Felicity Milburn, 2008
SCAPE 2008 Christchurch Biennial of Art in Public Space
Asked to describe a typical contemporary art museum, many of us would offer up a variation on the classic modernist gallery: a white-walled, sparely-hung space, illuminated evenly with artificial lighting and crisply silent but for occasional footsteps on a polished concrete floor. What the mind’s eye conveniently and unconsciously erases are the numerous non-art details hidden in plain sight: directional and emergency signage, security systems, and environmental controls. Even when we are present in such gallery spaces, we have learned to overlook these elements, seeing what we wish, and expect, to see. Similarly, our memories and experience of central city spaces are articulated by landmarks, street names and prominent architectural features –not those raucous advertising elements that, though just as vividly ‘present’, seem somehow temporary and less authentic. This tension between what we see, and what we conspire to overlook, is at the heart of two interrelated SCAPE projects by Spanish artist Maider Lopez.
In his influential 1976 essay ‘Inside the white cube: the ideology of the gallery space’, Brian O’Doherty observed how the “pristine clarity”[i] of the modern gallery separated it from the world outside, creating a rarefied environment in which a specific set of rules and values were applied. Within this “unique chamber of esthetics” [ii], objects that might exist in other, ‘real life’ forms could be interpreted as art. In such a powerful context, “…a standing ashtray becomes almost a sacred object[iii]”. With Signs, an installation occupying several sites within the Christchurch Art Gallery, Lopez explores how critical the architectural mask of the gallery remains in terms of the framing of our art experience and how we have been conditioned to effectively tune out all that does not comply with our idealized vision.
Through a series of apparently official pictograms and notices, Lopez draws our attention away from the art and towards aspects of the building we would usually ignore. Alerting us to the presence of fire alarms, air conditioning ducts, smoke sensors and surveillance cameras, her delightfully superfluous signs spill out of the gallery proper, blurring the lines between display and utility, and colonizing ‘service’ areas such as ceilings, entranceways and elevator niches. Puncturing and disrupting what O’Doherty described as the “triumph of high seriousness[iv]”, Lopez mischievously labels even the most unambiguous and familiar objects – a chair, a wastepaper basket, a light switch – and her ‘sign of a sign’ is surely a good-humoured dig at the attempts of earnest museum professionals to spell out even the most obvious aspects of art works for the viewer. In emphasising features of the gallery’s operation that visitors may not have previously considered, Lopez punctures the seductive illusion of the hermetic and sterile white cube, lifting the curtain on a bustling, behind-the-scenes world of preparation, maintenance and control. Her fictional notices connect with and accentuate a large and intricate system of directional, didactic and emergency signage, all governed, like the art itself, by a complex and hierarchical language of color, shape and symbol.
The rarefied gravitas of the gallery has its ultimate contrast in the clamour of the high street, where sandwich boards, window displays and commercial branding compete for the attention of passers by. Within this discordant and complex setting, Lopez created an intervention that was typically light of hand –choreographing a team of volunteers with a series of seemingly improvised props (an umbrella, an outstretched hand, an open newspaper, a bunch of balloons) –she temporarily ‘erased’ all of the visible signage. The strangely unsettling result – a commercial street bereft, however briefly, of advertising of any kind –was documented and the image disseminated through a video, billboard and posters. The momentary removal of the visual cues signifying the function of a public site allowed Lopez, for an instant, to create a new space with no clear identity or meaning. Like her playful additions to the gallery’s signage system, this act of subtraction was a constructive sabotage; inviting us to experience familiar spaces in novel and potentially rewarding ways.
[i] O’Doherty, Brian. Inside the white cube : the ideology of the gallery space (first published as a series of three articles in ArtForum Magazine, 1976),Berkeley, University of California Press, 1999