Posted on Friday October 30, 2020
As most of you with an interest in the arts will know, the artist Marcel Duchamp once offered a finely sculpted white porcelain urinal for exhibition in an art gallery. The intent seems to have been to challenge what an art object is by changing its context. A fairly extreme case, to be sure. This event came to mind while Lydia Wevers gave the Ovenden lecture at the Portrait Gallery in which she talked about the way we hang pictures and how hanging the same picture in a different place changes how we see it and it’s not just a change in the lighting.
There were wonderful examples all around us, in the current photographic portraits of Marti Friedlander. Many of these were of artists represented by New Vision Gallery in Auckland, in other words they were originally commissions for the promotion of works in a dealer gallery. Now they were hanging together around the walls of a portrait gallery being able to be compared one with another. You could and can walk around and recognize artists who were young at the time.
There are three Vermeer paintings in the Flick Collection in New York one of which, when we visited, was hanging in the dining room of Mr Frick’s former house. But it is not now Mr Frick’s house but a museum and there are ropes up to prevent you from getting too close to the priceless paintings. Does that change how the picture is seen? Does it change its value as a work of art? Everyone can now come in and see it, whereas in the past only Mr Frick and his family and guests could see it. But it is still hanging in the same place.
In October members of the Friends were able to go on a back of house tour with Dougal Austin and Isaac Te Awa to view and help us understand some of what is in the great storehouse of taonga Māori at Te Papa. Their explanations were essential in telling us about the original context of the objects. Where were they made? Which area had the particular carving traditions manifest in the object? How were the various cloaks made and what kind of weaving was involved? What feathers were used? All the precious objects we saw were stored with care. They were identified as much as possible. But they were not where they had been. The cloaks were not on the shoulders of people. The hei tiki were not round the necks of wearers. Does this change how we see them? Yes it does, but the presence of two Te Papa curators helps us see them not only in the great treasure house which is Te Papa but also to get some idea of what they would look like in other settings.
So the Friends are fortunate to be able to see such objects but also to come to understand how they would have been made and used. Behind each one there is a story.