There is often that question when you enter an exhibition that doesn’t instantly engage or excite you: ‘how long do I stand here before I can go without looking a little ignorant?’
Well it is for me anyway, and once again this question arose whilst encountering my first James Turrell piece at The Ian Potter New South Wales (NSW).
I walked into a darkened room where a rectangle of turquoise light shone on the far wall, two small complementary orange triangles on either side wall. The instructions were to touch the wall and I remembered this as I walked around the room. Reaching out to touch, I watched as my hand disappear into an opaque blue void which so totally disarmed and intrigued me that for the next 6 weeks, whenever I alighted at Flinders Street Station, I would take five minutes to go and visit…
There are certain key moments in your visual/sensory experience that leave an indelible mark, something you see, hear or feel that affects you so emotionally that it pushes your thinking into new previously unknown directions, opening up questions and possibilities – setting alight to some dormant thought and creating a chain of electrifying ideas & thoughts. This gives you a greater understanding or at least the start of a pathway into the otherwise unknown. No secondhand experience can charge you with such energy, can cause idea crashing, thunderbolt, revelatory moments.
Any experience of live art or music is worthwhile, even if only to secure in your mind what you dislike or are opposed to, as well as just the creation of an emotional response, whether enlivening or angering sparks thoughts towards your own work. This process helps you to identify things you would like to omit or enhance.
An interesting exhibition leaves me tuned up, taking random notes of artists names and titles of work to remember.
A good exhibition causes me to scribble furiously and incoherently in my notebook, ideas to put into my own work spilling forth, colour and composition to recall, quotes to refer back to.
A great exhibition strikes me dumb, wandering dazedly around, backwards and forwards 3 or 4 times round each room…then back to the beginning to once more understand the progression of ideas. Then my favourite – to stand and stare, gaping slightly, eyes glazed.
Which is precisely why I go to exhibitions alone…I have no space for speech. I want to absorb undistracted at my own pace. Alone I can fully engage, selfishly, without interruption and afterwards can quietly contemplate the aftereffects.
Monet’s breathtaking ‘Waterlilies’ at L’Orangerie is another which quietly floored me. The first time I was accosted by sound by Janet Cardiff’s ‘The Forty Part Motet’ another; the unusuality of music, heavy and beckoning in a normally silent space drew me into the room from the floor below. The power of sound rendering me blind to any other sense. And as I exited into a James Turrell piece, the reverse. The intense red light spilling out filling my eyes and enveloping, muting sound.
We naturally carry our own stories and scars which resonate with different intensity depending on the external experience but occasionally a perfect match is made where something you are looking for, some answer is reflected back to you in something you find and imparts back the beginnings of an answer.
The most profound exhibition I have seen, unexpectedly so, has been the recent Anselm Kiefer show at the Royal Academy. From the very first I didn’t write, didn’t speak, barely acknowledged that other people were around so engrossed and awed was I by his work. And this is pretty much what I wrote on the train on the way home:
‘It left me feeling as though I had touched the very soul of the earth, the ragged, torn soul that human existence has scathed and scratched and battered, then died there. Giving up their last breath but leaving behind nothing to nourish nor revive.
I have been dragged, face first along the seabed of the earth’s human history. The rubble grazing and bruising my face. And after, we stand and stare at each other to observe the damage we have done to each other, quiet and apologetic, faces turned down and hearts heavy.
I came out of the gallery into dazzling sunlight – cold and white as it is November, it blinds and intrudes, a vestige of hope. A symbol of life not allowing you to escape it’s tentacle like grasp. It’ll find you out through reflections, bounces off windows and cars as you seek to avoid its glare. I absorb this, welcoming the glare as it hits my eyes, the vague warmth imparting some optimism.’
And this is the impression a phenomenal artist or exhibition can have. Life lasting, self-understanding, emotionally stunning. And this is why it is so important to experience any art form in the flesh.