Whiteout / Assumptions

Crossposted from my NCECA 13 Blog

One of the most thoughtful lectures I’ve heard at NCECA in all the years I’ve been attending was delivered by Namita Gupta Wiggers on Thursday.  Ms. Wiggers is the Director and Chief Curator of the Museum of Contemporary Craft (MOCC) in Portland, Oregon.  The lecture explored what Ms. Wiggers called “whiteout conditions” in the world of contemporary art – and made some proposals about the role of ceramics in (or maybe not in) these conditions.

Side note – MOCC has a terrific website, full of really useful archived material from previous shows and great features on the current exhibits.  Ms. Wiggers told the audience that she believes that as much content related to museum collections and exhibits that can be available for free, should be available for free and online – and MOCC’s site reflects this.

Ms. Wiggers explored contemporary art through the lenses of the white cube, the white page, and the white tent.  By the ‘white cube’ – she meant a traditional white-walled gallery setting.  She calls this, “a pristine space within which we remove ourselves from daily life, the street, etc…. the space in which we revere the object.”  We don’t touch art that is displayed in a white cube.  It is rarified, privileged, and made special for visitors.  She explained the ‘white page’ as the typical sort of art publication that presents individual works isolated on the white field of the page – handled like an extension of the white cube.  And her ‘white tent’ represents the sort of space in which a crafter might encounter his or her audience on the street, at a craft show or fair.  She notes that the “art world” has adopted strategies from the craft fair – in developing a street fair atmosphere for events that help artists connect to the public (New York and Miami examples).

She made a powerful argument that ceramics does not always present best in the white cube or on the white page.  Many ceramic objects – and object-makers – consider process and function to be an important part of the story of their art.  Isolating pottery from its process, tactility, and function in order to display it on a white pedestal in a white room seems a dismissive act.

Image from MOCC’s show ‘The Living Room’

By contrast, take a look at what MOCC is doing with their current exhibit – Object Focus: The Bowl.  The exhibit is taking shape in two parts.  Part One, Reflect and Respond, “will pair objects from local collections and the MoCC archive with short narratives written by individuals from a range of disciplines. The words of chefs, anthropologists, and poets will appear alongside those of critics, makers, and curators, all extolling on the art and craft of the bowl in its myriad incarnations.”  The exhibit is using a gorgeous Tumblr site to showcase collected responses and reflections on the bowl.  Part Two “will feature contemporary project-based work that investigates the processes of making, using, and living with bowls.”  Here’s some names of involved artists that some of my student readers will recognize – Ayumi Horie (she of the dry-throwing video) and Michael Strand (he of the Misfit Cups)!  Both artists are creating (or curating) works designed to interact with the community for this exhibit.

The white tent?  Well, that’s where we acknowledge that we potters create work that is inherently designed to connect with an audience.  Ceramic artist Ehren Tool created work for a MOCC exhibit called Gestures of Resistance – and he actually set his studio up in the gallery, in order to best connect his messages to the audience.  How different would this piece be if it was simply a display of cups?

Ms. Wiggers’ lecture got me thinking a lot about assumptions.  We assume many things happen because of how they always have happened.  Art gets displayed on the wall, or on gallery pedestals, because this is always how art has been displayed… but is this really the best way to display art objects that are about process and function?  School periods are 45-minutes long because they always have been 45-minutes long… but is that the best way to allot for deep, quality content?  I teach my classes with a certain sequence and priorities… but is this always the best way for my students to learn?

What happens when we scrap the white walls of our assumptions, and instead try new ways to communicate and connect?  Has this ever happened in your world?

[Photo and video from MOCC – Museum of Contemporary Craft, Portland, OR]

Postscript:  The MOCC show Object Focus: The Bowl just got featured in the New York Times!  Great article – with a participatory element.  So interesting, though, that this story was featured in Home and Garden – not Arts and Culture….

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