[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
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  ”. 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
 ). 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  ”.
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  ”. 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 ? ”. ” 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  ”. 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  . 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  ”.
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  . 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  . 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 
”. 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  .
Paris, May 4th, 2006
 For a general history of the Salon, see Gérard-Georges Lemaire,
Histoire du salon de peinture, Paris, Klincksieck, coll. Etudes, 2004.
 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.
 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.
 Regarding Herbert Bayer, see in particular, Alexander Dorner, The
Way Beyond “Art” – The Work of Herbert Bayer, New York, Wittenborn,
Schultz, Inc., 1947.
 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.
 Françoise Parfait, Video : un art contemporain, Paris, Regard, 2001,
 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.
 See, for example: Publics et Musées n°8, « Études de publics, années
30 », Lyon, PUL, July-December 1995.
 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.
 This is the topic of Victoria Newhouse’s book, Art and the Power of
Placement, New York, The Monacelli Press, 2005.
 Daniel Buren, “Where are the Artists”, in The Next Documenta Should
Be Curated by an Artist, June-November 2003; available at
 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.
 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,
« 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),
« 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
« 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
La mise en scène des œuvres d’art. Remarques à propos de la scénographie
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