Since the new John Hansard Gallery opened last Friday evening, I have already passed through its doors more often than I did in the four-and-a-half years I’ve lived in Southampton and it was resident at its former site on the university campus. OK, I’ll admit that this wasn’t that hard (it only required the threshold to be crossed twice) but I think it does illustrate the importance of location for a public cultural institution. After tomorrow, the Gallery closes again until it opens permanently in May. To my own astonishment, I find I am going to miss it: I won’t be able to just nip in on my way home from the shops or a haircut and I’ll miss my ‘friends’ of the Sampler who will have been replaced by new exhibitions come May. It seems a good thing that art and culture is integrated with the other stuff of life, not something apart and only for ‘special’ people.
I think the JHG has one other major advantage over other art galleries in attracting passing trade. Whereas your typical art gallery may boast a more, or less, architecturally distinguished home it rarely offers any taste of the delights which might lie within, except perhaps for the odd piece of sculpture. At the JHG, a huge amount of the ground floor is comprised of floor to ceiling glass offering any passers-by a full view of some of the art on offer – even when the gallery is closed! Whilst this exposure to the sun’s all-too-powerful rays wouldn’t suit every artwork, the interactive Sampler exhibits seem perfectly suited to peaking the interest of the public and drawing them inside. There is a joy in pressing one’s nose against the glass which most art institutions seem to have neglected to their detriment.
When you do enter, you are presented with Huddlehood and the Conversation Station. Both of these artworks invite the audience to be involved – both with the art and with each other (and also with the staff of the JHG). On my visit yesterday, I took well over an hour to get past Conversation Station – and even then, never quite got round to playing with the artwork and using its collection of materials of different sizes, shapes and forms to build my own space for conversation. Instead, I spent my time in fascinating conversation with the artists supporting the exhibit, talking about what role art and galleries might play in society today and what benefits they bring to visitors. I’m not sure I brought any particularly novel insights to bear, but I will share a few of my thoughts on the matter (if that is not being rather too grand) as part of this post.
I don’t think I come from a particularly arty background. I don’t remember visiting art galleries as a child and the only art I can remember at home were prints of Terence Cuneo’s paintings of steam trains, each with a mouse hidden somewhere in the picture and I probably wasn’t aware that the pictures were prints at the time. My childhood was a long time ago, so I may have forgotten some art-based brainwashing by my parents or teachers – but to the best of my knowledge, visiting art galleries is a project I have developed on my own as an adult (in age-terms, if no others). I’m not really sure how it began but it might have been going to see an exhibition of pre-Columbian art at the Hayward Gallery after reading a book about the cultures of meso-America or it might have been the Neue Pinakothek in Munich as a plausible (and cheap) touristy thing to do in November and where I first saw a Kandinsky: both of these would have been in my mid 20s when I first lived and worked in London.
I value art and galleries as an escape from the always-on, rushing around, instant gratification of much of modern life. An art gallery is a space where – unless the exhibition is hideously crowded – one can spend time away from the hectic pace of life in just mooching around and contemplating. You can approach things in your own time, at your own pace and in your own order: unless some over-zealous curator has imposed an Ikea-like labyrinth on the visitor (Grr! Just because you studied Art History, you don’t have to inflict it on the rest of us!). Each artwork acts as the start of a conversation with the viewer, but if you don’t want to join in then it won’t be offended if you move on immediately to find a more appealing interlocutor. There are no comments below the line with an artwork and you can spend as much time, or as little, as you like considering what it is saying to you – which may be entirely unrelated to what the artist imagined it might say – and allowing your mind to wander where it will. I usually find a few pieces call out to me immediately demanding attention, but it is often a shyer work which ends up becoming my friend. Sometimes, as with human friends, it is only after spending time with them – and perhaps going away and returning later – that you come to realise that this is the work for you. Over the my years of gallery going, I think I have come to enjoy a wider range of artworks then I did at the beginning – perhaps this is just age, or perhaps I understand I wider range of points-of-view and approaches to making art than I did. I’ll usually still encounter work which I view as a complete waste of time and materials – but then again, I don’t like or understand every book, or TV show or film or song that it created so why should I like or appreciate every work of visual art. Equally, I can’t think of any gallery visit where I haven’t found something which appeals or makes my think or consider a different view point.
Art galleries do tend to have a rather hushed vibe, like a library, and I will admit to turning my mobile phone off when I visit: though this is probably more about the embarrassment of it ringing (anywhere – it’s equally humiliating on a bus) than any need to maintain a sepulchral feel. I wonder if this puts people off, along with a certain class of gallery goer? As I’ve said, art is a conversation and, while I often go alone, I do enjoy going with friends so we can have a good discussion about what we see, its merits and what it might mean. Yesterday, I went alone but as already established bent the ears of the resident artists for far longer than is acceptable in polite society. This did yield a strong recommendation to head up the stairs to see a video artwork called Don’t Look at the Finger by Hetain Patel. I am generally rather sceptical about video art and it always seems to have the wrong feel for a gallery somehow: it forces the conversation too much and creates a long time commitment. As a result, I tend to skip these parts of galleries – but I am so glad I didn’t yesterday.
I can think of few better ways I might have spent 14-odd minutes – and this despite the fact that it was clearly lunchtime by the time the film started. As a work it is tricky to describe: it has elements of sign-language, of dance and of martial arts blended together in a way which could only work on video. A more traditional staged approached would not have permitted the audience to be close enough, nor to experience the work from teh right places. It also features the most incredible textiles in the clothing of the participants and, at one stage, these are changed through an origami-like process to reveal even more glorious detail to their design and to reflect a turning point in the piece. It has also has a strong emotional element, in particular when the main female protagonist smiles for the first time it lights up the whole room and the life of the viewer. I spent most of the running time in slack-jawed amazement that anything so incredible had been created and I was allowed to watch it, for free! I shall be returning to watch it again this afternoon, but there is a certain sadness that I can never again see it for the first time…
My other great joy from my visits so far are the leached-out, grey-scale photographs of the play of light and shadow with forms and angles taken of and during the construction of the building. Seeing them for a second time, I have new favourites to add to my existing friends. They are such an interesting way of looking on mundane concrete, plaster board panels, wiring and pipes and I’d love to have some at home: I hope the JHG finds some way to keep them as they are beautiful and a document of its rebirth. If not, I am going to miss them terribly.
As usual there is no great message here, but if you have a local art gallery why not take a look and, if they are up for it, why not chat to the people working there: you never know what they might introduce you to!