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May 11, 2014 | by  | in Arts Visual Arts |
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The New White

German essayist and author Thomas Mann was once quoted as saying that “everything is political”. The art gallery is not immune to this. Infused with ideology, the gallery is an intensely political arena where every curatorial decision aids the construction of the exhibition’s pervasive narrative. The curator and their creative team present a cleansed universe parallel – not separate – to our own in which they tell us about someone, something or ourselves. Things that in that parallel universe cannot be creatively challenged. It is a world of its own.

The modern art gallery aims to provide an academic sanctuary by blocking out the world around it through the use of its sanitising white painted walls. Functional, clean and crisp, these walls are the blank canvases onto which the curator paints their ideas. White is neutral. It is the amalgamation of all colours and yet presents itself as a bright nothingness. Its supposed unadulterated nature connotes purity, spirituality, and the beauty of silence. Temples of culture with expansive, piercingly bright chalk-coloured walls are what we have come to expect from our art galleries. But it wasn’t always like this.

The gallery’s barren landscape of sparsely adorned white walls is very much a modern construction. In the galleries of Pompeii and the Italian Renaissance, pictures were hung within the limitations of the pre-existing architectural structure. Often hanging on brightly coloured walls, the art had an intimate relationship with the gallery as it fitted itself around the design of a non-purpose-built space. In the famous French salons of the 18th and 19th century, paintings were hung on top of each other in a visual hierarchy which placed epic history paintings in the plum eye-level position. The walls of the salons were also often painted red in an attempt to portray warmth, passion, love and desire.

It was only with the advent of Modernism that we saw the invention of the ‘white cube’. Perhaps in accordance with the movement’s underpinning theme of self-reflection, agents in the art world put the gallery space under the microscope as they searched for a innovative way to exhibit revolutionary new art. The solution of a white-walled interior was not only self-reflective, but also appealed to Modernism’s fascination with the utilitarian ideals of form and function. Pioneered by the Museum of Modern Art in New York in the 1930s, the intention of the new design was to create a neutral space where art could be objectively viewed against a blank background. Unlike the intoxicating colours of former exhibition-spaces, the white walls provided a sobering viewing experience where art lost its illusory qualities and was presented as paint on canvas. The redesign of the art gallery is undeniably a by-product of the Modernist Revolution.

Writer Thomas McEvilley, however, views the ‘white cube’ as a modern reimagining of the Palaeolithic tomb galleries which were “designed to eliminate awareness of the outside world”. The space giving the impression of being outside of or beyond time acted as a spiritual portal between this world and the next where a person’s soul and the worldly goods they had accumulated could travel to the afterlife. As I said in the introduction, the modern art gallery presents itself to us as a parallel universe: a cocoon where the outside world exists only in the imagination of the viewers. Instead of the real world, viewers are immersed in a pseudo-spiritual haven where they are ‘enlightened’ by the presence of gallery-quality art.

In my opinion, however, the white-wall revolution has gone too far. Contemporary galleries, instead of being temples to great art, now pay homage to the MoMA tradition with blinding white walls that dwarf the art that hangs on them. While I love City Gallery Wellington, they are a prime example of this. Simon Starling’s In Speculum (at City Gallery until 18 May) is as much an exhibition about Starling’s quirky and complex installations as it is about the august and overbearing internal architecture. Three White Desks, a fabulous installation piece where three cabinetmakers produce copies of painter Francis Bacon’s studio desk from different sources, is exhibited in a gallery furnished solely by towering pearly partitions. While this may have been at the artist’s request, the imposing nature of the walls minimises the ability of the cabinets to speak to the themes of the installation.

It also seems lazy and unimaginative. I would have liked to have seen sketches from Bacon’s carpentry days – something to anchor the installation and help cultivate meaning. Instead we get what we get all too often: the silencing of art by spatial domination; the favouring of utilitarianism over the production of meaning; and the pervasiveness of outdated Modernist ideals.

The reign of the white walls must come to an end. It’s time for something new.


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  1. Carey Young says:

    Duncan come back to The Young, change is underfoot

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