Part 2: Writing on Water

The Museum on My Mind

Part 2: Writing on Water

By Rob Marks September 11, 2013

Wall labels. Curatorial text. Provenance. Titles (or un-titles, as the case may be). At what point do the words surrounding an artwork serve the work, and at what point do they disrupt it? In terms of the museum, specifically, when do explanatory labels benefit museum-goers, and when do they detract from an individual’s experience? Rob Marks' "The Museum On My Mind" is a meditation on the role of museum commentary and what it means to “know” a piece of art.


Art Practical is pleased to present the second in a series of articles originally published by our partner Daily Serving,“The Museum on My Mind,” by Rob Marks and adapted for this issue. Subsequent installments will appear in future issues, and you can read the whole series here.         

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Might museums resist the impulse...to rush the visitor toward that moment of knowing?

Knowing is, in some ways, the destruction of what lies outside of what is known. When I feel I know something, it is because my mind has eliminated alternative interpretations of that something. The danger of museum exhibition commentary is that it creates a domain of knowledge that precedes and limits the experience that follows. After reading a wall text, I face the risk that my experience of an exhibition or artwork will unwittingly take this interpretation not only as a starting point but also as a boundary. If “art is primarily about…the heightening and transformation of our perceptions,” as John Cage proposes, a boundary, even when it encapsulates insight, threatens to limit the whole enterprise.1 It’s not, however, that I can simply not know. Knowing comes unbidden, manifesting when diverse experiences—feelings and thoughts—coalesce to form a meaningful entity. But might museums resist the impulse to frontload experience, to rush the visitor—via commentary—toward that moment of knowing?

Cage was famous for using chance operations to compose both musical scores and visual art, and his goal was not to manifest a “gratuitous” randomness, but to put “the intention of the mind…out of operation.” For Cage, non-intention differed from being unintentional: “If you work with chance operations, you’re basically shifting—from the responsibility to choose…to the responsibility to ask.” Cage was influenced by the “whispered truths,” of Tibetan Buddhism, including one tenet that proper action does not leave traces; as he notes,“[Y]our action should be as though you were writing on water…In other words, not to make an impression.” Though the principles are simple, they signal the fundamental endlessness, evanescence, and wholeness that we camouflage with our attempts to limit, preserve, and distinguish experience—that is, with our attempts to prematurely “know” them.

Writing on water, an activity that is visible but whose product is not, suggests an almost imperceptible method of exhibition commentary. As it accompanies a visitor through the exhibition, it disappears almost immediately—as if it never happened. If afterward, the personal revelations of a visitor’s experience obscure the memory of the commentary, this writing on water will have achieved its goal of supporting rather than preceding and determining the nature of the visitor’s experience.

Rolywholyover A Circus; installation view, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles at California Plaza, Los Angeles, September 12-November 28, 1993. Courtesy of MOCA.

The Spirits That Lend Strength Are Invisible

Walking through the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, I come upon Sigmar Polke’s 1988 painting, The Spirits That Lend Strength Are Invisible III (Nickel/Neusilber). In my mind I see an image, but it’s really a feeling and it’s really in my gut: the expansion of the painting beyond its boundaries. Standing outside of it, I feel suddenly upon it, inside it, and traveling through it. All of this happens before I encounter the painting’s label.

The label tells me what I might expect to discover in the artwork: Polke’s painting is a homage to American Indian culture, evoking a sense of support and unknowableness, or as Polke puts it “strength” and “invisibility,” honored in its source proverb. The label also tells me that the image is changeable—its chemical process evolving—and therefore, time-altering. The language is clear and gentle, but would I have felt as transported if I had read the label first?2 The label’s text risks displacing—or, worse, standing in for—my experience, although, is it ever possible to manifest the experience of art from the words that describe it? This is how the modern art museum has taught visitors to view art: to frame experience with interpretation. Yet, if a large part of what a person knows derives from the gifts of knowledgeable others, the part most likely to stick comes from—to paraphrase Cage—the questions that each of us asks during an entirely personal quest and the answers each discovers during that quest.3

Caring as Seeing

The philosopher Martin Heidegger used the word care to signify, among other things, the attention that a person gives to the world. To care means that a phenomenon has come into consciousness and to not care means that the phenomenon, as material as may be, is as good as imperceptible. Of the hundreds of perceptible objects that exist on a street as I walk or in a room as I enter, I care about only the ones that my circumstance, desire, and intention conspire to reveal to me. Do labels—like the one adorning Polke’s Spirits or, nearby, chaperoning Julie Mehretu’s Stadia I (2004)—risk making me care about, literally see, the language more than the object? Or, at least, do they risk making me perceive the curator’s conception of the object rather than my own?

Mehretu’s Stadia I—with its shifts in scale and frenzy of stretching triangles and whipping curves—leaves me breathless. In the label’s text, Mehretu asserts that the painting reflects both the “nationalist reactionary energy” and “corporate language” of the stadium ecosystem. Indeed, the energy of the piece demonstrates the power of the stadium’s games to inhabit me, to make me part of the nationalist, corporate culture at which Mehretu takes aim. It is possible, however, to read Mehretu’s work without understanding these associations, to see it simply as an expression of dynamism. Does the label act to correct my experience—establishing the artist as the authority on her work—or does it set up a dissonance between the artwork and me? Does it cause me to abandon the work or to engage in a dialogue with the label rather than the painting? The artist knows the work better than I, as Mehretu’s label implies, but only if you believe Stadia I is merely an illustration of Mehretu’s intention or the curator’s interpretation. But if the work occupies its own center—to use Cage’s word when he describes the relationship between illustration and accompaniment—the label’s narrative is best deployed at a distance from the work, so that I might still benefit from Mehretu’s insight but not before benefiting from my own.4

Rolywholy Unknowing

“Have I looked enough?”

This is precisely what Cage did in his own prodigious curatorial undertaking, Rolywholyover A Circus. No labels interpreted or identified the works, but visitors could consult a map for identifying information. They could also consult “reference books by and about Cage, his interests and about the work of his contemporaries.” Many of the works were rotated on and off display during the exhibition’s run, so the returning visitor could not count on knowing anything about the show except its premise.

However, many museum visitors, particularly in modern art museums, want the support that the Polke and Mehretu labels provide; they want the museum to help them see by answering questions like the ones Gail Gregg lists in a 2010 ARTnews article: “Have I looked enough?” “How did the artist make this?” “Is this really art?”6 Questions like these arise naturally. Labels can provide answers, but they can be responsive to an individual’s particular form of curiosity only by accident. If museums have, with the best of intentions, taught us to value their answers more than our own, can museums unteach this lesson? According to Julie Lazar, the curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles with whom Cage worked to develop Rolywholyover A Circus, visitors to that exhibition “felt comfortable not knowing, not understanding everything,” noting that a “spirit of generosity permeated every component of [the exhibition].”7 How might other museums foster this comfort with not knowing, this spirit of adventure and generosity, among visitors?

Many museums have turned to new technologies—everything from audio tours to touch screens—both to increase opportunities for commentary and to allow visitors to individualize the type, amount, and timing of commentary. Yet this development continues to foster a dependence upon a knowledge that comes from outside the artwork, from museum educators. The 2011-2012 Jean Paul Gaultier exhibition at the de Young Museum included mannequins wearing the designer’s fashions with the video-projected faces of real people, convincingly spouting commentary.8 This approach succeeded in seamlessly weaving commentary into the construction of the show, but its most significant achievement was to turn commentary into a spectacle that risked overshadowing the clothing it was intended to highlight.

Commentary on Water

Can museums instead use technology to make commentary absent? Might the simple sentences about The Spirits That Lend Strength Are Invisible III or Stadia I, for example, be written without ink, appearing only when I choose for them to? Would this transform the process of commentary into an active act of seeking rather than a passive one of being served? Imagine a label that seeks to write itself upon water. It would include little of a knowledgeable curator’s interpretation, leaving only a description of the artist’s materials and process. Even this reduced summary, however, might transport a visitor out of the experience of the work and into the experience of the words. Reading the Polke label one month after seeing the work, I appreciated the artist’s activity and ideas, and the label’s evocation of “primordial landscapes and intergalactic space,” which resonated with my experience of the image as infinite and engulfing. But by evading the label at the first encounter, I avoided being derailed by the task of integrating its interpretation. Instead, I protected the not-knowing that was paramount to my process of discovery.

A spread from the gallery guide of Rolywholyover A Circus at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, September 12-November 28, 1993. Courtesy of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.

What might commentary be if it were no longer tied to its former necessity? Julie Lazar suggests an answer in her description of Cage’s musical circuses: “In a Cage circus, events take place simultaneously within a single space and audience members come and go randomly. There isn’t a specific beginning, middle or end—if you can’t hear or see everything in the room, that’s okay, you can at least see and hear something of interest.”9 The same could be said of exhibition commentary. It is better for commentary to multiply questions rather than limit them by offering answers.10 Among the many motivations that drive us to seek commentary, there is a fear, not simply of not-knowing, but also of misunderstanding. There is no fear in Cage’s artworld—at least none of the sort whose security comes in the blanket of a label—because misunderstanding is not possible. That is a kind of whispered truth. Does the struggle, in and of itself, to comprehend, versus the compulsion to understand, suggest a possible solution?

Notes

  1. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes are from Joan Retallack, ed. Musicage: Cage Muses on Words Art Music. (Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University and University Press of New England, 1996). Musicage is a monumental work of reportage, a transcription of ten days of conversation between Cage and Retallack that occurred over two years. It shows both participants to be effective interpreters of Cage’s work and philosophy.
  2. This series is not about poorly written or jargon-filled labels—there is plenty already written about them. It is more pertinent to confront effective labels in order to ask: In its very beauty and efficacy, does commentary undermine the museum experience?
  3. This is the essence of Cage’s “tourist attitude” and its comfort with—or hunger for—wandering unarmed with prior knowledge “as though you’ve never been there before.”
  4. As discussed in further detail in Part I, Cage says,“llustration means that the center exists in another place. So an illustration is not at the center, but is about the center. Whereas with accompaniment, each one is at its own center.” (Retallack, 150). Is the commentary of the label illustrating the artwork, the ostensible center of the exhibition? Or is the artwork illustrating the commentary, and is the center of the exhibition really the story that the curator seeks to narrate?
  5. Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles press release, September 1993.
  6. Gail Gregg, “Your Labels Make Me Feel Stupid,” ARTnews, July 1, 2010, http://www.artnews.com/2010/07/01/your-labels-make-me-feel-stupid.
  7. Jeremy Millar, “Rolywholyover  A Circus: An Interview with Julie Lazar,” Every Day is a Good Day: The Visual Art of John Cage, ed. John Cage and Jeremy Millar, (London: Hayward Publishing, 2010), 46. Published on the occasion of John Cage: Every Day is a Good Day, A Hayward Touring exhibition organized in collaboration with Baltic Center for Contemporary Art and the John Cage Trust.
  8. The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk—organized by the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts in collaboration with the Maison Jean Paul Gaultier—traveled from Montreal to Dallas, San Francisco, Madrid, and Rotterdam from November 2011 to May 2013. It is worthwhile to note that museums as diverse as Houston’s Menil Collection, Philadelphia’s Barnes Foundation, and San Francisco’s Pier 24 Photography minimize labels or post no commentary.
  9. Millar, 41-42.
  10. It is no coincidence that the word “rolywholyover” is from James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, which Cage considered the greatest literary work of the twentieth century: “[Y]ou will see that it is just nonsense,” Cage said. “Why is it nonsense? So that it can make a multiplicity of sense, and you can choose your path rather than being forced down Joyce’s.” Lauren A. Wright and Helen Luckett, “Companion to Cage,” in Cage and Millar, 62.

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