Each month we hand over the responsibility of having the final say to a guest columnist. After hearing author and provocateur Will Self announce that art has lost its aura at FACT’s Day Of Collisions – the cultural hub’s celebration of the interactions between art and science – Bethany Garrett ruminates on our expectations of art.
I am no expert on art or science so I mooch along to FACT’s Day Of Collisions, the opening day of the centre’s No Such Thing As Gravity exhibition, with a notebook and an open mind, expecting not much other than to learn something. Art and science: two loaded words, near-proper nouns, almost dichotomous in their interpretation, lofty immovable concepts. Or not.
No Such Thing As Gravity seeks to reconcile the two: attendees are assured by Monica Bello, Head of Arts at CERN, home of the mammoth Large Hadron Collider, that both endeavours share a leaning towards curiosity. The best pursuits in both realms should ask and provoke questions, not give answers. The day is permeated by collaborations or collisions of this curious nature: first artist in residence at CERN, South Korean Yunchul Kim, will work with particle theorists, animating the great unseen of the experiments carried out in the Large Hadron Collider with miniature whirlpools of shimmering metallic substances. Gina Czarnecki, an artist, and John Hunt, Professor of Clinical Sciences at LJMU, use 3D printing and stem cell technology to craft sculptures out of human tissue, living portraits. Everything seems super cool and futuristic.
Enter Will Self, cultural commentator/agent provocateur. Flying in the face of the exhibition’s message, Self asserts that art and science are two opposing, fighting parties, a bull and a matador. “Nothing in this exhibition is science or art” – a big ouch for the scientists and artists sitting pretty like keen school children in the front row. For Self, science has diminished the value of art, because technology has made art replicable, and the particularity of any given artwork is intrinsic to its aura and its magic. Yes, he found the collection of works at FACT curated by art and science specialist Rob La Frenais interesting, but they didn’t emanate a hallowed aura, that, for Self, would deem them art. Yikes.
But this is only the opinion of one eloquent man. And art is in the eye of the beholder, is it not? Quite literally in the case of Sarah Sparkes’ GHost Tunnel portal, on display in the FACT lobby, with a counterpart tucked away in the Williamson Tunnels network. A seemingly endless tunnel of lights, as you gaze into it, your own eye becomes the centre of the cylinder, peering back at you all illuminated and groovy. For me, it possessed that aura Will Self couldn’t find in the exhibition. Partly because sparkly lights are pretty as petals (simple pleasures). But mostly because there appears to lie infinite nebulae within its scope.
But what should art do for us anyway? Should we go into the gallery expecting auras and atmospheres and to be moved? To come out a changed person? To dictate how we should experience art belies the complexity of the human mind and the potential ways in which we can interact with and produce art. It’s also exclusionary because the expectation of having some kind of grandiose response is intimidating. In short, analysis and expectation can suck the fun out of everything.
One day, I would like to go to an exhibition with no writing on the wall, no explanations of the artists’ inner turmoils for a change. Art in a vacuum. Context optional. To be enjoyed and experienced, not analysed. I would love for the works to be anonymised. Lassnigs could sit next to Picassos and they could both hang out with something some fella from down the road did. Experiment with a level playing field in art, rather than nod along at the chin-stroking, cultural capital invested into a piece that comes with knowing it is by a certain artist. “This is one of his later works, yah.”
“Art galleries present themselves as a place to go and be arty” – another cutting comment from Self, but, this time, it’s a sentiment I agree with. We could do with losing some of the pretence.
I’m just a punter and I don’t know too much at all. To leave a list of instructions on how to recognise and reconcile with a work of art would contradict my beliefs about our capacities as individuals (as well as see me acting well above my station!) but I will say that I try to have no expectations and keep an open mind. For me, No Such Thing As Gravity embodies a good environment to practice this in.