chapter  7
17 Pages

Things and theories: the unstable presence of exhibited objects

The British Art Show offers a snapshot of contemporary art in Britain in the shape of a large-scale travelling exhibition that, every five years or so, tours major museums and galleries throughout the country. Back in 1984 the show was considered to be a landmark event. The exhibition I visited that year was as busy as the streets I had walked along from the local railway station. In the most densely packed parts of the gallery, when a particular artwork held you in place for long enough to impede the perambulatory viewing of others, the conflict between your own rapt attention and the flowing crowd was palpable. Upstairs, I entered a space in which the passage of exhibition visitors across a rather shaky wooden floor was heavy enough to endanger the delicate balance of a small abstract sculpture. This diminutive two-part object, so poetically vulnerable in its construction, was suddenly lying in separate pieces in front of me. Indeed, it may have been my approach that made the sculpture finally succumb to its potential vulnerability. At this point, a state of interpretive blankness took over. This experience was like being given a cup of coffee when you expect tea. For a moment the taste is not one thing or the other, neither coffee nor tea. When an expectation is unfulfilled in this way we often cannot interpret the experience at all. Poised before the collapsed sculpture my ability to adjust my interpretive faculties from the whole object to its constituent parts was frustrated. Suddenly, and rather disconcertingly, I did not know what I was looking at.1