Packing them in, what I learned from the most popular art show I've ever seen

Fresh from holding the 'most popular' solo exhibition art The Bowes Museum, since their blockbusting Cornish retrospective, I was keen to learn more so I went to Paris


I'll get to the point - because that's the point of this blog. I hate complex art shows


Not complex ideas you understand, for an idea to be worth passing on it really ought to be well considered, useful and ideally universal - but it really hacks me off when a lack of depth is dressed up in convoluted, torturous and pseudo philosophical art speak.


Have you noticed how you suddenly notice 'more' of something when that something is already on your mind? It's a well known principle in advertising that if somebody is considering replacing a car (for instance) they will suddenly notice - and take notice - of car adverts.


I wonder if gallerists and curators really could learn from this , by putting on shows which mirror what people are interested in, so after my show at The Bowes Museum I became much more aware of how venues were - or were not making engagement and comprehension easy.


This all came to a head on a recent visit to Paris , where I was fortune enough to see perfect examples of good and bad practice.


How to bury a great idea - the art of saying nothing


The Palais de Tokyo, Paris' 'anti gallery' according to the curators.

First the bad practice - and please bear with me here if your aesthetic tastes are refined by an M. A or three in philosophy. I visited the Palais de Tokyo to take in some more cutting edge stuff, its always a great barometer with lots of bright young things doing interesting art.


If you don't know the place, its a monolithic Neo Facist building very much in the style favoured by mid 20th century dictators - oversized doorways, cavernous halls - the whole nine yards; a visually powerful venue ideal for big art.


The whole place is so big that the city have permanent stuff in one half, Derain, Matisse, Bonnard and all that, whilst the other is a changing program of contemporary works completes the experience - it's a bit like the Tate Modern and The Baltic sewn together.


As far as the established paintings go -its a challenging venue, with the caveat that once you get past the 5 metre square Orphist works of Delauney and the installations of Matisse and Dufy, one can't shake of the feeling that the venue is diminishing the smaller works - its just a visually powerful space. I'll write a blog about the aesthetically balanced setting of the Musse Rodin and Marmotan another day...


In the cutting edge side of the venue were ambitious, varied and visually arresting works from artists all over the world who, it seems to me, had done their collective level best to make sure that none of the visitors could fully comprehend what they had done, why they had done it, much less have a clue as to how the artists wanted them to reflect on the experience of taking the trouble to visit their work.


Endless grand halls were filled with giant reclaimed felt installations, macramé tents filled with soil, dark subterranean spaces with gilded sculptures, a greenhouse with sculpted plants and darkened room after darkened room with ubiquitous video installations.


One of the exhibits singled out for an award


The themes were big, climate change (of course), human trafficking, white colonialism, unfettered capitalism, mindfulness and that post pandemic sense of dislocation.


It seems to me that as these topics are of concern to everybody, the first duty of any visual artist when dealing with them is to make their work relatable and explicable, and relevant by powerfully addressing everybody.

There really could not be better topics for a public show in a public gallery, yet the public were clearly unengaged, because the presentation screamed this is about you, but not for you . To be fair the gallery describes itself as an 'anti gallery', so exclusion might well be its raison d'être.


Now I'm all for ambiguity and letting the public make up their individual and collective mind about work - but assuming you're not working for an 'anti gallery', there has to be a better way.


For the record, I'm open to the idea that it wasn't aimed at me, and perhaps the artists were placing work there for that elusive liberal educated elite that the right wing press so detests, but if that is the case and that elite exists , then why not also do what good liberal elite politicians do, and simplify complex ideas without making them simplistic. Being understood is always good, unless of course you feel you have nothing relevant to add, but this work was relevant.


In fact it's hard to think of a more universally relevant set of works which have succeeded so comprehensively in being universally unintelligible to the very public who they must directly speak to, if the artist's intention to effect change is sincere.


I left with the impression that while the artist's desire to effect change was sincere, it was limited to a sincere wish to impress curators and other artists with virtue signalling 'on topic' work. I don't necessarily blame artists for sincerely focusing on self promotion, but I do blame the curators for letting them get away with not thinking about their wider audience.


If visual art is to be relevant to anybody beyond those who make it and commission it, then we need to do a better job of getting people in, and making their visit relevant, which brings me on to my second visit where this went absolutely right before going utterly sideways.


Light but no illumination


The next day I dropped into one of Paris' most popular 'art galleries' the 'Atelier of Light' - an old foundry well outside of the tourist gallery which line the river.


400,000 visitors in the first three months. Paying visitors.


My interest was purely that I'd used animation and projection in my last show, and I wanted to see it done properly as opposed to on my shoestring budget for The Bowes Museum.


I'm not easily impressed , but it was astonishing - absolutely, utterly, wide eyed , astonishing.

Not the gallery - that's an old foundry, not the work - that's just rehashed Cezanne et al, not the animation even - but the audience and the audience engagement.


The public were there - and they were enthusiastically present, all ages, all genders , people of every type and from every cultural heritage. If I were a curator or a public gallerist and I'd have visited this venue, then I'd be one hundred percent interested in how they are making art popular and accessible and I think I know the answer.


While the Palais de Tokyo show screamed 'this is about you, not for you', the Atelier of Light was clearly, obviously, explicitly and triumphantly, 'for you.'


After an hour of enjoying the most accessible gallery experience, it became increasingly clear however that this was a 'gallery' with no content, no relevant message and no call to action. The experience was a experiential triumph which was psychologically unsatisfying. If art could be soap opera or fast food this was it, instant gratification for everybody without being life enhancing or fulfilling in any way.


And that, to bring this blog to a conclusion is both the problem and the opportunity. We have to simply find a way to create shows which are both for you and about you.


For this very reason I made my recent show Regeneration explicable to a broad audience , in fact the text I wrote for its most psychologically deep work 'Lethe', rated as easy on a text complexity checker, not because the idea behind it was facile but because I'd bothered to make it accessible.


Simple is not the same as facile

The result? Overwhelming engagement, multiple visits and visitor recommendations that were off the chart.


Communication might sound peripheral to the serious business of making or curating art, but unless artists and curators stop indulging in closed conversations about their careers and take art as a public vehicle for change seriously, public buy in isn't going to happen.


So come on, if you want to make a show about climate change, white privilege, rampant capitalism or the horrors of exploitation, then count the public in; its their world view you're trying to change.


The Lethe Triptych at The Bowes Museum a picture about how our heritage determines whom we can become





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