[artinfo] pourinfos.org [apostils] : Displaying works of art. Some remarks about exhibition design. |Jerome Glicenstein|

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Thu Sep 28 11:07:29 CEST 2006

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Displaying works of art. Some remarks about exhibition design.

By Jérôme Glicenstein

The issue regarding exhibition design is widely ignored and 
misunderstood, since the display designer’s work is often confused with 
the curator’s or the artist’s. This stems from the fact that some 
exhibition designers also can be artists, architects, decorators or 
interior designers. The misconception surrounding exhibition designers 
can also be explained by the fact that they can simultaneously be 
theater-set designers, working for art and science museums, private 
galleries, biennials and professional shows. The task itself seems 
difficult to define since it varies from hanging paintings in a row (as 
seen in large museums) to putting up a few nails in a gallery. The work 
could go completely unnoticed, while some display designers including 
Robert Wilson, Philippe Starck or Jean Nouvel are recognized as major 
However, exhibition display has existed for a long time, at least since 
art has been shown outside its original context. This is why, since the 
creation of the “Salon officiel” set in France (at the end of the 17th 
century), one of the curators’ main functions was to display art pieces 
in such a way that they relate to each other thus proposing a certain 
order to the visitors. At first, this approach was not necessarily 
related to “aesthetics” but followed academic and genres priorities and 
other rules of etiquette. At first, curators were Academy members; later 
on however, during the whole existence of the Salon, it was the artists 
themselves who arranged exhibitions display. Artists as different as 
Chardin, Renoir, Matisse or Léger occasionally played this role at the 
salons [1].

The “Golden Era” of exhibition design was during the 1920’s and 30’s, 
when many museums were reorganized and the first museums of modern art 
came into existence.
Many of the modern art protagonists of the time were involved, Alexander 
Dorner, Alfred Barr, René d’Harnoncourt, Louis Hautecœur, El Lissitzky, 
Herbert Bayer or Frederick Kiesler... Lissitzky summarized pretty well 
the passage regarding wall set-up within the arrangement of the whole 
space: “One doesn’t look at the space through a keyhole, nor through an 
open door. The space is not only meant for the eyes, it is not a 
painting: one wants to live within”. He also added that it was an odd 
experience, “a genuine and moving experience” that could not be reduced 
to a sole instant. “During an exhibition, one strolls around. This is 
the reason why the space should be planned in a way to allow visitors to 
move around freely. He explained how important it was that the public 
physically react to the pieces shown in the exhibition [2] ”. During the 
same period and with a similar commitment of “involving” the visitors, 
Frederick Kiesler perfected several systems of displaying paintings that 
he called “vision machines”.
These machines allowed visitors to adjust the height of images and 
objects, (consequently modifying the “whole cohesion” of the exhibition 
[3] ). Other display designers incorporated the concept of 
“physiological” factors in the disposition of the space. This is the 
case of Herbert Bayer, whose “limitations of the field of vision” 
diagrams meant to define the “conditions of the visit” from a 
“scientific” and “deterministic” point of view. He explains that “an 
exhibition… paintings… or photographs, are only a part… of new and 
complex means of communication. A particular theme in an exhibition… 
should penetrate and move the visitor inside. It should… lead him to a 
direct and pre-planned reaction [4] ”.

Recently, the question about the limits between the artist’s involvement 
and the exhibition designer’s has been debated. Would the way that light 
is projected on a work of art be part of the design? Should the artist 
decide on the color of the walls, the choice of furniture, the labels 
and information signs? Louis Marin accurately remarked that: “displaying 
works of art is not a minor task unrelated with the art, but the 
continuity of the production of the work of art; the term of production 
- to bring, to move the work of art “forward”- implies that art display 
ought to be recognized as a full part of the art [5] ”. Installations 
shows are obvious and common illustrations of this type of problems. The 
work of art and its design are often overlapping and become almost 
identical. For example, during the 1999 Venice Biennial, a video 
installation by Scottish artist Douglas Gordon showed the same two 
scenes of Taxi Driver in a loop slightly unsynchronized on two opposite 
walls of a room. Obviously this was not a screening of Martin Scorsese’s 
film Taxi Driver, but rather a creation based on a “re-interpretation” 
and a different display of the same film. Many similar examples could be 
found. Actually, some site specific works tend to be practically 
inseparable from their design. The only elements that eventually escape 
being part of the work of art would be the “labels”, “information signs” 
and “paths” of access, the light and the architecture of the site.

Problems caused by transforming pieces that were not conceived to be 
shown in the field of fine arts are quite different: literature, sound 
pieces, films, performances, Internet sites… and to a lesser extent some 
forms of non-western art, design, graphics, architecture, etc…Then, the 
vocation of exhibition designers becomes the creation of pieces to be 
exhibited. In literature, it means isolating text fragments, creating 
reading lounges or public readings; in architecture, it could be working 
on “representations”, sketches, plans, photographs, models, prototypes, 
synthesized image animations, etc… In performing arts, sketches, photos, 
recordings or even performances and concerts are often programmed in the 
exhibition space, or close to the space. The case of non-western arts or 
“applied arts” is somehow different since it implies choosing between a 
“documentary” approach (movies, photos, documents, lectures, etc…) and 
an “aesthetic” approach (setting up objects on stands, isolation, light 
set up). These “adaptations” are implying that an exhibition cannot be 
planned without a “pre-definition” of the objects to be exhibited. 
Moreover, some of the objects needing to be adapted to an exhibition 
format are sometimes “re-invented for the occasion”. Recently the 
development of “reading spaces” within the exhibitions -for example, at 
the Palais de Tokyo – shows the need to constantly generate new ways 
accessing contemporary art. This is a crucial issue in the case of 
interactive creations; creations which are usually more “hands-on” than 
“meant to be exhibited” in the traditional sense.

In recent years, exhibition designers’ most prevalent problem in the 
context of their task in contemporary art exhibits is related to films 
or videos presentations. One of the main challenges is the length of the 
show: while movie theaters are adapted to feature films, art shows are 
not. Françoise Parfait questions: “How is it possible to stand in an 
open space watching an half an hour monoband screening (the audience not 
having any clue about the duration of the film) when it is primordial to 
watch the whole film from the beginning in order to grasp its meaning? 
Should we propose video rooms or viewing lounges in museums and art 
centers [6]? ”. ” This issue became critical during Kassel’s latest 
Documenta (in 2002) when hundreds of hours of video projection were 
presented (it was virtually impossible to sit through them all). How can 
one have a satisfactory level of concentration when the projection is 
drowned in the middle of the “flow” of an exhibition? How could the 
problem of sound interference be solved when several videos are screened 
simultaneously? Most probably, these issues initiated the introduction 
of expressions such as “exhibition cinema” or “installed cinema” to 
label some cinema styles foreign to a more “classical” cinema 
presentation that could only be achieved via contemporary art shows. The 
issue of animated images exhibitions highlights the way relations are 
managed - relations between works of art and the public as well as 
relations between members of the public. In fact, “an exhibition (…) is 
an installation setting-up things and people in a same place [7] ”. The 
space is not only organized around the art works, but also to meet the 
public needs in order to ensure a most satisfactory visit. During the 
19th century, visiting large exhibitions , such as at the Salon’s, meant 
putting up with dreadful conditions which were a permanent source of 
ironic comments in the press of the time; it is not the case now, with 
an increased number of lounges, audio-guides, cafeterias and souvenir 
shops showing an on-going concern to optimize the experience.

Two points have been raised regarding visitors’ remarks and the ways to 
“utilize” the exhibition. The first refers to the fact that while 
studying visitors “habits”, it becomes necessary to “model” their 
journey. Thus, since the 1920’s, specific studies have been conducted to 
determine the optimum quantity of works of art to show and the best 
placement for them in the space provided. These studies showed that 
visitors behavior varied in a relatively “predictable” way, according to 
the background, the type of exhibition, the room layout, the paths 
proposed, the number of objects, etc., something that doesn’t go without 
consequences on the exhibition design [8] . The second point derives 
from the first and is a more “critical” one. It has been made by 
media-historian Jonathan Crary and is related to the fact that visitors 
of an exhibition are usually “observers”, in the sense that they 
“observe”, they “respect”- rules, codes, instructions and uses that are 
imposed. Crary thinks that: “ Evident as it may seem, a person who sees 
-an observer- is above all, a person who sees within the frame of a 
pre-determined range of possibilities, a person who is inscribed within 
a system of conventions and limits”. As announced by a text distributed 
at the entrance of the 1901 “Pan-American” Exhibition: “We are asking 
you to remember that once you cross the threshold, you are a part of the 
exhibition [9] ”.

The issue surrounding the value of the design of an exhibition has often 
been raised over the last forty years as it became obvious that these 
designs project a “sense” and various curators started claiming 
authorship over specific designs as expression of their “artistic 
creation”. A creative “set-up” could actually bring significant changes 
over to a work of art (or a collection of works of art). A painting by 
Manet positioned next to a painting by Velasquez develops consequences 
on their “readings [10] . An exhibition design is a largely subjective 
exercise based on permanent de-composition and re-composition”. It is 
never neutral: Éric Troncy chose to exhibit a naked woman photographed 
by Helmut Newton next to a plaster Virgin by Katarina Fritzsch or a 
Bernard Buffet’s painting in front of a mural by Sol Lewitt thus 
provoking some critics’ despair [11] . The “relations” between works of 
art are defined by the exhibition designer and highlight their specific 
“comprehensions” inherent in their design itself. Is it possible to keep 
intact the memory of such meaningful juxtapositions? As early as the 
1930’s, the MoMA began exhibiting images and documents related to 
certain “historical” exhibition designs, regardless of their status [12] 
”. More recently, and soon after the 1970’s, some display techniques 
have been re-created within the exhibitions. That was the case for 
“Paris-New York” (1977) and “Paris-Paris” (1981). A large number of 
recent exhibitions have followed this trend, notably the “Dada” 
exhibition wherein one found an approximate re-construction of the 
Picabia show at Dalmau Gallery in Barcelona and also another (also 
approximate) re-construction of the First Berlin International Dada Fair 
(1920) were launched. In fact, exhibition design has become a “genre” of 
its own: in 1989 at the “Stationen der Moderne” exhibition at the 
Berlinische Galerie in Berlin, up to twenty historical German 
exhibitions were re-created [13] .

Jérôme Glicenstein
Paris, May 4th, 2006

Notes :

[1] For a general history of the Salon, see Gérard-Georges Lemaire, 
Histoire du salon de peinture, Paris, Klincksieck, coll. Etudes, 2004.

[2] Many works on Lissitzky have been published. His main reference is 
Sophie Lissitzky-Küppers’s book, El Lissitzky : Life, Letters, Texts 
(1967), New York, Thames & Hudson. 1992.

[3] Among the well-documented catalogues on Frederick Kiesler, see 
specifically, Frederick Kiesler artiste-architecte (under Chantal 
Béret’s supervision). This book was published for the exhibition CNAC - 
Georges Pompidou , Paris, Editions du Centre Pompidou, 1996.

[4] Regarding Herbert Bayer, see in particular, Alexander Dorner, The 
Way Beyond “Art” – The Work of Herbert Bayer, New York, Wittenborn, 
Schultz, Inc., 1947.

[5] See Fabrice Hergott, « Réponses au questionnaire “Accrocher une 
œuvre d’art” », in Cahiers du MNAM n°17/18, « L’œuvre d’art et son 
accrochage », Paris, Centre Georges Pompidou, 1986, p. 207.

[6] Françoise Parfait, Video : un art contemporain, Paris, Regard, 2001, 
p. 170.

[7] Claquemurer pour ainsi dire tout l’univers. La mise en exposition 
(under the direction of Jean Davallon), Paris, MNAM/CCI, coll. alors :, 
1986, p. 205.

[8] See, for example: Publics et Musées n°8, « Études de publics, années 
30 », Lyon, PUL, July-December 1995.

[9] Jonathan Crary, L’art de l’observateur. Vision et modernité au XIXe 
siècle (trad. F.Maurin), Nîmes, Jacqueline Chambon, coll. Rayon photo, 
1994 (original edition: Cambridge, MIT, 1990), p. 26.

[10] This is the topic of Victoria Newhouse’s book, Art and the Power of 
Placement, New York, The Monacelli Press, 2005.

[11] Daniel Buren, “Where are the Artists”, in The Next Documenta Should 
Be Curated by an Artist, June-November 2003; available at 

[12] Concerning this topic, see, in particular, Mary Anne Staniszewski’s 
book, The Power of Display. A History of Exhibition Installations at the 
Museum of Modern Art, Cambridge Ma-London, MIT Press, 1998.

[13] Stationen der Moderne. Die bedeutenden Kunstausstellungen des 20. 
Jahrhunderts in Deutschland, Berlin, Berlinische Galerie, 1988.

Jérôme Glicenstein’s biography:

Jérôme Glicenstein is an artist and Associate Professor in Fine Arts at 
Paris University (Saint-Denis).
His lectures and his field of research deal with theories and practices 
of exhibitions. In addition, he is in charge of a university gallery and 
of the cycle of exhibitions “ To place/to displace” at the Saint-Denis 
Museum of Art and History.
He is also a regular collaborator for various magazines, in particular 
la Revue d’Esthétique and directs the magazine Marges.
He published various articles on the relations between art and the new 

Publications to come:

« Dispositif », in Dictionnaire du corps (sld. Michela Marzano), Paris, 
PUF, 2006.
« L’art contemporain peut-il être populaire ? Remarques à propos de Nuit 
blanche », Revue d’Esthétique n°46, 2006.
« From Spectator to Actor: Experiments in the Gallery of Paris8 », in 
Proceedings of the XIXth Congress of IAEA (sld Jean-Christophe Vilatte), 
Avignon, IAEA, 2006.

Main recent publications:

« Internet — Sites d’artistes », Encyclopædia Universalis (CD-Rom), 
Paris, 2000.

« Le paysage panoptique d’Internet. Remarques à partir de Jeremy Bentham 
», Revue d’Esthétique n°39, Paris, Jean-Michel Place, 2001, p. 97-115.

« Statistiques, rumeurs et anarchie », Parpaings n°25, 2001, p. 21-22.

« Le Guggenheim Virtuel », dans http://www.mudam.lu (sld Claude Closky), 
musée Grand-Duc Jean, Luxembourg, 2002.

« Qu’attendez-vous du Palais de Tokyo ? », l’Info Noir/Blanc n°23, 2002.

« Le Palais de Tokyo : un “cinéma de situations” », Revue d’Esthétique 
n°42, Paris, Jean-Michel Place, 2003.

« La muséologie d’Internet : quelques remarques à propos du Guggenheim 
Virtuel », dans L’art à l’époque du virtuel (sld Christine 
Buci-Glucksman), Paris, L’Harmattan, coll.Arts8, 2003.

« Changer de convictions ou changer de rôle ? Remarques à partir d’une 
enquête menée par le Site de création contemporaine du Palais de Tokyo 
», dans Art : changer de conviction (sld Jacques Morizot), Paris, 
L’Harmattan, coll. Arts8, 2004.

« La création artistique contemporaine face aux nouveaux médias », dans 
Arts plastiques et nouvelles technologies, Saint-Denis, Musée d’art et 
d’histoire, 2004.

« Quelques remarques à propos de Matrix », Revue d’Esthétique n°45, 
Paris, Jean-Michel Place, 2004.

« Le commissaire d’exposition entre auteur et interprète », Dossier 
signature n°57, Montréal, Esse arts+opinions, 2006.

Author’s recommendation / Current events:

Exhibition: Architects' Exhibition Designs
115 European exhibitions designed by architects
7/7/2006 > 22/10/2006

Pavillon de l'Arsenal
24 bld. Morland
75004 Paris France

Translation: Kristine Barut Dreuilhe

Original version:
La mise en scène des œuvres d’art. Remarques à propos de la scénographie 

All text is available under the French license Creative Commons :
non-commercial attribution – no derived work. 2.0. In order to encourage 
a free pedagogic or associative usage.

Direction de la publication
xavier.cahen at pourinfos.org

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