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What not to do at a phenomenological art installation

[CURMUDGEON WARNING: This is going to be an angry, misanthropic post. I try to be optimistic and share the positive, but all my efforts yesterday could not save my experience at James Turrell’s exhibition at the Guggenheim from being marred by other viewers.

Turrell is one of my favorite artists. He creates spaces for one-of-a-kind perceptual experiences and transcendence. I went to his exhibition to restore my faith in why I make art, to be freed from mundane constraints; so I cleared my schedule on a weekday morning to avoid crowds, and I cleared my head to be receptive. When I got there, I tried to block out other viewers’ inane conversations (first mentally and then physically by plugging my ears) and ignore their persistent, distracting photo-taking and mobile device addictions. I even conducted positive self-talk about personal boundaries and controlling my psychic energy(1). But it was all for nought. Having enough physical and psychic space to appreciate Turrell’s subtle installations was impossible.

As an artist, I need viewers. But as a viewer, especially for phenomenological installations like Turrell’s, I could do without 90% of them. I know most viewers have good intentions and, by dint of being at the museum, want to appreciate art, however, I could not help but feel how selfish and self-sabotaging many viewers were at the Guggenheim yesterday. What follows is ranting and conservative—for the positive, come back another time.]



What not to do at a phenomenological art installation:

  • Take pictures when photography is explicitly forbidden. It’s disrespectful to the artist and the institution. If those entities seem too abstract to you, at least use your self-control to not disregard and thereby disrespect the guards as fellow human beings. They didn’t make the rules but they bear the brunt of enforcing them, thousands of times a day, week after week, when the rules are clearly stated.(2) While many institutions allow picture taking, it’s a privilege, not a right. Furthermore, picture-taking forces guards to verbally enforce the rules, which further distracts other viewers from the art.
  • Take pictures when photography is explicitly forbidden and the host institution has posted plentiful pictures on their website. It’s especially selfish and pointless.
  • Take pictures or use a mobile device when viewing a finely-calibrated light installation that utilizes the entire space. You are inside the artwork. Just as you wouldn’t add paint to a painting, do not add your screen’s light to a light installation.
  • Take pictures of a phenomenological, durational exhibition, whose very intention is for viewers to be present, slow down, quiet the mind, and free oneself from contemporary distractions.(3)
  • Make shadow puppets, or let your children make shadow puppets, in the light installations. There are endless places to play with shadows in the world, but only a handful in which to view a Turrell installation. Behave yourself for the same reasons that you wouldn’t climb on a marble statue at the Met.
  • Take one of the highly coveted seats inside the installation to read a newspaper or use your mobile device. If it’s an emergency and you must use your device, excuse yourself to a lobby or hallway. If it’s not, stop sabotaging your own experiences and be present! Further, to pass your time not engaging the artwork is especially inconsiderate when there are over a hundred people waiting in line outside due to the installation’s limited capacity.
  • Start up a conversation about how too many people are talking to fully experience the installation, and carry it on, contributing to the problem.

1. From Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow:

A memo on my desk with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's advice for creating flow experiences: The quality of consciousness determines the quality of life. Purposeful action leads to enjoyment. Erect barriers against distractions. Dig channels so energy can flow. Do not let chance or external routine dictate what we do. Source: Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow (2008).

A memo on my desk with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s advice for creating flow experiences: The quality of consciousness determines the quality of life. Purposeful action leads to enjoyment. Erect barriers against distractions. Dig channels so energy can flow. Do not let chance or external routine dictate what we do. Source: Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow (2008).

2. I probably saw over a hundred people taking pictures in the hour or so I was in Aten Reign, Turrell’s once-in-a-lifetime, site-specific installation in the Guggenheim’s iconic rotunda. Visitors blatantly felt that they did not have to follow the no-pictures rule—that their need to take a photo surpassed any of the artist or institution’s logic or any basic respect of the guard as a human being just doing his job.

This is how bias works: People understand that bias exists—but we believe that only other people are biased, whereas we think that we see things as they really are. The flaw, of course, is that if everyone else is biased, no one, including ourselves, is unbiased. In fact, we are all biased. (See Jonathan Haidt, The Happiness Hypothesis (2006).)

No photography means no photography. It doesn’t mean that other people can’t take photos.

3. Louis CK takes down mobile phone addictions beautifully on Conan: put down the device, be present, experience art, and let yourself experience real emotions.

Addictions erode self-control and the incredibly important characteristic of being able to delay gratification. The very definition of addiction is when people continue an automatic behavior out of desire, even as pleasure diminishes (see Paul Martin, Sex, Drugs and Chocolate: The Science of Pleasure). If feeding the addiction leads to selfish and self-sabotaging behaviors, self-regulation is in order. There’s a profound difference, anyway, between fleeting pleasures and lasting enjoyment.

Christine Wong Yap, Positive Sign #49 (Pleasure and enjoyment), 2011; glitter and neon pen on gridded vellum; 8.5 × 11 in./21.5 × 28 cm.

Christine Wong Yap, Positive Sign #49 (Pleasure and enjoyment), 2011; glitter and neon pen on gridded vellum; 8.5 × 11 in./21.5 × 28 cm.

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One thought on “What not to do at a phenomenological art installation

  1. I totally agree with the reasonable rant above. It does take a refocusing of the senses to experience and receive the full impact Turrell’s art.

    I could not help thinking however, that the art world has consciously engendered a post pop participatory invitation to museum goers. Have a good time. We want you in the space. The truth is that a good deal of art today has crossed a line to merge with entertainment. It begs for a Disney type response. I’m not being critical of this. It’s just what it is. When an installation such as Turrell’s comes along, can’t or won’t clear their senses for such an experience. Ironically, many galleries have become the new temples of contemplation, partially due to the diminishing number of people who visit them.

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