Gently push the door open into any of the privately owned businesses dealing with contemporary art in London’s Mayfair or New York’s Chelsea. Notice the smudge of your hand stain the glass. It is a mark upon a sanctified mausoleum to modernism, magic and meandering. It is a print that says ‘I am here’ but one that soon disappears. The interior is full of aloof, thick glass doors. Walls all freshly painted white. Smooth concrete floors. The elegant indifference scratches you under the chin, like a cat.
In the eighth episode of the British comedy Absolutely Fabulous, aired on 3 February 1994, the gregarious, gobby, gold-draped Edina Monsoon decides to buy art. Lots of it. In a three-minute clip that is a shady, tea-serving meme before the meme, Eddie stomps down London’s Cork Street into The Mayor Gallery where she is greeted by the archetypal gallery assistant of the period dressed in head to toe beige and immediately too inquisitive, too officious, too mistrusting. Eddie’s rebuke: ‘You only work in a shop you know, you can drop the attitude’ slices through the snobbishness of cultural gatekeeping, the notion that only some people can and should have access to the treasures inside. It is a mood that has thankfully waned. Today art fairs around the world are attended as if they were pop concerts. Jennifer Saunders’s iconic comic romp through the annals of London’s buzzy fashion scene captures the flat champagne angst of the capitalist 1980s as it heads into the pop socialism of New Labour. The scene also illuminates the unyielding power that the gallery has to make us feel inadequate.
And yet we persist in walking through the door. And the gallery endures in its stubborn three-dimensions. Our own physicality, the vastness of floor swallowing up a sculpture or the gentle shadow made by a picture frame, are hard to read online. The British artist Barbara Hepworth whose monolithic organic forms stand both inside galleries and in the middle of the outdoors once said: ‘I think every person looking at a sculpture should use his own body. You can’t look at a sculpture if you are going to stand stiff as a ram rod and stare at it, with sculpture you must walk around it, bend toward it, touch it and walk away from it.’ Seeing only a jpeg of Chinese artists Sun Yuan and Peng Yu’s robotic, bloodthirsty machine Can’t Help Myself (2016) – dutifully organising thick red liquid away from the corners of the room – numbs its pathos. A well lit tiff of Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s joyous painting The Hours Behind You (2011) betrays its scale, texture and scent.
Screens lend a veneer of distance and distraction. They make Guernica the size of a grenade and turn complex films into digestible clips. 24 hours a day, seven days a week accessibility renders an unjust apathy to the artist’s cause. Experiencing art only through a screen is like reading a translation of a book – the words take on the meaning of the interpreter, not the original writer. They are lost in transaction. Online the world’s galleries never close but we are denied the impact of standing face to face with silence; or seeing our own reflection looking back at us from a framed photograph. We are less able to see ourselves inside the work.
Television between the late 1990s and early 2000s had a reverence for the commercial art gallery as a sort of free theatre – full of opportunities to shop and impress (as with Absolutely Fabulous) or to mingle and get laid. In the sixth season of the Dionysian feminist romp Sex and the City, episode 12 opens with the exquisite egoist Carrie Bradshaw heading downtown to see a performance by a woman artist who has been living on a raised platform for 16 days without food. In its staging and ambition, it is a facsimile of Marina Abramoić’s The House with the Ocean View, which she performed at Sean Kelly Gallery in 2002. Abramović lived on three platforms for twelve days existing only on water – her only means of escape being thick wooden ladders, their rungs replaced with the sharp edges of large carving knives. Just Marina and a sink, a bed, a chair with mineral pillow, a table, a toilet, a shower, seven pairs of trousers in seven colours, seven shirts in seven colours, six white towels, a metal bucket, a metronome, a bar of natural soap, a bottle of rose water and a bottle of pure almond oil. Impassive, Carrie says: ‘There are depressed women all over the city doing the exact same thing as her and not calling it art. Put a phone up on that platform and it’s just a typical Friday night waiting for some guy to call. Why do you think she has the knife ladders? To keep her from running out for a snack.’ Black turtleneck-sporting extras stare intently at the artist, their gentle facial movements channelling intellectual goodwill, yet Carrie is distracted, embarrassed by her ‘not arty-ness’. The scene illustrates the way in which the gallery arouses anxiety. ‘A work of art encountered as a work of art is an experience, not a statement or an answer to a question. Art is not only about something; it is something. A work of art is a thing in the world, not just a text or commentary on the world,’ Susan Sontag wrote in her essay On Style. The gallery furnishes the mind whilst exposing our wariness of being alive.
Entering the space, you’re often confronted with a corporeal void. A noise – sometimes a ‘hello’ – will peep from behind a giant, high desk, an attendant reading a book or diligently answering emails sanctions your arrival with refined disinterest. You look around, you lick your finger to lift up a sheet of A4 paper from a pile of freshly printed notes resting on top of the counter. Sliding it into your palm you slice a line in your skin, reading the name of the works on show, their provenance, their price. You wonder which way to step – larger public galleries have spent years trying to use colour, floor design and new-fangled architectures to help us negotiate their layout in some sort of order, preordained by the curator.
Commercial galleries, where the public and the private collide, are quite different in this regard. You are left to your own devices, sometimes seeing a triptych back to front, or starting a film from the end. Questions are only answered if posed. The journey through the space is entirety predicated on how much time you have, how engaged you might be or how invested you are in the experience. Somewhere in the corner of a room budding artist-cum-gallery attendants will be scrolling through Instagram, their iPhone screen set to dim and nestled in the nook of a hardback book. Others may be sitting bolt upright, as distant and stiff as a flagpole at half-mast.
Notice the floor under foot and the glowering lights overhead, the dedication these galleries have to anonymity, to throwing all of our attention onto the walls. Curiously, most remain closed on Mondays allowing time for the Apollonian professionalism required to host the beautiful chaos offered by painting, performance, sculpture and video works. It is a convention that defies the on-demand hokum of our age.