Rodin, Warhol, Rinse, Repeat

It’s been a hell of a couple of years for museum-lovers, a hell of intermittent lockdowns, enforced visitor routes, new booking systems and the death of “just wander in and have a look at a favourite piece from the permanent exhibit”. A dark time which we can only hope will come to an end sooner rather than later! A consequence is that on the rare occasions when it’s possible to book an exhibition and get inside a gallery or a museum, you’re a lot more determined to do so–after all, who knows when the next chance may be?

I’m sure there must be marketers out there thinking “manufactured scarcity is a great business-driver”, but in the arts and heritage world this really just constitutes more barriers to entry.

The Artist

Auguste Rodin, in the Tate Modern’s The Making of Rodin exhibition, is presented as a barrier-breaker himself, which I’m not wholly convinced by, any more than I’ve been convinced by the lockdown conversations about how managing to bodge together a video tour of the National Gallery’s long-awaited and thrice-cursed Artemisia Gentileschi exhibition, for example, means that galleries can all “just go online in future” (with the subtext that maybe then they’ll stop using all that nice valuable city-centre real estate with something that doesn’t provide profits for firms like Brookfields).

Although the exhibition opened with a lifelike bronze work from Rodin’s early career, it swiftly moved onto his more famous work, noting his failure to be accepted into L’École des Beaux-Arts, and time spent working instead as a studio assistant in more commercial environs.

Photograph of the exhibition space showing a raised, unvarnished wood dias with various plaster and finished iterations of various of Rodin's sculptures and fragments, raised on plywood boxes. The nearest is of The Thinker.
The main exhibition space, like Rodin’s own exhibitions, sought to evoke some of the sense of the artist’s studio. The gallery were, unlike Rodin, also keen to mention their environmental and recycling credentials around their exhibition construction and lighting!
A front-diagonal view of Les Bourgeois de Calais, an all-white statue of a group of European men
Les Bourgeois de Calais was given its own room, with a couple of “close-ups” of replicated hands and assemblages other features which Rodin had exhibited separately. Being able to completely circle the group monument really helped to emphasise the angle from which it was clearly expected to be viewed the most.
A display case full of plaster hands in different poses, often highly contorted. They range in colour from a deep tan to plaster-white.
Much of the exhibition space was given over to displays like this, of Rodin’s stockpiles of hands, heads, and the like, demonstrating his reuse of individual features and apparent viewing of the human form not as a whole but as a series of disconnected parts–or perhaps an “exhibition” of “works”.
A display case seen end-on, containing a series of blurry/lumpy white plaster models of human figures with no discernible faces.
There was also a proliferation of models like these, from which Rodin worked and reworked his larger works, using a pantograph at a specialist studio to scale up the working models into the finished pieces for casting.

Perhaps because of the exhibition’s emphasis on Rodin as someone who worked in commercial art production and used its methods to approach “high” art with an appropriately jaded and commercial attitude, perhaps because of the exhibition’s visible emphasis on repetition and iteration in Rodin’s work, perhaps even because the last exhibition we’d been to in that specific space was of Warhol’s work, my partner for the tour said he thought Rodin could be seen as a kind of proto-Warhol. Indeed this seemed to be a connection the exhibition itself was keen to push, without ever quite saying as much. Other parallels–Rodin’s reliance on others to do a lot of the “behind the scenes” work (initially his wife, then assistants and external studios), and his destructive/appropriative attitude towards the work of others (using antiquities he had collected as bases for his own transformative models)–become more obvious in light of this observation.

The Gallery And The Internet

My own reflection or takeaway from the experience has been somewhat less to do with Rodin than to do with the concept of “gallery” and “studio”, and more to do with an ongoing meditation on the nature of the gallery itself:

When I was last at the Tate Modern, for the previous post-lockdown reopening, I was asked to participate in a “video postcard” project, talking about what I’d missed about the gallery. As I’d just finished a circuit of the Kara Walker Fons Americanus installation at the time, the sensual experience of gallery spaces was very much on my mind, the subconscious ways in which the space affects the viewing experience. In the Turbine Hall, for example, the echoes of footsteps and conversations and breaths come together to create an ambient soundtrack of “gallery-ness” even before the sound of falling water from the fountain is added. There’s the mutual proprioception of visitors moving around each other using our special “gallery/museum walk”, a gait that doesn’t have any use outside of deep observation spaces. In the case of Fons Americanus there’s the smell of the chlorine in the water and in the galleries themselves all of the unnoticed but palpable scent of the cleaned-and-dirtied floors and the materials of the exhibits themselves.

Since then I’ve reviewed my photos from various trips to the Tate Modern in particular and found I spend almost as much time photographing architectural elements, light fittings, warning signs, and other items with interesting intersections with the white space and patterns of light as I have photographing the art. Plenty has been written already and more academically about how placing a work in a gallery “makes it art”, but now I’m starting to think of the gallery itself as art, both with and without interactions with the art within it.

Which is why I was sitting on a bench in a room full of Rodin statues staring at the point where a pillar bisected a row of oblong light fittings, and not at a nude figure intended to represent Balzac.

Contributing to the discourse on whether or not you can Just Move The Experience Online, I think this exhibition demonstrates even more thoroughly than the National Gallery’s video tour of Artemisia Gentileschi (with the erosion of the physical experience of how changing your angle of viewing in relation to a dimensional painting changes the way in which the light reflects from the paint and therefore changes your whole view of the image, not to mention the complete removal of any chance to read placards or examine pictures in detail), or any putative online Warhol exhibit (which would somewhat destroy the sense of scale with a lot of even the two-dimensional work) that this just isn’t possible.

An exhibition of Rodin’s work online would be at best an advertisement for the real thing or a study aid for those unable to get there in person. To observe Les Bourgeois de Calais from the number of shifting angles and paces that I did, casually and unthinkingly, at the Tate Modern, in a video gallery, would require a video of some length. The flattening effect of the camer and reproduction would still apply. The monumentality of the work would be reduced by viewing it through a screen. The sense of space around and between the figures would disappear. The viewer’s agency in determining for how long and how closely they examined each detail would go. The individual experiences between viewer and work, the conceptual space in which the experience of art takes place, becomes shrunken and devalued.

The technological demands on a gallery to produce a worthwhile video exhibition are also extreme: bandwith, online storage for that many high-resolution videos, accessed by that many people, and the amount of video editing required all adds to already-extant cost of putting on the exhibition in the first place, and there is an overwhelming sense that anything which is online ought to be free to access, too. Especially something whose raison d’être is ostensibly to allow the public to engage with art!

This is not to suggest for one minute that online exhibitions do not have their place. Artstring exists for exactly this reason: to give people the opportunity to make their own exhibitions, in a sense, and share them freely, working from the online catalogue of museums and galleries. However, the app is a companion: it’s there to enhance the experience of museum-going, not replace it. It’s another way to engage with the space.

For a truly functional digital exhibition works have to have been created to be viewed in that environment. They have to have been designed for that kind of navigation. The Tate itself understood this six years ago when it put together a project allowing people to exploring existing works of art as Minecraft maps, and Minecraft users themselves are endlessly inventive in their creation of art galleries, libraries, museums, and architectural and engineering art in the virtual environment. With any luck, VR headsets and more ubiquitous immersive gaming and training technology will also allow for an inflorescence of exhibitions far more interactive than anything a physical artwork can presently allow: as well as physical galleries, not instead of them.

The other major conversation about art and the digital world during lockdown has of course been about NFTs. A summary of the discussion might run, A lot of investors like the idea of a certificate of authenticity for a digital art purchase, a lot of artists have pointed out there is rampant theft of intellectual property taking place and that the authentication system profits dealers without actually authenicating anything, and have been roundly ignored by the investment press. It’s not strictly relevant to the exhibition, but it is interesting to see how deep the dividing line between “art as an investment in an item” and “art as art” has become, and the NFT debacle almost feels now like performance art in its own right, intended to highlight the absurdity of treating artistic endeavour as nothing more than a token accumulation focal point.

Close, and Closer

Onto the close of the exhibition, the exhibition shop, which was perhaps suitably sparse. I do think there was a missed trick here: considering Rodin’s near-slavish obsession with recycling fragments and poses, and his perhaps cynical display of individual replicas of fragments of statues which was so heavily informed by the culture of the fragment and fascination with antiquities rendered imperfect by age while faking that process for modern consumption… considering all of that, it seems almost odd that there were no replicas of any of the pieces, perhaps 3-D printed in plastic fibre, to continue the process of repetition, iteration, and enhancement of flaws in a new medium, for new consumption.

Looking back at the design of the main exhibition area, intended to mimick and evoke the studio setting in the same way that Rodin’s own exhibitions were–in some way faking a sense of intimacy–I’m intrigued by the question it raises: did Rodin invent the concept of the “behind the scenes” parasocial intimacy social media expects of artists today?

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