JOYS AND TRIBULATIONS OF PUBLIC ART EXHIBITIONS
OUTDOOR EXHIBITION DURING BRIGHTON FRINGE2012
Following on from my previous post about the various stages I underwent to get my exhibition to fruition for the Brighton Photo Fringe 2012, and now the Fringe is over for another year, I felt it time to address some of the more challenging parts about exhibiting so publically. So below are my thoughts on the experience, I will attempt to be as honest and open as possible about it, so please forgive me for any minor rants I embark upon!
For those fresh to this post with no knowledge of my exhibition, I produced four adhesive vinyl panels, each measuring 2 meters by 1.5 meters on which I laid out the photographs from my current work: ‘Being Nobody, Going Nowhere’. These panels were then stuck in the windows of a now unused shop (the site of the old Co-Operative department store on London Road, Brighton).
THE BENEFITS OF SHOWING IN A PUBLIC SPACE
Whilst I was always keen to try and show as much of my work as possible in as public a venue as possible, I perhaps was not conscious of the implications such a public showing could have. To put work in a gallery (generally) means people have to go and hunt it out to see it. They have to be interested in you, your work or be attracted by some form of advertising that makes them think they will make the effort to have a look. For an event like the Fringe, this effect is slightly lessened because people undertake trails going from venue to venue and lots of exhibitions take place in cafe’s, pubs or restaurants, where unsuspecting members of the public get drawn into looking at the exhibition.
However, place your work on a public street – exposed to the elements and viewable 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and anyone and everyone is subjected to the work, whether they like it or not. This was always part of the attraction to me and democratised the work somehow because anyone could look at it at any time – love it, hate it or be completely indifferent to it. The sheer volume of traffic going past the space also means it is likely thousands more people see it than would have if it was on a gallery wall.
I must confess to occasionally heading down to my exhibition and watching from a distance to look at the reactions of those who passed by. I loved it when someone would step off a bus, an image would catch their eye and they would walk straight up to the work to look. I loved it when I saw people who might not normally see my images having a look. I also enjoyed the complete indifference of many people as they walked passed the work without batting an eye (somehow this seems very poetic when considered against the themes of the project). I loved how many people enjoyed the exhibition and got something from look at the photographs.
AND THE NEGATIVES…
However, the flip side is you open yourself up for quite public critiques. Of course, any artists who shows their work does so and many, like me, will have heard people viewing it in an unfavourable way. That is path of the course and part of the thrill in showing work is that as many people that love it will hate it. What I did not expect is that the work would be vandalised in the manner it was. Before I hung the work, a few people asked me if I thought it would survive or whether it would be drawn on and tagged. I always suspected this would be the case and fully prepared myself for people to draw moustaches onto the portraits or scribble a cock & balls somewhere on the work. I knew it would happen at some point and I knew it would be frustrating – but exhibiting in a public space means you have to accept the work’s fate.
What shocked me was the fairly hursh critiques that people felt the need to write on the work itself. I never expected that people would be so angered by the work that they would publically say so by writing all over it.
From my perspective, I find the act of defacing any piece of art rather unforgivable. Whether you hate it or take offense by it or do not understand it or even think it is a waste of money – it is still the creative output of an individual and contains a part of their being. Slate the work in a review, blog about it, tell your friends how rubbish it is, complain to the organisers – but don’t deface the work itself!
To be fair, the work survived about 3 weeks before it had its first attack – a rather bold bit of writing suggesting that the images were very mediocre and a waste of space.
Of course, one soon led to a second, much more harshly written critique which spanned the entire 2 metre length of one of the panels again suggesting the work had no meaning or value and was a waste of time. It was after this second defacing that I got a little downhearted despite my best efforts not to, so decided I would try and get the writing off the work. About half an hour and a whole bottle of meths later and I mostly succeeded, hoping it would then stay untouched for the remainder of the festival.
It didn’t and less than a week later, the same person who wrote the second comment added a new one – clearly rather frustrated that I had removed their initial daubing. At around about the same time someone tried to peel off one of the panels too.
This second defacing angered me rather than frustrated me, because the person was so annoyed by my work they felt they needed to say it again! Or perhaps I should be flattered that anyone cared about it that much! However, the comment survives to this day as I suspect removing it will just result in a worse attack next time!
So what is my point? Well my point is that it is completely fair enough to hate art works, it is also fine to write critisism of exhibitions but not only should you have the guts to put your name to your comments, you should have the decency to not deface the work itself.
Of course, human nature meant I focused more on these criticisms than the positive feedback I received as I wondered why anyone was so annoyed by it they decided to write on it.
In fact, it was only on Saturday when I heard I had been shortlisted for the Danny Wilson Memorial Award 2012 that my slightly wained spirits were lifted. I had been wondering if the whole project was worth the investment – slightly childishly I know, because it is daft to get so het up about other peoples views. But sometimes it takes a more direct sign to suggest you might be on the right lines to keep a belief in what you are doing.
In conclusion, I will certainly exhibit in this public manner again – the positive experiences do outweigh the negatives and perhaps being forarmed is to be forwarned. The nature of anything in the public domain means anyone at any time could do anything to it and whilst I do not condone damaging the output of anyone, perhaps accepting this as an inevitability means you will take it less to heart?
Above all, I wish the person(s) would be honourable enough to contact me on any of my rather public websites and let me discuss the work with them as getting to discuss peoples issues with your work is a hugely valuable and informing process.
After all, I put my name to my work when I show it and I feel anyone who wants to criticise it should have the balls to put their name to the comments so they can actually be engaged in debate.
The images from this series are viewable on my website www.johnhouse.co.uk