What stands out, is a small circular blue mirror.
Three exhibition spaces show rows of photographs, on eye level placed and carefully framed. White frames, white passe-partouts. White signs that provide the visitor with some basic information about the works on display. Underneath, the works are supported by even whiter walls – if that’s possible. A few short thematic texts on the wall and a timeline give the exhibited works a bit more context. These few added text elements help us telling how we could – or: should? – see the work. One the one hand helpful. On the other hand always a risk to restrict the interpretation of their reader, the visitor.
To me, this basic exhibition design slightly feels like a safe choice. Surely, the exhibited photographs fully come into their own and are given room to demand all the viewer’s attention. By no means you are given easy opportunity to get distracted. However, apart from achieving our undivided attention, this presentation doesn’t add a lot. I can not completely stay away from getting a feeling of boredom and outdatedness. Did I already become too familiar with newer, more exuberant, daring or experimental exhibitions to not longer appreciate this simple – and seemingly white cube – exhibition perspective any more? Nevertheless, two facts that are presented in the exhibition make me contemplate on the ‘why’ of this curatorial choice.
Firstly, the introductory text mentions that this exhibition is made in collaboration with an American gallery that is representing the artist behind the works at display. This makes me question: to what extent did this particular institution where the images are displayed, have a say in the exhibition design? Or was this all-white presentation already decided upon by the gallery where the artworks came from? This would make the exhibition design then a less deliberate choice and maybe just some outcome of what was already there.
Secondly, the fact that these photographs were only discovered recently and exhibited for the first time after the artist’s death, also makes for an interesting case. How do you display artworks when a part of the context remains hidden? And maybe as well: in which case you have no idea how the artist herself would’ve wanted it exhibited? If the artist would’ve wanted the works exhibited at all? How to frame a work in an exhibition when no clear framework is known yet? Could this simple design then not be interpreted as a safe choice but more as a neutral and respectful one?
But then… In an exhibition where only a few elements guide the gaze of the viewer, a little blue mirror stands out. Placed in a small corridor at the end of a line with self-portraits of the artist, the visitor suddenly gets confronted with their own self-portrait. The mirror is making you aware of your role and own perspective, making you a participant instead of a spectator for a moment. In this simple, neutral exhibition design where the visitor easily can keep a certain distance – this little addition all of a sudden involves you. Adds a whole new layer to the experience. And precisely because of the simple design, the mirror stands out and can make a big impact. Making me adjust my impression of a safe, simple or boring design to a balanced and focused one.
Tentoonstelling | Foam: “Vivian Maier – Works in Color”
* Deze korte tekst is in 2020 geschreven als onderdeel van de cursus Art Criticism and Writing: an Introduction bij Node Center for Curatorial Studies