I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts (or An Exhibition Space's Responsibilities with Regards to Potentially Offensive Materials)
In the gallery recently, though, we went back and forth on whether to post a notice on the doors warning visitors that one of the pieces in our Central Asian video exhibition contained "mature" material. Of course on the day that I decided the sign was overkill a mother and her 8-year-old son wandered in, just out of curiosity. The boy was fortunately immediately more intrigued by the array of headphones and monitors on the opposite side of the gallery, but clearly enthusiastic about seeing everything in the show, so I quietly let the mother know one of the videos might not be age appropriate, to which she thanked me and quickly took her son out. I still went back and forth on the warning sign though.
Last Friday's post here touched on this question tangentially (there, the offense some took at the nature of the work led protesters to shut the show down in San Francisco), but James Wagner has highlighted a case closer to New York in which the Long Beach Island Foundation for Arts & Sciences has chosen to encircle an installation with screens and post the following message:
The work within these walls may upset or offend viewers. Please use your best judgment in deciding if you wish to view the work.
The main problem with warning signs, of course, is how they frame the work before the viewer encounters it, setting up a predetermined context in which the viewer should approach it. In other words, the viewer is not permitted to make up their own mind about the work, free of the institution's instruction.
Susan Dessel's sculpture, "OUR BACKYARD: A Cautionary Tale" has been censored by its current host, the Long Beach Island Foundation for Arts & Sciences [LBIF]. She had been invited to participate in its current Artist Residency and Retreat Exhibition, titled "ART CONCEIVED SINCE SEPTEMBER 11". Support from the Foundation for Contemporary Arts (NYC) made Dessel's participation in this exhibit possible. On the eve of the show's May 3rd opening LBIF Interim Executive Director Chris Seiz told the artist that he had been advised by some LBIF members that they found the piece “offensive” and were considering ending their support of foundation. In the hours prior to the opening Dessel's installation was walled off from the rest of the gallery. Visitors who now wish to see the concealed work must first step across signage warning that them that the piece may upset or offend.
The artist has released a statement:"OUR BACKYARD: A Cautionary Tale" was an opportunity for me to re-imagine the world as I understand it: our shared backyard. Despite the expression of dispiriting conditions found in my work, underlying it is a robust sense of hope that it might encourage viewers to consider their own role in transforming the community - local and global - through their actions and inaction.Dessel describes LIBF’s transformation of the piece as having turned the artist's fundamental intention on its head, since it now represents our containment and continual isolation from the outside world.
You could argue that all installation decisions, from juxtapositions, lighting, wall text, empty space around, etc. communicate the institution's instruction on how to view the work, but in the context of a "Warning" the expectation is you should approach it with your defenses up. That's unfortunate.
Perhaps most alarming about the LBIF situation is that members were considering ending their support of foundation over the matter. That they would resort to blackmail to express their objections makes me wonder why they would support an arts foundation in the first place, to be quite honest. Clearly there were less drastic means to express why the work was difficult for them. Of course, I assume members support art institutions in order to keep learning and broaden their world view. I'm a bit optimistic that way.
Labels: controversial work.