of trouble.
    Or do you think you have the right to decide what other people have or don’t have access too? Sounds a bit fascist to me!
    DaDafest is the gold standard for accessibility, be nice if you celebrated inclusion instead of denigrating it with a pathetic 1950’s disablist rant.
    Finally be grateful if you would inform me as to your present or future funders, if any, as I am sure they would be keen to read your review.

  12. Roger, my partner was seriously disabled, and registered blind. I was his carer. He died at Christmas. He would have appreciated information boards, not ‘this is what it means’ boards. Where did I mention the size of the font? Where do I mention subtitles? And when any arts organisation puts itself above criticism then we really are in trouble. Please don’t patronise me, or those with disabilities. Your response is an affront to their appreciation of art. Read the point of my article, and come back to me. I’m sure, when you’ve read it properly, and with less blinding bitterness, you’ll have a more considered response. I look forward to it.

  13. I’ve written wall texts for exhibitions before and it can be tricky to get the balance right between providing the viewer with helpful context and dictating the curator’s position. But I’ve got to agree with David here. Roger, your comment completely disregarded the content of the article and came off as really patronising. Why should you automatically assume he was being ablist for writing the kind of review SevenStreets would publish about any art exhibition or gallery in this city?

    The issue is not with the accessibility of the exhibition — since, as you put it, ‘DaDafest is the gold standard for accessibility’ I feel pretty safe in assuming that it will be accessible to people of all abilities, but with the actual interprative materials dictating how viewers should respond to the works on display.

    I think Nicky’s got the right idea; wall texts are really the starting point for interpretation and should be open to debate.

  14. @Roger, I’ve read some ridiculous comments on this site but never read a comment that’s not only missed the point so spectacularly but done it in a way so mind-bendingly patronising that I’m surprised you had room to type with your head so far up your own arse.
    Sites like SevenStreets exist to praise, critique, promote, and create discussion about things that go on in the city. DaDaFest and the Bluecoat have both been covered on the site before in absolutely glowing terms. They themselves know this. If you’ve ever read the site, you’ll know this. This isn’t a piece about them, but the general art of curation and galleries.

  15. Even deaf folks would have been hard-pressed not to hear the WHOOSH! of the point of the article going right over Roger’s head. What a strange response.

  16. Roger Cliffe-Thompson

    You said,
    “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. ” Never heard of stage text?
    .. notice you havent said who your funders are! coward!

  17. Yes, Roger I have heard of stage text – that’s the text of the play, captioned or spoken for deaf or hard of hearing people. It’s not ‘this is what it means’ as I clearly implied in my piece – which everyone else but you seems to understand. Also, you might live in a world of funders, we pay for every penny of this site ourselves. Every. Penny. We don’t seek funding to speak freely, so please don’t try and threaten us.

  18. Roger – I can’t believe you’ve replied and your reply hasn’t been a sincere apology and a mea culpa.

    Be honest, you either didn’t read or you didn’t understand the article first off. You have fundamentally misunderstood what this article is about – and continuing to try to score cheap points and blather on about funders when you must realise you’ve made a crass and hurtful error is beyond belief.

  19. It’s got to be said…. As a commercial designer with a strong conceptual element to my work, I much like david enjoy a level of free expression in how I choose to present my thinking. I too pay for the design, development, production, promotion and “accessible” interpretation of my work as does sevenstreets. Having read Rogers responses here, I praise the lord that I chose to work my ass off to scrape every penny I can find to contribute to my business in order to remain independent of “funders”. I would rather be on the dole and freethinking with the aim of truly stimulating engagement within the realm of my capabilities and individual perspective than have to suppress the sharing of my ideas and opinions in fear of losing a financial crutch.

  20. Is it bad that I would LOVE to go and see a production of Hamlet where they trotted out explanations such as “He’s really fed up now, his uncle’s shagging his mum”?

    Am I a heathen? (Don’t answer that!)

    Dear Roger,

    You are a very silly, very rude person. You are also very, very wrong.

    On the subject of Shakespeare, I had an English teacher who gave us Macbeth to read as a GCSE text. She would talk to us about the text then set us essay questions. I would answer them based on how I interpreted the text, and she would fail me every time. Being an English nerd from an early age, this devastated me.

    My dad caught me crying one evening and asked why – I’d got an ‘ungraded – see me’ result on a mock GCSE paper that I’d worked ridiculously hard on. He arranged a meeting with the head of the English department and the teacher, who proceeded to tell my dad, and the head that I was “Somewhat of an enigma” and that my essays read as if I’d gone to her class, not listened to a word, then gone home and just written whatever i’d wanted.

    The head laughed, told me not to worry, that he would regrade me, took my paper and returned it to me the next day. He’d given me an A*, and as he returned my paper he said to me “The day we begin penalising our students for daring to have minds of their own is the day we should stop attempting to teach them…”

    The teacher was instructed to remark all the papers, and told to bear in mind that “If the student makes a relevant point, and backs it up with quotes from the text, then that student is correct, regardless of whether or not you agree with their opinion…”

    The moral of the story? Making up your own mind is the very essence of art interpretation. And missing that point gets you into trouble with the head of your department.

    And it’s fairly obvious from the absolute lack of pop ups, annoying ads, and videos that start ‘as if by magic’ that this site runs itself – and doesn’t do a bad job at all.

  21. Wavertree Warrior

    @Vicky – my sister did a Foundation Degree in Art and was constantly frustrated by lecturers and tutors who ‘taught’ the meaning of works of art, and refused to allow the students to share their own interpretations if they differed in any way.

    @Roger – I may disagree with what David wrote (I don’t) but I’ll fight for his right to say it if that’s his opinion. And if I were to disagree with something he’d written I’d put forward my alternate point of view in a measured way, without insulting him and without resorting to ugly threats. But then, I’m not you.

    And I actually read and understood the article.

  22. Is there some kind of award ‘Roger Cliffe-Thompson’ could win for spectacularly missing the point?
    If you’re reading Roger, have the good grace to admit you got it wrong.

    Also, is it ok to point out that Ilsa Parry is ace?

  23. I have worked in various forms of art, design and visual media for about 13 years now and have an art degree also. I therefore like to think I understand colour, form, line, structure etc. However I often find when I go to a gallery that I spend more time reading about art than actually seeing and appreciating it for myself. Despite my experience I often find that I’ve ‘got it wrong’ about what the artist is trying to say. I’m all for learning about techniques, materials used, historic context etc, but I would rather not be told what to see and understand. If its necessary to tell people what to see, then surely that renders the actual artwork itself unnecessary?
    However Dave, I think perhaps you should have provided an interpretation board next to this article as it seems Roger has completely missed the point you were making and responded in an incredibly ignorant and patronising way

  24. I have followed the conversation over the last few days with interest – as a provocation I think it is a good issue to raise.
    DaDaFest is aiming to promote art that can be debated and move issues on regarding disability and its place in the world. It does mean we are always challenging ourselves and seeking ways of linking with partners that can both sharpen and compromise our offer.
    It is so easy when you are responsible for an exhibition to get on the defensive in replying, which is why I wanted to sit back and see the comments unfold.
    Niet Normaal is a curated work and what is on show in the Bluecoat is only about 3rd of the original exhibition with some newly commissioned work from DaDaFest. We felt that the context needed to be explained as this is the first time we, as a disability arts company have collaborated on a work not birthed from within disability arts. This made us aware that we would be open to criticism from all sides and we strongly felt that we had to be clear about why we were doing this exhibition publicly.
    The interpretation panels were thoroughly considered: firstly we took the initial information from the original panels in the Netherlands, next we gained input from both Co-curators Ine Gevers and Garry Robson, and then went through the Bluecoat for final sign off. We worked to also make sure they could be accessible in its widest sense, as we always desire to encourage new audiences and want to ensure that as many needs as possible are met; therefore Subtitling, Plain English, Audio Description and large print are standard practices, which inevitably meant the panels would likely to be a little bit more prominent. With this is mind, the panels were also positioned as to not be too intrusive for most pieces, so any viewer would actively have to locate them. Also, it is always a choice for any viewer to read said panels.
    So the question is – did we get it wrong? We feel that we have done the best that we could and worked with all parties to ensure we reached a consensus, thinking at all times as to how we can help the viewer from as wide a perspective as possible.
    There are many people who have let us know that they appreciated the panel’s content as it gave them a context for the work and a reason as to why each work was featured in this particular exhibition.
    I wonder if any of the respondents have anything to say about the artwork on show? In our early days, it was always the ‘access’ to the work that took focus away from people actually experiencing the work [though I do need to say it was mainly from non-disabled people as they were not used to seeing work in this context – watching the Signers and not the actors etc] and we received complaints about the use of large print, subtitles, hearing loops [ which are my particular bug bear] and the art almost got over-looked…I am a bit concerned that this talk of the interpretation panels is doing the same thing!
    Our voice as disability arts promoters it is to make things accessible and creative at the same time – and it is a challenge for us all and we welcome thoughts about what has worked and what we can do better.
    PS – Audio Description is available in MP3 payers or downloadable from
    PPS now a plug – do come along to the Bluecoat next Friday 17/8 at 1.30pm – 4.30pm to debate Niet Normal with us and some of the artists.

  25. I might be slighlty biased as I volunteer at the Bluecoat, but I pretty much disagree with this article. When I go to an exhibition I like to have context and information regarding the artists intent with a piece of work. Specifically with Niet Normal there are certain snipits of information that are vital to have to understand the works in my opinion. Here’s a thought too, if you find you interpretation is completely at odds with the information your provided, maybe your just wrong? Yes art should stimulate thought and debate, but whats the use if those thoughts and debates are not inline with the artists original intentions?

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.