Scary Art Galleries for Beginners One girl's battle with abstract art

We all know that familiar feeling. You walk into an art gallery and you just don’t know what the fuck is going on. I experienced this recently at an exhibition opening. A few of the gallery regulars were hanging around outside, and as I entered into the space I saw a few streamers thrown about, a wine bottle on the floor and a few glasses on the windowsill. Was this an installation speaking to the abjectness of the morning after a big party? The rampant hedonism of the twenty-first century lifestyle? Or was it just the leftovers from the exhibition opening? I felt confused and angry, like they were trying to make a fool out of me. That is, until I took a step back and realised the situation was fucking funny. I could just imagine all these people coming into this space and feeling exactly the same way I had, shrieking, “this isn’t art!” with all the offended abhorrence you could imagine.
And I think that’s the reason for people’s outrage in regard to much contemporary, abstract and conceptual art; they’re just insecure. Instead of simply allowing themselves to experience the work, or to come up with some ideas in regards to it, they reject it instantly as an insult to their character, as if the artwork were this vicious creature trying to expose their inadequacy.
If, as some people say, ‘real art’ is confined to paintings, then art has become totally fucking redundant. A camera can take a far more realistic image in a millionth of the time with far less effort than a painting ever could. That doesn’t mean we don’t value the old paintings, but it does force us to question the role of art in society today.
In my opinion, art is the visual equivalent to philosophy. I remember walking into a Mondrian exhibition in the Museum Ludwig in Cologne with an older family friend. She despaired over the work, using that all too common phrase, “my child could have made that.” Maybe, but that is so entirely not the point. Your child wouldn’t have been engaging with the artistic discipline or with any measure of theory and, besides which, we’re beyond the point of realistically painted trees and delicate brushstrokes. We’ve entered the realm of ideas. In the words of Marcel Duchamp, the seminal ready-made artist who constructed the first ever toilet-as-art-work in the early twentieth century, “art is ideas, not just visual products.” And whereas philosophy presents those ideas to us in the largely dry and obtuse format of the written word, art enables us to engage with them viscerally, physically, through engaging with the senses.
But hey, thinking of art as “philosophy” doesn’t exactly break down a lot of the barriers. Art can still be frustrating; why don’t they just say what they mean?
I find it’s a matter of opening yourself up to those experiences and not letting your insecurity overcome you. It’s about letting the mystery of the work unfold, instead of expecting it to provide you with a direct and immediately intelligible message. Maybe start easy, with some Yayoi Kusama or Fiona Pardington. Kusama’s polka-dot installations invade gallery spaces and present us with another world, evocative of the imaginings of childhood or the concept of infinity. Both enthralling and dizzying to the point of nausea, our bodies are involved in the process of looking and we can’t help but be drawn in. When I saw these works a few years ago in Wellington, it was really just fun to be a part of such an imaginative and bizarre place, so completely divergent from the normalcy of the surroundings I’m usually encompassed by.
Seeing as this has turned into something of a minor how-to guide of art viewing, I’ll finish with some sage advice. When you feel your defensive mechanisms manifesting themselves, choose to be open-minded instead. Don’t be intimidated by the gallery space or your perceived lack of knowledge or understanding; push through your boundaries of comfort and just feel it. What you find may shock and delight you, or alternatively challenge and/or anger you. But it will always affect you, if you let it.
Posted 5:46am Monday 19th September 2011 by Kari Schmidt.