Spa­ces of Ex­pe­ri­ence:

Art Gallery In­te­ri­ors From 1800 to 2000 by Char­lotte Klonk, Yale Uni­ver­sity Press, 305 pages

Pasatiempo - - In Other Words - — Stephanie Tay­lor

Mu­seum spa­ces of­fer a strik­ing ex­am­ple of what has changed in terms of 21st-cen­tury cul­ture. The in­stal­la­tion of mul­ti­ple video-based works at SITE Santa Fe’s bi­en­nial pre­sen­ta­tion, The

Dis­solve, presents op­por­tu­ni­ties to think through and ex­pe­ri­ence some of the re­cent pro­found shifts in mu­seum dis­plays and to con­sider the very mean­ing and func­tion of mu­se­ums in con­tem­po­rary times.

Char­lotte Klonk’s his­tor­i­cal sur­vey of art-gallery in­te­ri­ors from 1800 to 2000 is a sound primer on the ways that mu­seum spa­ces have worked to cre­ate cul­tural mean­ing. She asks and an­swers this im­por­tant ques­tion: “How have Western cul­tures used the art gallery ... to con­cep­tu­al­ize the na­ture of sub­jec­tive ex­pe­ri­ence, its value, and its re­la­tion­ship to the ideal of so­ci­ety pur­sued at the time?”

Klonk’s book is a valu­able study show­ing how gallery spa­ces have been used to in­spire feel­ings in in­di­vid­u­als who visit them and re­flect trends in the cul­tures that cre­ated them. By look­ing closely at mu­seum spa­ces that were built be­gin­ning at the turn of the 19th cen­tury and com­par­ing them with mu­seum spa­ces over the decades since then, the author of­fers some im­por­tant the­o­ries about how these places have func­tioned and how and why they have changed.

Her book is or­ga­nized chrono­log­i­cally. Af­ter a brief in­tro­duc­tion, in­di­vid­ual chap­ters fo­cus on the found­ing of the Na­tional Gallery in London in the early 19th cen­tury, the var­i­ous man­ners in which art was dis­played in Ger­man mu­se­ums at and around the end of that cen­tury, the mod­ernist in­ter­ven­tions in Weimar Ger­many (in­flu­enced heav­ily by the Bauhaus) in the early 20th cen­tury, and the shift to­ward at­tract­ing pa­trons through con­sumerist prac­tices at the Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art in New York City start­ing in the 1930s. The fi­nal two chap­ters look specif­i­cally at the “dilemma” of the mod­ern art mu­seum in the present day, fo­cus­ing, in par­tic­u­lar, on the chal­lenges pre­sented by new-me­dia in­stal­la­tions.

Within the frame­work of her book, Klonk sug­gests other im­por­tant and in­ter­est­ing nar­ra­tive arcs. For ex­am­ple, the author de­scribes the ways that var­i­ous Western au­di­ences ex­pe­ri­enced the art spa­ces that were opened to them in the last two cen­turies. Klonk uses archival ma­te­ri­als — pho­to­graphs, etch­ings, crit­i­cal sources, and the writ­ings of the mu­seum of­fi­cials who were re­spon­si­ble for putting art on pub­lic dis­play — and comes up with a story that traces the mu­seum ex­pe­ri­ence from one of na­tional pride, to Ro­man­tic ex­cess, to mod­ernist chal­lenge and em­pha­sis on view­ing art as a con­sumer ex­pe­ri­ence. The author points out that the growth of pub­lic gal­leries in the early 1800s fol­lowed the cre­ation of mod­ern nation states and co­in­cided with the Ro­man­tic era’s push to­ward seek­ing emo­tional ex­pe­ri­ences, par­tic­u­larly through art.

Klonk is es­pe­cially in­ter­est­ing when de­scrib­ing the mid-cen­tury prac­tice of pre­sent­ing art in pub­lic mu­se­ums in a man­ner that fore­grounded the ob­jects as life­style goods. She ar­gues that this fol­lows the in­creas­ingly con­sump­tive prac­tices of post­war Western cul­ture. The co-op­tion of Rem Kool­haas’ de­signed space for the Guggen­heim Mu­seum in the Soho district of New York by Prada in 2001 — it is now that fashion de­sign em­po­rium’s Epi­cen­ter store on Broad­way — is a clear ex­am­ple of the ways in which art and con­sumerism are in­ter­twined in con­tem­po­rary times. “Just as the cre­ation of ed­u­cated, cos­mopoli­tan cit­i­zens was thought to be nec­es­sary to the emerg­ing nation-states in the nine­teenth cen­tury, and the cul­ti­va­tion of the in­di­vid­ual’s in­ner, sen­su­ous self circa 1900, so the model of the ex­tro­vert, so­phis­ti­cated con­sumer played an im­por­tant role in the twen­ti­eth cen­tury. ... In short, con­sump­tion was fash­ioned into a civic duty.”

Klonk is par­tic­u­larly crit­i­cal of the lack of vari­a­tion and ex­per­i­men­ta­tion of the in­te­ri­ors of sev­eral con­tem­po­rary mu­se­ums, in­clud­ing the Guggen­heim Mu­seum in Bil­bao and the Tate Mod­ern in London. The dar­ing de­sign of the out­side of many con­tem­po­rary mu­seum struc­tures be­lies the strik­ingly uni­form na­ture of their in­te­rior gallery spa­ces, which do lit­tle to in­duce a new re­la­tional ex­pe­ri­ence among gallery go­ers and in­stead of­fer a generic place to view art. It would have been in­ter­est­ing to hear the author’s views on Daniel Libe­skind’s ad­di­tion to the Den­ver Art Mu­seum, com­pleted in 2006, which has gar­nered both rave re­views and strong crit­i­cism for the strange for­ma­tions of its rooms. Af­ter read­ing

Spa­ces of Ex­pe­ri­ence, you too may be­gin wish­ing for gallery spa­ces that dis­prove the no­tion that “the his­tory of show­ing art is as rich and var­ied as only the ex­te­rior of mu­se­ums are now.”

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