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Being Vicarious in Art Spaces
Anne Imhof, “Faust” (360 degree video still by Scenic, as seen on Youtube), 2017
It is a sunny weekend afternoon, and I am sitting on a couch with my phone, watching a video with a 360 panoramic view of a piece of performance art, “Faust,” by Anne Imhof. The phone is in my lap, while I have a cup of coffee in my hand. Over the course of ten minutes, the camera slowly enters into a large building and moves from room to room. “Faust” is a open-ended performance spread over the space of the entire German pavilion in this year’s Venice Biennale. The cameraman is on his feet and walking while I sit. I hear the sound of wind blowing through Venetian trees on the phone while I also hear the sound of air conditioning in my living room. I can rotate the camera and see not just the many spry performers in “Faust,” but also the many other viewers in the pavilion, while I sit alone. These viewers also seem to be taking video with their phones. I sometimes get distracted from the performance and instead start to look at the shoes of the viewers, or try to eavesdrop on what they are saying to each other. It is as if I were really there, doing all the mundane things one does when visiting a gallery beyond looking strictly at the art.
But I was not there. I will miss the Venice Biennale this year, if for no other reason than it is far away from DC and I have classes to teach. The internet is really good for bridging distance, and increasingly good at fostering a sense of vicarious travel. In the increasingly distant past, one might expect to see a photo or two of individual artworks or of a crowded room during the opening reception put in press publication. Now, it is not unusual for there to be shows where most visitors take a few photos and put them online. If you are following the right accounts, you might end up seeing dozens or more photos of the same show, at different times and points of view. Each additional photo fosters a level of familiarity with the artwork, the space, and even the specific people.
This vicarious feeling reminds me of what it is like to visit iconic world landmarks, like Times Square. The expectation of what these places are like is tempered by the many times we have seen it in mass media. For those that never visit, the image is the stand-in for the direct experience. If we do go, our experience is still significantly mediated by these images. When you finally do visit Times Square for the first time, the experience is not truly fresh, but a back-and-forth between the photos and the direct experience of being there. The smell of the air will be new and unexpected, as will the small details, even as something iconic on the macro-scale seems congruent.
I want to give a few recent examples of vicarious experiences in the art world. Several painters I know, Becca Kallem, Erin Murray, Kathi Smith, and Gretchen Whitney, were all on the small island of Monhegan, Maine for a residency in plein air painting. Each day, I saw photos of them in the landscape with their easels. After a few photographs by different artists of the exact same rock outcropping with identical cloud formations in the sky, I figured out more or less where their easels were in relation to each other. If plein air painting in general is about making the viewer feel like they are vicariously there, these photos had a way of making me feel like I was vicariously in their company. Before these photographs, it had not even occurred to me that they would have known each other.
Another example would be Jenny Walton’s recent show, “In the Space of a Day,” at the DCAC gallery was well-documented by the artist in photo and video over the course of the exhibit. The show was primarily large-scale watercolor paintings that ran three walls gallery and billowed under the AC vents. While the painting was a work in progress, Walton continuously posted close-up photographs of the project. By coincidence, I visited her studio the very day that she finished the paintings, but she had already packed the work up in boxes for transport, so I never saw it in person. As I was unable to make it to DCAC before the show closed, my entire experience of the show came from the viewing of the work online.
The Brancacci Chapel (photograph by Kristen Peyton, as seen on Instagram), 2017
Further away from D.C., the painter Kristen Peyton, in Italy on a residency, posted several photographs of the Brancacci Chapel, the site of some very important Masaccio paintings. I remember visiting the chapel in 2009 and drawing studies. At the time, I believe photography inside this chapel was prohibited and finding good photographs of the entire chapel would have required buying a book. Clearly, the internet has really changed things since 2009. I wonder, how long will it be before every Renaissance fresco, no matter how obscure, will be available online? Has it happened already? Even a decade ago, this question would not have even been asked, as so many of the churches and galleries were quite strict about prohibiting photography.
Adriel Luis, a curator at the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center, was someone I had briefly met at a gallery reception and started following on social media. He helped create and document online the culture lab, ‘Ae Kai. In something increasingly common among those who work in museums and galleries, I was able to see the exhibition from installation to de-installation, which was all the more interesting, as the space was a converted food supermarket, rather than a normal gallery space. The larger-than-life hula dancer (“Dashboard Hula Girl Remix’) by Robin Lasser and Adrienne Pao looked amazing in the center of the once Foodland store. Just like in “Faust,” part of the fun of looking at the videos was seeing the dwarfed visitors reacting to the piece. He told me that many of those who came to ‘Ae Kai were not in the habit of visiting art spaces or thinking of Hawaiian culture in the context of fine art. Also, Luis is very aware that ‘Ae Kai has both an in-person and online audience, and wants to make sure the experiences are related but not identical. Unlike the Venice Biennale, an institution that has slowly grown into its virtual existence, these newer art venues are right from the start very aware of the existence of this dual viewership.
Robin Lasser and Adrienne Pao, “Dashboard Hula Girl Remix” (video still by Adriel Luis, as seen on Instagram), 2017
These mediated views from social media have made me feel like I was there for these exhibitions in town and far away, as well as at artist residencies. It is like vicariously going to Times Square without ever actually going; I am likely missing something vital, but may not be aware of it. This level of familiarity is now strong enough that I sometimes have to think twice to remember if I really went to a show or merely saw it online. It is easy to remember I missed ‘Ae Kai as I have never been to Hawaii, but there are plenty of shows in DC that I missed in venues that I visit often. This fuzzy recall is not an issue when the only photographs I encounter are the postcard for the show or a press photo in the newspaper. Seeing the photographs on social media again and again fosters an illusion of closeness that is not really there.
As far back as 2013, I had a conversation with another painter lamenting how we see more art in photoreproduction than in person (“Painting in the Age of Digital Reproduction”). What has changed in the last few years is the degree to which not only is the viewing of the artwork increasingly virtual, but even the experience of going to a gallery or museum. This push to go virtual is at this point more or less embraced by art institutions, with staff that now specialize on social media presence as well as apps for phones that do anything from audio tours to even virtual reality versions of entire exhibitions (see the Renwick’s “Wonder 360”).
I still try to make a point of going to art museums with sketchbook and pencil, and I have taken to heart a quote I attribute to the painter Graham Nickson: “You cannot see another person’s painting unless you draw it yourself.” The people that are in the gallery with me always seem to pass through the works too fast, but again, I am the one who brought a sketchbook to draw. The only people who really bother me are the ones that block my view so that they can take a photograph of the work, often spending more time taking the photograph than actually looking at the work. Ironically, I can only image that they will likely post that image online and that that photograph will contribute to a vicarious viewing for unknown numbers of people who live too far aware or do not have the time to make the visit themselves. The virtual world of art is still highly dependent on physical works and spaces on a fundamental level, but the way we reach the art continues to be less and less direct and more through these layers of mediation.
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