Perhaps you’re familiar with Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings, the ones that art critic Craig Brown (a contemporary of Pollock) called “decorative ‘wallpaper.‘” I understand the sentiment: after all, what makes a splattered canvas so noteworthy that one of Pollock’s paintings sold at auction ten years ago for $140 million, setting records at the time for the most expensive painting in the world? (Not to mention the recent scandals where even a fake Pollock painting can sell for 3.1 million dollars.)
The problem of interpretation has always been one of the primary discussions in contemporary and modern art, exemplified by Pollock’s abstract expressionist paintings. Those outside the art world wonder, what does it mean? And if meaning can’t be determined at a glance, is it really “art” at all?
Pollock himself responded to the issue of interpretation in a radio interview with William Wright in 1950 by saying,
“I think they [the public] should not look for, but look passively—and try to receive what the painting has to offer and not bring a subject matter or preconceived idea of what they are to be looking for… I think the unconsciousness drives do mean a lot in looking at paintings… I think it should be enjoyed just as music is enjoyed—after a while you may like it or you may not…at least give it a chance.
The Denver Art Museum’s recent effort at addressing this question of interpretation is noteworthy. Inspiration came from the Columbus Museum of Art’s exhibit Radical Camera, where one hundred fifty photographs captured events and people from underrepresented populations in New York City from the Great Depression through the Cold War. As the Columbus Alive article put it, “Images range from tenement dwellers and crime scenes to kids making games of sidewalk chalk drawings and pretend lynchings… [these photographs] possess the power to burn their way onto your irises.”
Due to such controversial subject matter, curators created a unique way for visitors to respond to the photographs, providing tags visitors could hang on a hook next to the photos. Tags were labeled with different words, such as injustice, anguish, fear, joy, and friendship. A visitor could also browse the tags that others had hung at each piece of art.
In an email, Danielle St. Peter, the Interpretive Specialist for Modern and Contemporary Art at the Denver Art Museum, described to me that she had wanted to implement a similar method for the current (and still ongoing) Audacious: Contemporary Artists Speak Out exhibition, as curators hope the exhibit will cultivate conversation amongst viewers.
St. Peter elaborates: “We were hopeful that visitors would recognize…multiple perspectives… and experience the exhibition as a safe space to explore and discuss difficult, emotionally charged issues that relate to our contemporary world.”
Case in point: Shirin Neshat’s photograph with calligraphy, Allegiance with Wakefulness, 1994. The shot is angled so that a pair of women’s feet dominate, while the out of focus frame of a woman in a burka sits behind them. Right in the center, held steady through the woman’s insteps, the figure points the barrel of rifle straight at the viewer. Calligraphy in thick, black ink covers each sole with the words of an Iranian woman poet.
Naturally, the work jolts the casual museumgoers: it’s not every day a gun points in our direction. However, the artist’s intention and history is opaque. A viewer would not know just from viewing the photo, for example, that Neshat herself is an Iranian expatriate in America, or that she feels unfamiliar with the Iranian revolution of 1979 because she started a new life in the United States before it began. A viewer would never have heard her motivations for exploring her subject matter: that she “found [women] to be the most potent subjects [to explore], in terms of how the social and political changes cause by the revolution affected their lives, how they embodied this new ideology, and how they were managing to survive the changes.”[i]
Neshat is aware that a portrait of a veiled Iranian could also reinforce Western stereotypes of women of the Middle East, a fact that caused controversy among Iranian viewers. But then again, the photo does something drastic to subvert the stereotype: the subject of Allegiance with Wakefulness, 1994, aims a weapon at eye-level. As critic Jonathan Goodman writes of this piece:
“The gun barrel pointing out between a pair of beautiful feet in Allegiance with Wakefulness, 1994, is a powerful corrective to the notion of Iranian women as passive beholders of political change. A poem is written on the soles [of the feet], an excerpt reads, ‘I pray for you guardian of the liberating Revlolution.’ The image makes an ambiguous statement, one calculated to disturb our presuppositions about [Neshat’s] stance. [ii]
The artist’s own ambivalence lends an openness to the “meaning” behind her art, inviting the viewer to engage the work with a similar openness. Depending on what part of the world a viewer calls home, or a viewer’s feelings about guns or the middle east or a woman’s role in society at large, a photograph like this could evoke the whole range of human emotions and interpretations.
Which makes it the perfect conversation starter. The question St. Peter asked herself was: how do we encourage viewers to give this work of art the time of day required to engage it thoughtfully?
As St. Peter put it,
“To me, [viewing contemporary art] is about spending time with an object. At the museum, we often see people stop for three seconds and move on, but art really demands more of your time. I think the trap [of] contemporary art…is that it doesn’t always have a recognizable subject matter that you can relate to or doesn’t look like it took a lot of artistic skill to make (some of the age-old criteria for appreciating art). Maybe it looks too simple, maybe it doesn’t look like art at all. Whatever the reason, if you find yourself not wanting to spend time with a work of art, that is exactly the work that you should be spending time with. As artist John Cage so aptly put [it], ‘If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then try it for eight, sixteen, thirty-two and so on. Eventually one discovers that it’s not that boring at all.’
With the Columbus Museum of Art’s interpretive activity in mind, she and the DAM’s graphic designer (Matt Rue of McGinty Co.) came up with their own version: dropping colored acrylic cubes into test tubes beside the artwork.
They introduced the activity to visitors with a display that explained,
“The artworks in Audacious deal with emotionally charged issues. We invite you to share how the work makes you feel. Here’s how: 1) Each of the colored blocks represents an emotion. Select a few to take with you through the exhibition. 2) When you see an artwork with a test tube, drop in the color block that best represents how the work makes you feel. 3) Look at how others have responded. Does seeing this alter your perspective?
The cubes were either blue or pink, ranging in shade from light to dark, and each signified a different emotion: either empathetic (royal blue), optimistic (teal), empowered (light blue), hopeless (magenta), angry (pink), or confused (light pink).
And just like that, viewers were handed a framework for interpretation: start with your own emotion. Then examine another’s emotion, as displayed in the test tube. Ask yourself, why might someone else see this differently?
I myself participated, a handful of plastic beads clutched in my palm as I walked from piece to piece, drawn to spend more time at the artworks where clear test tubes had been fastened to the wall beside the work. (Initially, only 9 works of art had accompanying test tubes; but within three weeks of the exhibit’s opening, the museum staff added more). It felt like a game. I had permission to decide what each piece meant; the power of meaning-making had flipped from artist to viewer.
St. Peter agrees:
“By choosing both positive and negative reactions for the cubes, we are giving visitors permission to feel confused or angry about what they are seeing. I sometimes worry that visitors think they need to like everything that we install in the galleries, that they have to ‘get it.’ That certainly is not the case. Some of my [own] most powerful art experiences have been with objects or installations that I didn’t understand at first, or ones that made me angry.
Their hunch has paid off: the public has loved this game of interpretation. While DAM has not performed a formal study, visitors enthusiastically shared photos of the activity on social media and requested that more test tubes be placed by certain art works. And in the interim, before more test tubes were placed, museumgoers were so eager to share their responses they stacked cubes on the floor, below the installations without test tubes.
The gallery hosts also had stories to share, like the story relayed to St. Peter about the group of middle schoolers on a class field trip who viewed Marc Quinn’s Jamie Gillespie, 1999, a marble Greek-style sculpture of an amputee. The sculpture made the students “angry” (pink cube), but their gallery host asked them to look closely: how had others responded to this piece?
The test tube rattled with teal and light blue cubes (“optimistic” and “empowered”). The students felt perplexed—hadn’t a terrible thing happened to this man with one leg? Their gallery host facilitated a discussion with the students then and there, reminding them to read the placard nearby, which described how the man had participated in the Paralympic Games. This figure, even though he was missing a limb, represented an athlete at the height of his physical abilities.
Those walking the halls beside us usually remain anonymous, and their differing perspectives stay private; but here, a different read became obvious, impossible to ignore. Perhaps a test tube full of acrylic beads provides an anathema to the casual or even dismissive art viewing culture that Pollock responded to over 60 years ago, a culture that still persists today—maybe it can teach us to give the art a chance.
[i] Quotations taken from “After-Images of a Revolution,” by Dr. Negar Mottahedeh, written in 2003, from Iran Chamber Society: http://www.iranchamber.com/cinema/articles/after_images_revolution.php