Exhibiting Art in the 21st Century

by Hania Afifi

“I am sorry, we only have one more ticket left for the 4:15pm show” replied the ticket booth assistant. “I have 3 available at 4:45pm if you like” he added. My father gestured to me to forget about it and to purchase only one ticket for the 4:15 show. We were due back in Dubai at 5:30 pm that day and he was not as eager to view Rain Room as I was. He believed it would be just another art show. I was convinced it was going to be an unforgettable experience.

Rain Room Courtesy of Sharjah Art Foundation

Rain Room is an immersive art installation created by Random International, an art group that is based in London and Berlin. Visitors are invited to walk through a downpour of water without getting wet due to the hidden pressure sensors underneath the perforated floor tiles. This site-specific artwork which was first conceived in London in 2012 and had its first permanent installation in Sharjah’s Art Foundation in 2018, uses “2,500 litres of self-cleaning recycled water, which is controlled through a system of networked 3D tracking cameras” in addition to the floor pressure sensors. The floor, the ceiling and the wall panels are all painted in black thus challenging the visual perception of dimension and form. This surreal atmosphere is further compounded by the singular light source which emits a faint dispersed ray that allows to see the rain droplets as they fall and hit the ground. Inside Rain Room, one can smell the dampness, feel the cool air and see and hear the rainfall. In short, the exhibition offers a memorable experience.

Rain Room Courtesy of Sharjah Art Foundation

In the last decade we have seen an explosion of exhibitions aimed to actively visually stimulate the observer and art curators have been inventing new ways to make art shows that entice us to visit cultural institutions. From Olafur Eliasson’s The Weather Project at Tate Modern in London in 2003 to Yayoi Kusama’s ongoing kaleidoscopic Infinity Mirror Rooms, curators continue to seek artworks that transform the intended space. “The relationship between art and humans is shifting”, says Hani Asfour, Dean of Dubai Institute of Design and Innovation at Dubai Design District in the UAE. “the art exhibition model we know is dead… it’s about designing an experience… an immersive / holistic, engulfing, sensation experience”, he explains.

1991, Fischli & Weiss, 
Fischli & Weiss installation for “The Kitchen Show.” 
Curated by Hans Ulrich Obrist, St. Gallen, Switzerland, 1991

Indeed, the role of the curator as preserver, selector and presenter of artworks is no longer enough. He/She needs to be a designer of experiences, and as a designer, they need to learn how to optimise the visitor’s experience. Curators cannot continue to fill up dedicated art spaces with art objects which require written or verbal background directives and expect visitors to become engaged with the artworks and the shows. They need to create accessible temporal and physical spaces which visitors can holistically experience and part away from with a new memory. These spaces can be within the confines of an existing cultural institution or in completely unforeseen areas and times.

1991, Fischli & Weiss, Fischli & Weiss installation for “The Kitchen Show.” Curated by Hans Ulrich Obrist, St. Gallen, Switzerland, 1991

This view echoes that of Hans-Ulrich Obrist, the prolific curator, when he writes, “Exhibitions, I believe, can and should go beyond simple illustration or representation. They can produce reality themselves.” Obrist has been designing exhibitions in unexpected spaces since the early 90s that take visitors on journeys in which they are encouraged to reflect upon the newly created reality. From The Kitchen Show in 1991 when he invited renown artists like Fischli and Weiss to create site-specific works for the kitchen of his rented flat at St. Gallen, Switzerland to the latest edition of his instruction-based art exhibition Do It; first conceived in 1994 at Klagenfurt Austria, where the visitor must participate in the realisation of the artwork. His exhibitions are designed around the visitor’s experience rather than the chosen theme or selected narrative. Hence, he is comfortable designing an exhibition at hotel rooms for only a handful of guests to experience like in Room 763 of Hotel Carlton Palace which took place in Paris in 1993, as he is designing an interactive conference that combines the visual arts with poetry, literature, architecture and design in the latest edition of Poetry Will Be Made by All! At Moderna Museet in Sweden in 2015. In short, he understands that we need to continue challenging the prevalent format of art exhibitions today.

1991, Richard Wentworth, Richard Wentworth installation for “The Kitchen Show.” Curated by Hans Ulrich Obrist, St. Gallen, Switzerland, 1991

This flexible approach to exhibition design will serve us well in today’s digital age where the viewer is happy to consume artworks on the small screen of their mobile phone whilst sitting comfortably in his/her chair. The plethora of curated art content on the Instagram accounts of cultural institutions, creative publications, artists and art enthusiasts may be regarded as stand-alone mini exhibitions. In fact, this new medium democratised the curation practice and removed the formality of the courtroom from the periodic blockbuster exhibitions at national museums. However, it also robbed art exhibitions off their wonder and mystique. Scrolling through a page and flicking through images does not give the viewer the same experience as marvelling through the halls of an exhibition wondering what treasures the next room may hold. In fact, this is the very reason that ‘real-life’ exhibitions need to deliver a multi-sensorial experience if they wish to remain competitive in attracting visitors. However, they also cannot ignore the digital world. On the contrary, curators now need to face the limitations of the medium with its flat surface plane and design exhibitions that are still engaging and offer viewers an experience.

Yayoi Kusama Infinity Mirrored Room – The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away, 2013
(Wood, metal, glass mirrors, plastic, acrylic panel, rubber, LED lighting system, acrylic balls, and water) Courtesy of David Zwirner, N.Y. 
© Yayoi Kusama

Perhaps one of the best examples that demonstrate this possibility is Aspartime’s Nine Computer Exercises For the 21st Century Online Digital Interactive Era of 2015. The independent Chinese duo, Qu Xiao and Fengya Liu who started in 2012, were inspired by the ancient Chinese practice of health preservation Jiànkãng tῐcão. The tradition which is commonly practiced in public schools, parks and corporate institutions entails simple daily physical and breathing exercises like those seen in Qi Gong and Tai Chi. The duo reinterpreted the practice into the digital sphere and re-formatted it into an engaging online exhibition where the viewer is asked to perform desk exercises at the end of the day or after work.

The exhibition consists of nine GIF animations that are viewed consecutively on separate pages. Each GIF instructs the viewer to make certain movements, almost as if you are performing meditative exercises while looking at the images. As a result, the viewer can spend anywhere between 10 and 20 minutes viewing the images instead of the average number of seconds in which an image is normally consumed. Incidentally, this was also the same amount of time I had spend inside Rain Room during my visit. Like Aspartime’s GIFs, Rain Room offers an opportunity to retreat into our own thoughts while viewing the artwork. Such experiences fulfil Martin Heidegger’s first function of an artwork, that of revealing a truth that has been lurking in our subconscious or taken for granted. It is these experiences that will be imprinted into our memory and from which we emerge satisfied and content.

Hania Afifi