09 March 2010

Viewer and the viewed: Defining visual and social encounters in the museum.

The Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles, Bangkok (second of two posts)

My projects are born in the course of encounters. This fits with the principle that the museum or exhibition is a specific site for encounters. Each day, I imagine the organisation of potential encounters, in museums, in different countries, in political or religious institutions, at historical sites, etc. I sometimes reorganise their spaces, imagine what might be done to encourage people to look and make thamoment individual. It is also a matter of scale and means, you can’t approach encounters with individuals and vast audiences in the same way. I enjoy being challenged on different scales.”©

A major focus of ours for the Museum of Textiles in Bangkok, which defined much of our internal design debates, was centered around the very nature of the costumes on display in the permanent galleries – ceremonial, formal and Royal – that would establish a strong hierarchical relationship of the viewer and the viewed. Embodied in the costumes themselves, is this very relationship, an inter-subjective experience, one that should not pose any challenges or uneasiness in the viewer. To produce an equal amount of respect and deference, in the viewer as confronted by an image of the Queen herself (or her rare but possible physical presence), necessarily requires a display approach that will activate these emotions.

Perhaps, in paraphrasing the artist/curator Hans Ulrich Obrist, if the viewer initially perceives the costumes as objects on display – when they first declare themselves to be on show - we then need time to recognize them as subjects ©. The viewer as a subject to the Queen may require ample time or space for him/her to see the artifacts as other then embodiments of HRH. This dynamic works in reverse as well, where a visitor or group of visitors, first recognizes the “on show” presence of costumes as the Queen herself, requiring time – or some form of constituent elements of the exhibit design - to recognize them as artifacts, unique, fastidious products of specialized weaving and design. With this in mind, we were aware that the display would necessary have to confront this dichotomy (This will not necessarily be the case in the temporary or thematic galleries showing tribal costumes).

At the early stage we tested these thoughts focusing primarily on the central Queen’s Gallery, where her formal wear, most designed by Pierre Balmain in the 70’s to 80’s using traditional Thai textiles, are to be displayed. The design of a central vitrine in this space, accordingly an object of unusual scale and form, allowed us to define multiple views of HRH costumes on mannequins, while reinforcing a frontal relation to them. Never is the visitor allowed to be fully “behind” the costume – in deference to the hierarchical construct – while simultaneous allowing for framed or reflected “rear-views” of these same costumes, when visually or aesthetically valid.

The vitrine acts in this way as a highly functional structure framing various angles, reflections and positions (both of the objects on display and the viewer themselves) while simultaneously asserting social hierarchy. The scale of the vitrine, the curvature of singular panels of glass, while others facetted in non-reflective glass, the internal lighting, the tinted dual-vision mirror glass partially behind the costumes, assures the visual complexity and functionality of the display. One creates visual movement in this way, with “frozen” works of art.

However, from a design perspective, certain details of the vitrine will define a more ambiguous role of the enclosure – is it to protect, reflect, secure or separate us from the artifacts? Place them on a stage? The vitrine’s panels of glass, as we conceived one version, may not form a sealed corner, leaving a separation – not unlike a Dan Graham glass pavilion – reversing an expectation of complete protective enclosure of the objects (the museum building and gallery should perform this duty).

Staged this way, one compels the visitor, to be aware of what they are seeing and their movement (and of their own image, of being on show themselves). The Queen, physically absent, is present in maintaining the visitor’s distance and position as subject.. The visitor’s gaze is egalitarian, while the display maintains the necessary social hierarchy at work. The “choreographic tension” is there, and each viewer, in one instant of time, whether individual or in large groups, will feel this to some degree – to what degree will establish the effectiveness of our design – and then be free to move on to other galleries.

© The quote and term choreographic tension is from Olivier Bardin’s interview with Hughes & Obrist, 2008-12-07 Liverpool Univesity Press, as is his discussion of exhibitions as a specific site of encounters. Reference to the pavilions of Dan Graham courtesy of Hauser & Wirth Zürich.