You walk in. It’s a Tuesday. It’s coming to the end of the day, and you can hear the rain outside. Turning to your left you spot your companion’s back. They’re gazing intently, head cocked. Follow their line of sight to the ladder, up the rungs, to the steel toe-caps, faded denim… pan-out. There’s a dust covered flat screen in the centre of the room, on a steel, rolling stand. It’s unplugged. There’s a rattle and the scrape of metal as bits of the ceiling flake down, and your companion looks up at you, thoughtful: is this the exhibition?
Things we know for certain about art galleries: the hospital bright-lighting; the guards that are either surprisingly grisly or utterly indifferent (there is no medium); the obligatory-observantly slow pace used only and always once inside the exhibition; the silence and the fact that sometimes, even though you know it’s materialistic, you want to have the pieces in front of you, in your living room. Rather than engaging in a battle of mental wits, you want to own them. You opt to reduce this art down to decoration. You want to deconstruct it with your bare hands, like that IKEA chair you built backwards that one time. To shake it like the cardboard box it came in, hoping for some insight, though you’d also just settle for that missing screw.
This is the physical articulation of the artist, aiming to prompt conversation. Except you know the rules of the gallery. There is a separation with the absence of Aunt Jess and china tea cups and sofas that smell of smoke and bergamot. Here it isn’t as simple as a passing compliment to your host on their choice of décor, followed swiftly by conversation on how on earth Deidre has two men on the go at the age of seventy. The artists are playing you. The silence you respect as the rules of this room forces you to commit to sight. To enter this sphere of conversation that is born of hands and thought, but alien without the aid of google translate, emoticons or Wikipedia.
You are confronted with something you cannot possess. It will not open itself. There is no download. You are not correct here. You are not wrong here either. You are only yourself. You can only apply yourself and your experience, painting your thoughts on top of the material outstretched to you by the artists, whatever shape or form that takes. That is your hesitation. To shake that feeling, post your location on one of your many platforms. Perhaps a photo of a piece, dependent on your luck of the draw with the guard. Let the likes flood in. Feel affirmed in the owning of the aesthetic of being confronted with the aesthetic of a contemporary art gallery.
Beyond these walls, we see the city’s adornments: builders, skips, traffic cones. Or do we? We see outlines. Within the space of a contemporary art gallery we fill and we shade and we impose. Though, we do so nervously. We are not used to this way of seeing. We question whether art exists because of these walls. It gives it edges to hold on to, and we grip them wide-eyed and white knuckled. Our voices are awkward with hesitant understanding. We eventually talk in assenting mumbles, tapping out the rest of our language in restless fidgeting. Without consciously intending to, you become a performance piece of the profoundly uncomfortable, delivering one liners on finger painting and anecdotes on Pinterest.
The walls are both waterproof and a subconscious instruction to pay more attention to the details; they shelter and push us beyond our realms of comfort and safety in equal measure. Whilst contemporary art concerns continual movement and progression, what remains consistent are the walls it is housed in. They act as a familiar geography, guiding us through the process of seeing in this unfamiliar way, our remaining tether to the literal. And so, still uncertain, we mirror those around us and press our palms against the concrete, and try to think the space open.