Saturday, July 19, 2008

The Label Issue

Last Monday, Tom Lubbock wrote an article in The Independent challenging the need to label artworks in museum spaces. Taking Martin Creed's new piece at the Tate Britain, Work no. 850, as a starting point, Lubbock launches into an interesting debate about contemporary artspeak. I don't agree with all of his argument, but some parts do ring true. Click here to read it:
Is art running out of ideas? Artists forced to explain modern art

Turning on radio 4 this morning, I heard Lubbock himself talking about the issue with the presenter and a 'label curator'. Lubbock has in the past suggested that labels be separated from displayed artworks in an exhibition. His idea is, we should all face the challenge of having to engage with the work before us, rather than relying on information labels to tell us what to think. I agree with this point. However, he seems a little militant about the fact that going to an exhibition should be a difficult, challenging experience. This idea doesn't work because people go to exhibitions for different reasons - sometimes just to relax, sometimes to socialise. Another reason for gallery visits is to learn more about art history and new trends in contemporary art - in which case information labels can be very useful in contextualising an artist's practice, an art movement, or a particular piece. However, I do agree with Lubbock that these labels shouldn't be stuck right next to artworks, but placed in a different area for people to refer to if they really want to. Certain people don't like this idea - Michael Winner apparently spoke defiantly against the idea at the time saying 'if I need exercise I'd go to the gym' (but then again he probably should). Yet maybe we've just become too accustomed to having the labels there, and have begun to rely on them too much.

Michael Winner would need to skip his gym session to visit Dia:Beacon in upstate New York - this wonderful contemporary art space is in keeping with Lubbock's viewpoint, providing portable information packs about each artist on show discretely tucked at the corner of each room, so that visitors can choose whether to pick one up or not. I think this is perhaps the best approach - we can look at an artwork first and think about what it makes us feel, but then, having read some more about it, look at the work again and see whether or not this changes our reactions to it. I haven't yet seen Martin Creed's piece at Tate Britain but I'm wondering whether the same approach is used there. It certainly is at the Cy Twombly at Tate Modern - I liked the fact that I could carry around a little booklet on the artist and dip in and out of it whilst I moved from room to room.

I also have to say that audio guides can provide an excellent insight into certain artists' work - I used one when visiting the Richard Prince show at the Guggenheim and the Gustave Courbet retrospective at the Met in New York. I learned a great deal from them - the Richard Prince guide was particularly insightful as it provided various takes on Prince's art, including anecdotes from a New Yorker cartoonist, and an exploration of the origins of one-liners from a stand-up comedian. What's good about audio guides is they don't detract from our looking. They're also optional, so we can choose whether we want this added information or not. The worst thing to see in a gallery is people peering intently at labels for several minutes and then glancing quickly at the artwork itself, before moving onto the next piece and the next label.

Evidently, the issue lies deeper than the labels. It's embedded within the whole system of art practice and consumption. Last year I worked at SculptureCenter, a small, contemporary art space in New York. It was my job to edit all the 'artist statements' and resumes of people exhibiting in the space. It was also my task to filter all incoming proposals from prospective artists. I realised that artists are trained to represent themselves by means of documents such as an 'artist's statement', summing up their very being as an artist with one flimsy document. I find this system in itself problematic. At best it can lead to an over-simplification of an artist's complex thought process; at worst it can lead to very pretentious claims. Jonathon Jones responds to this idea on his Guardian blog.

I would also add that, like it or not, not all artists are great writers, so why should we force them to write? We don't ask authors to capture the essence of their written work by drawing diagrams. This may seem like an absurd analogy to make, but it isn't really if you think about it. Artists have a gift to communicate primarily through images, (and also sounds, or, in the case of Martin Creed, situations and juxtapositions) - not words. Yes, text can be integral to an artwork itself - take John Baldessari, Liam Gillick or Tracy Emin for example - but that's different to all these peripheral texts aimed at justifying or explaining its existence. Of course, if an artist really feels it is necessary to explain a certain aspect of their work, then it's important they do so. But when it's just expected of them, that's where the problems begin.

In consideration of this, see Lubbock's reference to art critic Susan Sontag's take on the purpose of art. Strategically placing Sontag's words at the end of his article, Lubbock demonstrates how art is about opening up debate rather than reducing it to one particular 'meaning'. The Chapman brothers realise this, and a visit to their recent exhibition If Hitler Had Been a Hippy How Happy Would We Be at the White Cube proves that you don't need written explanations for the artworks before your eyes. The White Cube press release reveals nothing about the Chapman brothers' extraordinary works, instead offering visitors a very brief resume of each artist's career. So much the better - we're left to think for ourselves, react with our own instincts, and, most of all, ask ourselves questions rather than relying on pre-prepared answers.

1) Martin Creed's installation at Tate Britain
2) Still from Baldessari's I am Making Art, 1971. This video performance challenges the pomposity of artspeak with its supposed simplicity. Yet beneath the deliberately monochrome, monotonous exterior, there are plenty of interesting ideas to be found. These are all the more exciting if we find them ourselves, as I discovered during a seminar with my fellow Guggenheim interns at MoMA earlier this year.)

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