Showing and Telling?

I had a thought-provoking discussion last night at the private view of my show about just how much information an audience needs in order to appreciate works of art.

It was a particularly pertinent question for this particular show. The work is all about challenging assumptions about identity, and much of the power of the images, I think, comes from looking, thinking, and with awareness that all is not what it seems at first sight, not necessarily knowing who or what they are looking at but knowing it is unlikely to be what they expect it to be. If that’s not too Rumfeldesque a comment.

But inevitably when I am asked about a particular painting, I can give a lot more information about its genesis and development and influences, and this always leads people to want more information about every work hanging.

The current show has no labels next to the works: instead the work is described/titled by reference to a thumbnail image on a separate piece of paper. The description gives enough information to prompt questioning and thinking but doesn’t ‘explain’ or ‘give answers’. A few people wanted much more.

As an artist working in a postmodern world, I am perfectly content to allow my audience to decide what they will about my paintings and to create whatever narrative they wish. There may be particular stories behind individual subject figures, but the imagery which results is symbolic rather than specifically representational of a time and place and actual event. So I find it hard to describe what it all means, and in attempting to provide a definitive guide to the exhibition, I am concerned I will be falling into a trap of asserting certainty about a subject where no such certainty exists. But not everybody inhabits the art world, and I can appreciate a desire from others to want to know more, to want a clearer more certain viewing experience even if it’s not necessarily possible.

What to do? In this case, I have agreed to provide some additional background material, and I think I will do so in the form of a series of short stories. I will not assign a story to each image; rather I will tell a series of stories which lie at the heart of the creation of the works. In this way, the viewer can absorb some of my influences and thinking, but is still unfettered by an obligation to ‘read’ each work in a particular way.

What do others think about this? How much background information do you like when you go to an exhibition?

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3 responses to Showing and Telling?

  1. I was part of one of those conversations too. For me, it was enough to know the title of the work which hinted at a contradiction, or raised a question, and then I was inspired to look at it and make up my own mind of the story behind it; and to acknowledge that my own assumption about what I thought the image alone meant, were immediately challenged. I then felt free to make up my own story about it.

    Having said that, the background stories that you told were fascinating, so once everyone had a little taster of those, of course they wanted more.

    Your idea to supplement with short stories is interesting, because you will be challenging those people who want the ‘literal’ background. People who visit without the benefit of your presence won’t have the tantalising opportunity to question you more about it, so will have a very different experience of the work, I think. Which is a whole other debate……

    • gillianholding – Author

      Interesting. I’m reassured to hear that being faced with uncertainty is ok for a non-artist; although maybe your writing experience means you are comfortable with the concept of not-knowing and freedom to allow a personal ‘reading’. Because in essence the show-but-not-tell-mantra is as valid in creative writing as in the visual arts.

      Anyway, I feel comfortable with the story idea as a way around the dilemma.

      And I really appreciate having to think about these considerations as part of my practice. It’s all find and dandy producing work, but the presentation side requires as much care and consideration as the making, I always find.

  2. […] Gillian has, herself, written about discussions on the night of how much of the stories behind the people in the work she wants to tell the viewer.  Opinions differed on the night.  I was happy to simply know the titles which, when applied to the piece, raised immediate questions about its interpretation.  I then felt free to make up my own story. […]

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