By Imi Marchant
Whenever I go to an exhibition, I always find myself wondering why a particular piece has been put in a specific place. Take the position of Whistlejacket at the George Stubbs exhibition, currently in Milton Keynes. It is placed at the end of a long corridor, easily visible the second you turn into the exhibition. It demands attention and draws you to it through its placement and its magnitude.
Part of this is of course due to the painting’s size and splendour. This enormous portrait of a famous racehorse demands a stage. But even within this exhibition of the works of an indisputably talented artist, a qualitative ranking is implied just by placing some works at a more appealing eye level than others.
It demands attention and draws you to it
By prioritising one piece over another, the curator is essentially saying, “look over here. This one is better.” With control of the layout of the space and distribution of the art, they have the biggest part to play in shaping other people’s perceptions of the quality of a work; often just by putting it in a certain place on the wall.
This was particularly interesting when I visited Adelaide. At the National Gallery of South Australia, there are entire rooms full of art linked only by their creation by Australian artists. I noticed that works, usually by white, straight men – all very well-done pieces, but the point stands – were positioned at eye level, in central positions on the wall, in places where your eye is immediately drawn.
For instance, James Ashton’s The Moon Enchanted Sea was immediately visible. However, Clarice Beckett’s Nocturne, a seascape in a similar style and colour palette, was squirreled away in a corner. I had to look pretty hard to even find her name. Once I noticed this, I couldn’t stop. There seemed to be an overwhelming majority of male artists, far easier to access from wherever I was standing than that of any women.
Then, the kicker, aboriginal art was in a separate room. Further away from the entrance, slightly harder to find. More beautiful and interesting, in my opinion. More politically charged, certainly.
I’m not implying that these were sexist, racist or homophobic decisions. But it does seem that there’s an inbuilt structure prioritising the work of dead white men over that of living women or people of colour, reinforced at ground level by this tendency to put the former in more accessible places.
It’s a vicious cycle. We see the work of these people in pride of place and hence we assume that it’s the epitome of ‘good art’. And so, we continue putting it where it can be easily seen in other galleries. This is most clearly seen in the fact that it is still regarded as a ‘breakthrough’ to have an exhibition solely focused on a living, female artist of colour in a major gallery.
It’s a vicious cycle
However, there is progress being made. The current exhibition of Nam June Paik’s work at the Tate Modern is brilliant. Not because it focuses on his work through the lens of race or immigration, but because it specifically stresses from the beginning that “to try and split his work into ‘German’, ‘Korean’ or ‘American’ influences is futile”. Maybe we could all be helped by seeing artists as people first and art as a product second – continually reassessing what we regard as ‘good art’ and why.