Monday, April 18, 2011

Review: GoMA

While I was in Brisbane last week, I was surprised to learn that I was sharing a city with Australia's most visited museum in 2010: the Queensland Art Gallery & Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA), twin museums which together drew crowds of some 1.8 million visitors last year.

Once I found that out, I had to drop by and see what all the fuss was about. GoMA in particular came highly recommended, with its 21st Century: Art in the First Decade Exhibition which dominated the museum's three (I think!) vast levels.

Rather than give a comprehensive review of such an exhibition (when others can do it far better than me), I thought I'd just take the chance to share some images and general observations.

View of the entrance lobby: the space immediately opens up across multiple storeys, feeling bright and open but also dramatic. The display on the right hand side is a wallpaper made up of NASDAQ figures, and is part of a piece making commentary about the Global Financial Crisis. Beyond are twin slides - and you ask yourself: could I really ride these?? This is an art gallery here!! (You can; but I didn't)

First off, the fact that I can share images at all is probably worthy of a comment in itself: art galleries in particular are often loath to allow photography (usually for copyright or conservation reasons). This might be understandable, but also confers a type of 'hands-off' reverence to the experience.

As a society, I think we're becoming more accustomed to documenting and sharing our experiences through photos via social media and other networks; this ability to share becomes often becomes an integral part of the experience itself. I wonder if this relatively permissive attitude to photography is a contributing factor to making the museum feel more open and welcoming, and consequently appealing to a different type of audience (I think I saw more teenagers in the space of one afternoon than I've seen in all my other previous art gallery visits put together - and no they didn't look like a school group).

Teenage girls at a display which allowed visitors to apply bindis to themselves

Another thing which was unusual in the context of an art gallery: queues. While queues to enter a whole exhibition are common enough, these were queues to see particular exhibits or take part in certain experiences which were only available to small groups of visitors at a time.

I'm usually a studious avoider of queues - probably a sign of an impatient temperament - but since I was on no fixed timetable and was feeling perfectly content to happily wander and lose myself amongst the displays, I did something I almost NEVER do: join a queue when I don't know what it's for:

Almost alone in the centre of a large gallery, the brilliantly lit spheres are surrounding a reflective black box that is almost lost in the darkened room; it makes a kind of infinity mirror for the spheres surrounding it. Notice the queue lining the far wall.

The queue was to enter the box in the middle of the room (4 at a time) which closed and surrounded you in a reflective UV space:

The view from inside the box: the floor is a small peninsula surrounded by a layer of water. The UV reflective (ping pong?) balls are suspended by fishing wire.

This was just one of several immersive exhibits, for instance the 'swimming pool' which was more than it first seemed:

School children at the bottom of the pool. . . .?

The view from the other side: the water is only an inch or two deep and the rest of the pool is accessed by an almost secretive rear entrance.

As well as the room filled with balloons:

The Balloon Room, or to give it its proper name: Work No. 965: Half the air in a given space (purple) by Martin Creed

This one in particular got me thinking about the blurred boundaries between interactive science and interactive art (in many cases, it's all in the interpretation). I happened to overhear a young girl say as she left the room: "you could really feel the static electricity in there", thus spontaneously articulating something which science-based balloon shows have long demonstrated (and may she's seen that before and made the connection?)

Overall, these exhibits created a sense of fun and delight which you seldom see in the hallowed ground of the art gallery, and in some ways reminded me of the spirit of the science centre. This creates its own challenges - art isn't made to be bulletproof the same way interactive exhibits are - as was demonstrated by this exhibt made from plastic bags, and which school children couldn't resist getting under:

The school children loved getting under this installation and pretend to be holding it up while one of their friends took a photograph

But this was one of the few exhibits I saw which was keeping the security guards busy as they tried to direct the enthusiasm of the school kids into non-destructive outlets.

Not all exhibits allowed photography, but I'll mention just one of these: From here to ear by Celeste Boursier-Mougenot. This installation contained a couple of dozen live finches in a room which incorporated a series of perch structures made from wood, coathangers, harpsichord strings and a sound system. It's a bit hard to describe but here's the label which was at the entry to the exhibit:

And that label leads me to my final observation: the technology side of things. The whole museum had free wi-fi access and several exhibits were accompanied by QR codes (like the example above) which allowed you to access podcasts and short movies about particular works. Before this exhibition, I'd never actually got around to experimenting with QR codes. But thanks to the available wi-fi, I managed to download a QR reading app and found it very easy to use. This options also gives you the opportunity to save materials on your phone for future reference.

The 21st Century: Art in the First Decade exhibition closes on April 26. While I wasn't sure which exhibits were part of that particular exhibition and which might be there on a more permanent basis, I'll definitely want to visit GoMA again for a second look next time I'm in Brisbane.

(This review was originally posted on Regan Forrest's blog on April 9:

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Crossing over into commercial exhibitions

An article in The Age on 5 April 2010, Big Bucks and the Boy King,  looks at the trend towards mega-blockbusters and raises some interesting questions.

The article is framed around the Tutankhamun exhibition that will open at the Melbourne Museum on Friday.

Image from a Tutankamon exhibition in Spain

The article points to recent exhibitions such as Salvidor Dali, Titanic, Masterpieces from Musee D'orsey, and Pompeii to reflect on a trend towards mega-blockbusters.

Naturally, the article raises the quantity versus quality topic, with questions about the quality of the viewing experience in exhibitions that are very busy. I think that this is not a major issue when  museums/galleries are careful to limit the number of people in the exhibition at any time. The similar inconvenience of long queues can be addressed by time-based ticketing.

Part of the article supports the 'small is good' cause by profiling some small-scale experiences in both galleries and performing arts. Of course, this doesn't deny that big can be fabulous too.

Another concern is that several of these mega-exhibitions have been toured by commercial enterprises without roots in the museum industry. Some appear to have a life of their own as touring museums. The artefacts in Titanic: The Artefact Exhibition, have never been in a museum and the exhibition is likely to tour for years. The road it its home and the host museum is just a venue. Naturally, this rubs a bit on local professionals who look for opportunities to shape and research their own exhibitions.

I was particularly interested to see the article refer to a seminar presented last November at Deakin University titled ''More than people through the door: Engaging audiences'' where Professor Jennifer Radbourne, dean of the faculty of arts and education, noted in her introduction that ''the artistic directors and general managers we have spoken to know a lot about their audience demographics - the gender, age, postcode, other subscriber habits of the people who attend their shows - but strangely little about what they are getting out of the experience.''

I was pleased to think of the various research projects I have been involved in where we have spent time understanding what people are getting out of the experience of visiting an exhibition. Still, it is true that keeping the full richness of the visitor experience at the centre of exhibition planning is quite a challenge.

It would be good to hear from those of you at Melbourne Museum on the topics raised in The Age. I'm sure you have some interesting perspectives!

Posted by Gillian Savage