Brian Mac Domhnaill
Having been regrettably absent for the final two days of crafting I arranged to meet Ben at Cork Public Museum for my first viewing of Mark’s completed masterpiece. First on the agenda was a check on the vessel’s condition. Although it had been treated with linseed oil we still didn’t know how quickly or badly the vessel would split having been in its new dry indoor environment for a week. We found there were some noticeable changes but based on Marks expectations we were not too alarmed. A number of cracks had widened and lengthened but only marginally. We would report back to the craftsman with cautious optimism.
I was keen to assess how the vessel looked in the space. I have an on going fascination with the different visual languages and modes of display used by museums and galleries. There are overlaps between the two of course but the agenda and end result can be very different. As our vessel is not a museum artefact there is no need for it to be confined in a case. It is a work of art but it is one that can be touched. There were already relatively unprotected stone artefacts in the space, mostly architectural fragments with carved detail, all elevated slightly on plinths. Our object would be lower to the ground. The stone objects had been spared further weathering by the elements so the occasional human touch is an acceptable price to pay. Although we wanted the public to touch the vessel we didn’t want them to climb on it or get into it. This wouldn’t be good for the vessel and it might not be safe for the visitor. Rather than put the vessel on a raised plinth we opted for a ground level sign that encourages touching but warns against climbing. We also discussed our options for conveying information and due to time and budget constrictions opted for an information leaflet that could be taken away, these were placed on a low plinth nearby.
I was conscious of the contrasting yet complimentary colours, tones and textures inherent in the placing of our timber object in a space with so many carved stone pieces. The architecture provided a cool grey and white backdrop. There was also a small connection between the yellow/brown human bones in John Sunderland’s photographic prints on a nearby wall and the hue of our vessel. However an orange plastic chair in the corner played no welcome role in any of these visual conversations so when I finally got to the museum I requested that it be moved away.
I was becoming increasingly aware of my expectations of the vessel to perform as an art object and I was finding any aesthetic and curatorial compromises disappointing. I had already moved the chair but I also found the floor sign and plinth to be a bit unsightly. By means of virtual compensation I have chosen to photograph the vessel without these items in place.
I had always imagined the vessel sitting in the centre of the space like a sculpture with the possibility of viewing it from all sides. I like the idea of an open encounter like one experiences with a freestanding work of art in a gallery or a park. You can walk around it, observe it, maybe seek out a label, maybe not. As it turned out my colleagues positioned the vessel parallel to the large window and relatively close to it. I found that the vessel didn’t have enough presence in the space. It had been positioned like a piece of furniture, out of the way. I was happy to see the outer finish but because of the orientation this was largely obscured in shadow. The side of the vessel facing towards the window ledge had more light but it was not clearly visible to the viewer. Ben and I turned the vessel so that it was perpendicular to the window and further away. The natural light now lit one end of the vessel and its sides highlighting the finish on the exterior, with only one end left in shadow.
So left to their own devices would people engage with our vessel in the museum? What would they make of it? Would they touch it? Would they focus on the object and the craftsmanship or the story behind it? By all accounts visitors on Culture Night were curious and did inspect the vessel and talk to Mark about its making. But what about when we weren’t there, how would people behave around it? CCTV footage would make interesting viewing.
Context is very important when encountering an object. By placing our vessel in a gallery or museum it immediately raises a particular set of questions that demand a particular format of answer from the institution responsible for the exhibit. What, if anything is lost in this exchange? In a museum context, there is an expected curiosity regarding an item’s age and purpose. An object in a gallery can be art alone but in a history or archaeology museum the object generally has to be old or associated with an important event or person. Our object is a spanner in the works in this regard. Given its context and fresh appearance the visitor would naturally have a host of very relevant questions. We hope that Ben preemptively dealt with most of these concerns in our leaflet. Would this satisfy the visitor and cause them to move on or would it instigate further observation and engagement?
I would argue that when humans encounter an object without any supporting information a primordial set of observational tools are applied in the moment. There is a greater level of engagement whether or not a conclusion is reached. One can simply be struck or affected by a thing. The gallery and the museum channel our focus onto objects. The stage is set for an encounter. Outside galleries and museums is there any application today, practical or otherwise, for this behaviour? Are there other instances when we should apply the same level of attention and observation? Given the fast-paced lifestyle we lead today we rarely allow ourselves such moments. What senses or combination of senses are used, how is our mind working and what applications of this process of engagement may have been the norm or a matter of survival thousands of years ago?