Sorry, we thought you were the art

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Stephen Fry recently gave a talk at the Royal Academy in which he urged the assembled art cognoscenti to consider the difficulties for non-artists when confronting contemporary art. The biggest by far being embarrassment.

It’s odd in a way that the art show’s secondary function as a theatre of embarrassments should attract so little discussion. Could it be that the art world is quietly content about the discomfiture quotient of a typical RA or Tate show? Or that contemporary art’s currency is kept high by maintaining these tensions between the in- and the out-crowd

Sometimes even art world insiders feel a bit awkward and confused in the company of contemporary art. One problem, in an age when art is more likely to imitate bric-a-brac than life, is that of distinguishing the art from life’s general detritus. A job made even harder when the art is bric-a-brac, just recontextualised

Yesterday I was sitting near the entrance to the Whitstable Museum and Art Gallery. It’s one of a number of venues around the town hosting the art installations, film screenings and performances that collectively form the Whitstable Biennale (by the way, where did this bonanaza of biennales come from?).

I’d already stood for 10 minutes or so in the stuffy, blacked out room at the far end of the museum where an art film played to people with a higher tolerance than me for sound collage. As I sat on a chair surveying the museum’s charming but incongruous collection of artifacts — a hut constructed from oyster shells, an apparently random collection of the personal belongings of Peter Cushing, a scale model of the ‘oldest railway bridge in the world’ — a couple of DFLs (Whitstable-speak for people down from London for the day) appeared in the doorway and peered in uncertainly. Scrutinizing his Biennale Guide one asked the the other “do you think this is all part of the work?”

Easy mistake to make. Earlier, when we had observantly followed the Bienalle Trail (venues 1-15) ourselves, we noticed a Zimmer frame locked to some street railings with furry hand-cuffs. “Who’s done this?” I asked. We consulted the Biennale Guide. No one. At least it didn’t have a number. A few minutes later, as we trudged a backstreet in steady drizzle, we came across an abandoned wheelchair artfully folded against a wall. “Companion piece to the Zimmer frame?”. Evidently not. “Maverick artists on the loose? Local paraphiliac?”

I was pondering this as I sat in the Whitstable Art Gallery and Museum. Just before I got up I turned around to see an elderly couple inspecting me from a distance of about three or four feet. “Oh, I am so sorry,” the woman said, “I thought you were part of the exhibition. You looked so lifelike.” They actually seemed slightly disappointed. But I was happy enough in my new role. Not as an art object but as part of life’s general detritus.

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