Author Archives: Lei Qin

Installation art and artists’ interventions with the museum

Lei Qin

Installation art and artists’ interventions with the museum


As a genre, installation art is totally dependent on art world institutions and viewing spaces, especially museums. My final paper will mainly discuss how installation artists use their artworks to mediate, to question or to reaffirm the function of the museum. The focus of this paper will be on the evaluation of different approaches of interventions in a museum taken by installation artists. My paper will not cover all types of interventions in the art world but rather, it will be a kind of phenomenological responses to installation arts in the museum. I will bring together three case studies: Sunflower Seeds by Ai Weiwei, Jeff Koon’s balloon dog installations in Versailles and Electronic Superhighway: Continental U.S., Alaska, Hawaii by Nam June Paik. Diverse as these cases may seem, all three artworks have at least one thing in common: artists who have made these artworks intervene in museum exhibitions. Research questions such as how installation art has evolved as an art genre in the art world, how museum installations can affect the nature and message of installation art and how are the artworks organized to create a dialogue and context for viewers to make connections and create some basic meanings will be explored.


In the modern world where so many different art forms have been born, evolved, explored and even forgotten over time, almost no other practice of art is more impressive and immersive as installation art. Compared to traditional painting, sculptures or any other art form, installation art has a natural advantage in engaging spectators, activating viewer’s perceptions and encouraging participation. The visitor is no longer a passive recipient of content, but an actor in a dialogic multisensory process of communication with his/her surroundings, in which he/she is fully immersed. The ‘gaze’ towards the object in the museum ’treasure house’ (Witcomb, 2003) becomes one aspect of an enveloping bodily experience within a complex environment. The museum no longer acts primarily as a place for presenting the pre-existing objects or the authoritative representation of a given context, but for the gathering of different forms of experience (Falk & Dierking, 1992).

Installation artists’ involvement with intervention may take various forms. It can take the form of using museum itself as an art form, as in the case of Sunflower Seeds by Ai Weiwei discussed below. Alternatively, artists can question and reaffirm the function of the museum by changing the infrastructure setting of museums, such as light, sound or scent. One such example is Electronic Superhighway: Continental U.S., Alaska, Hawaii by Nam June Paik. Another way of intervention is Jeff Koon’s exhibition in Versailles.

A short history of installation art

Although a marginal and experimental art practice at the beginning, today installation art has become the mainstream in contemporary artistic practice. Roots of installation art can be traced back to the great Conceptual artists like Marcel Duchamp, the first to place a standard urinal into the “fine art” setting, and Kurt Schwitters, the artist who created an environment of several rooms created in his own house in Hannover. Duchamp’s “readymades” and Kurt Schwitters’s Merzbau thus became precursors to this genre along with other early influencers like the avant-garde Dadaists, who were the first Conceptual artists who chose to focus on making works that generated questions rather than crafting aesthetically pleasing objects. Those artists’ emphasis on real materials and everyday life rather than depiction or illustration remains the prevailing mode of communicating ideas in today’s installation art. In 1942, Marcel Duchamp set his famous installation in the First Papers of Surrealism exhibition in New York, threading the entire space of the gallery with his so-called “Mile of String”. The gestures of Dadaists, Marcel Duchamp, and other precursors gave utopian ideals to artists at the time to create three-dimensional environments. About 1957 onward, the earlier version of installation art emerged out of environmental installations made by artists such as Allan Kaprow and Yves Klein. In Kaprow’s Words (1961), he constructed an Environment of painted words with rolls of paper on the wall of galleries and played audio recordings for the audience as they moved through the room. Yves Klein was another pioneer of the curated environment, although his approach was a much sparser one. In The Void, an installation made by Klein in 1958, Klein emptied the room and painted it white. Guards were sent to stand outside the room. Anyone without invitation was charged entrance fee if he or she wanted to go inside. By doing this, Klein wanted to validate space as an object worthy of artistic attention. From the 1960s the creation of installations has become a major tendency in modern art. By the end of the 1990s, there were a considerable number of artists creating installation art in Europe and the United States.

Installation view of First Papers of Surrealism exhibition, showing Marcel Duchamp’s His Twine 1942 Gelatin silver print. Gift of Jacqueline, Paul and Peter Matisse in memory of their mother Alexina Duchamp Philadelphia Museum of Art. Photo by John D. Schiff

What does the term ’installation art’ denote exactly? During its early stage, installation arts has been created under various headings. In 1958, Allan Kaprow coined the term ’Environment’ to describe his room-sized multimedia works. From the 1960s, a few scholars began to identify an increasing tendency for artists to create the room-sized works of art. They variously called these works environments, happenings, art spaces, or situations. In the 1960s, the word ’installation’ was employed by magazines such as ArtforumArts Magazine, and Studio International to describe the way in which an exhibition was arranged. For example, the photographic documentation of this arrangement was termed an ’installation shot’. For artists associated with Minimalism who rejected the messy expressionistic ’environments’ of their immediate precursors such as Allan Kaprow and Claes Oldenburg, the neutrality of the term ‘installation’ was important. Gradually, artists used the word ’installation art’ to describe the works that occupied the whole space. The Oxford Dictionary of Art (1988) defines installation as a “term which came into vogue during the 1970s for an assemblage or environment constructed in the gallery specifically for a particular exhibition.”

“Words” by Allan Kaprow at Smolin Gallery, New York, 1962. The image is part of the Getty’s recent acquisition of the archives of Robert McElroy, a photographer who documented New York’s performance-art scene in the 1960s. Photo By Robert T. McElroy / The Getty Research Institute

Even though the term ’Installation Art’ has been extensively used, it remains ambiguous and unspecific in the definition. Reiss (1999) writes: “It refers to a wide range of artistic practices, and at times overlaps with other interrelated areas including Fluxus, Earth art, Minimalism, video art, Performance art, Conceptual art and Process art.”  Certain characteristic features of installation art, however, have been discussed and analyzed in detail from different angles by several scholars. The essence of installation art is, according to Reiss, spectator participation. In Julie Reiss’s book From Margin to Center: The Spaces of Installation Art, she highlights some of installation art’s salient features, one of which is that ‘the spectator is in some way regarded as integral to the completion of the work’. In her further explanation, spectator participation ‘is so integral to Installation art that without having the experience of being in the piece, analysis of installation art is difficult’. Julie Reiss and Claire Bishop believe that an installation is not completed until it has been taken by recipients. Thus, the viewer or spectator’s participation becomes a constitutive and decisive element in installation art. Another feature of installation art is site-specific. Unlike sculptures, paintings, and similar pieces, installations are usually dependent on the configurations of certain sites, from rooms in galleries and museums to outdoor spaces. The physical characteristics and properties of the space thus play important roles in communicating the meaning of an installation work, that is to say, if one installation artwork gets removed from its original location it loses all or a substantial part of its meaning.

In recent years, development in information and communication technology have influenced the conventional concepts of space and time inside installation art greatly. Consequently, much installation art has become more compounded evolving into interactive multimedia events. Displays of work now combine a flexible method and it contains a product of machine-based audiovisual technology, such as video projection and computer-generated images. However, some installation artists argue that because contemporary multimedia installation art contains electronic media, (existing only as light or electronic signal), which is considered non-physical material, it cannot be categorized with previous forms of installation art.

 From Object to Project: Sunflower Seeds by Ai Weiwei

With the growth in consumer goods after the World War II, the art world has witnessed an artistic tendency to gather together large quantities of society’s found objects. From early instances of the Surrealists’ urge to use supplies of working materials such as castoffs from streets and dustbins, to pop artists’ practice of borrowing the materials, techniques, and imagery of mass production for their art, the ideas and systems traditionally embodied in the museum display, archiving, classification, storage, curatorship have been challenged greatly by contemporary art practice. Installation artists appropriated and interpreted the way they present their work in their own ways to activate spectatorship, to increase immersion and to trigger a public inquiry.

Artist Ai Weiwei holds porcelain sunflower seeds from his installation Ai Weiwei/Tate Photography

In Kui Hua Zi (Sunflower Seeds) 2008, Ai Weiwei filled the enormous Turbine Hall at Tate Modern, an industrial building-turned-contemporary art space, with more than 100 million tiny, handmade porcelain sunflower seeds. The seeds installation tipped the scales at 150 tons. For viewers whoever entered Turbine Hall, the scenery was a marvel, at least mathematically, considering the millions of facsimiles of the titular item cast in porcelain, then decorated by hand. Each is both a mass-produced multiple and an individual painting. The audience was invited to physically walk over and lie on the seeds covering a vast expanse of floor to the depth of about four inches. The black-and-white sunflower seeds crunched delightfully underfoot, and the whole thing resembled an indoor pebble beach, with people strolling about and then plunking down to sit or recline.

A demonstrator surrounded by posters lies in Ai Weiwei’s sunflower seeds exhibit in the Tate Modern. Photograph: Carl Court/AFP/Getty Images

Sunflower seeds evoke a warm personal memory for the artist, who recalls that while he was growing up, even the poorest in China would share sunflower seeds as a treat among friends. Sunflowers also represent the citizens of the People’s Republic of China because Communist propaganda optimistically depicted leader Chairman Mao as the sun. Ai Weiwei asserts the sunflower seed as a symbol of camaraderie during difficult times. These sunflower seeds were hand-crafted in China,shipped across the oceans and presented in London. Viewers can freely walk and play in the sunflower seeds beach. Many of them may not have the memory of the Cultural Revolution in China, nor do they understand the warm feelings that Ai Weiwei have with friends in his childhood. But when viewers interact with the work inside Tate museum, they were just like kids come to the beach and sit down, play, and grind. This kind of inspiration and interaction span culture, politics, and language. Compared to more traditional types of art, installation art regards its viewing subject not as an individual who experiences art in isolation but as part of a community. In this way, communication between visitors who are present in the space is generated.

Looking through the lens of technology: Electronic Superhighway: Continental U.S., Alaska, Hawaii by Nam June Paik

Artists like Ai Weiwei, Yayoi Kusama, and Andy Warhol explore an obsessive repetition of form in their installations and sculptures. While some installation artists focus on combining contemporary technology such as videos with art, or altering the infrastructure that once enabled visitors to simply gaze at objects on display, such as light, image, sound or scent. Visitors who stepped in the third floor of American Art Museum in the east wing found themselves facing a fantastic sensory overload — Electronic Superhighway: Continental U.S., Alaska, Hawaii by Nam June Paik. The exhibit is a map of the United States. Each state is outlined in the neon light tubing and filled with closed-circuit television screens. Non-stop TV programmers are chosen specifically to represent the states. Some screens are tilted to better fit the state (such as within New Jersey and Wisconsin), and television size varies depending on the size of the state. Colorado and New Mexico, for example, each have six screens of equal size. TV programmers also vary according to 50 states’ features. For example, Iowa’s appears to be a tourism ad featuring celebrities and politicians such as Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford, which is perhaps an homage to Iowa’s essential role in our political nomination process. Kansas plays The Wizard of Oz and Missouri’s is Meet Me in St. Louis. Texas’ video consists of cowboys and horses. New York is not representative of the whole state, but rather an image of the Empire State Building.

Consisted of 336 televisions, 50 DVD players, 3,750 feet of cable, and 575 feet of multicolored neon tubing, the only thing you can do it stare at it in awe when you first see Electronic Superhighway. When I first saw this masterpiece, I felt my brain was working as hard as the generators to make sense of the quick, flashing screens and competing sounds. This masterpiece is the only artwork in the alcove. Nam June Paik’s Electronic Superhighway works against the tendency of formal categorical groupings that sort individual pieces into cohesion in American Art Museum (for example, the grouping of color field works together in museum), focusing viewer’s attention on the singularity of the objects on display and avoiding effacing the differences between digital media sources displayed in the work.

Unlike other artists’ video installation work, this work does not immerse the viewer in whole darkness. In Claire Bishop’s book Installation Art, he explained that “Dark space (with its mystical and mystifying atmosphere) would run counter to the focused rationality and concentration needed to investigate and elucidate these narratives.” The neon light outlines and nonstop TV screens stand out against the dimly lit background in the whole room, seducing and simultaneously producing a critically perceptive viewer. Due to its massive size and abundance of digital media, viewers are invited to walk through the map and to enjoy the content of every television programmers according to the state. Nam June Paik’s use of multicolored neon light, TV screens and curator’s use of background highlight the approach of every viewer to the work. When I visited, many viewers would step close to move along neon light borders of states and focus on on-going TV programs on the screen.

Commonly known as the father of video art, Nam June Paik transformed video into an artist’s medium with his media-based art that challenged and changed our understanding of visual culture. As Paik wrote in 1969, he wanted “to shape the TV screen canvas as precisely as Leonardo, as freely as Picasso, as colorfully as Renoir, as profoundly as Mondrian, as violently as Pollock and as lyrically as Jasper Johns.” Paik’s installation just like a painting that uses electronic media as a brush to draw and to depict what we used to leave home to discover. With audio clips from screen gems, Paik suggests that our picture of America has always been influenced by film and television. In such installation, certain materials and medium that compound the artwork become activated, generating the dialogues between artist and viewers, between artists and curators and between museum and viewers.

The beauty of contradiction: Jeff Koons’ exhibition in Versailles

Like Nam June Paik’s Electronic Superhighway intervention that engages viewers in a hypnosis surrounding in the American Art Museum, Jeff Koons’ large-scale balloon sculptures, including Balloon Rabbit, Balloon Swan, and Balloon Monkey in Versailles also evokes viewers of an unrealistic dream. The artist’s intervention with space is so important that it would be impossible to understand and interpret the exhibition Jeff Koons Versailles without understanding the institution or space surrounding it. All his works presented in this exhibition have been selected specifically to be situated in different rooms in the Royal Apartment (Les grands appartements ) in Versailles and in the gardens of the Castles, highlighting an inner relationship between each artwork and the theme of the room, or the specific features of the work and the decorative details and the furnishings of the location.

“Balloon Dog” by Jeff Koons at the Château de Versailles exhibition. Photo ByThe New York Times

Balloon Dog, one of his huge polished steel sculptures that imitate the balloon sculptures made for children’s parties, posed amid the solemnity of allegorical paintings and marble veneer of the Salle d’Hercule.

Balloon rabbit was located in Le salon de l’Abondance, the antechamber of the ancient cabinet des curiosités ou des raretés. The work is one of the most well-known and emblematic Koons’ creation. Cast in mirror-bright stainless steel, an inflated cartoon bunny reflected the futurist, utopian aspirations of modernism. The small salon de l’Abondance (Drawing Room of Plenty) was built in 1680 for Louis XIV to store his rare paintings. Under Louis XVI, the room became le salon de jeux du roi (the games room of the king). Salon de l’Abondance was reserved for au buffet les soirs d’appartement on Monday, Wednesday and Thursday. In its childlike vulnerability, innocence and eagerness to please, it exudes a feeling of new possibility.

Jeff Koons’s “Lobster,” in the palace’s Mars Salon. He called the exhibition “so profound — the high point of my artistic life.” Photo By Alcock for The New York Times

Lobster was hang from the ceiling at Le salon de Mars, dedicated to the Greek god and, at the same time, to the planet. The colorful shape and design of the work derive from the inflated children’s pool toys, but the material used by the artist – polychromatic aluminum – transforms this everyday object into works of art.

Mr. Koons’s “Split-Rocker,” now residing in the palace gardens. Photo By The New York Times

The exhibition will also include the gardens of the Castle, in which one important work Split-Rocker, a sculpture created by ten of thousand flowers, was installed in the Parterre de l’Orangerie. Flowers are recurring elements throughout Koons’ work: they are a symbol of life and grace. The work combined two different profiles of rockers – a blue rocking horse and an animated dinosaur – and these split parts are sustained by an interior architectural structure. Koons said he was inspired by the Sun King when he created Split-Rocker. In a video, Koons said that “this is the type of work that Louis Quatorze would wake up and have a fantasy that he’d want to see and he would tell his staff, and voila! He would come home and in the evening, there would be Split-Rocker.”

Even though Koons has stated that there are no hidden meanings in his works, nor any critiques. The contradict itself between Koons’ sculptures and the surroundings make the exhibition unforgettable. On the walls of the queen’s antechamber hang portraits of Marie Antoinette surrounded by her children. In the middle of the room is Koons’ exhibit, Hoover Convertibles, a collection of 1960-style vacuum cleaners. A marble statue of Louis XIV shares space with some unlikely interlopers: Michael Jackson and his pet chimp Bubbles, sculpted in porcelain. There can be thousands of interpretations of Jeff Koons’ work in Versailles. The statue of Michael Jackson and his pet monkey Bubbles before a statue of Louis XIV could be a gentle reminder that pop stars are today’s royalty. The Balloon Rabbit, again in stainless steel, stands on a marble plinth amid Baroque portraits, black marble busts, and green velvet, like a bunny laughing at the pomp of official portraiture. The touching personal intimacy that Balloon Rabbit has could suggest the function of the room as a game room. Koons also put his white marble Self-Portrait, the artist’s head in a mass of marble shards, popping up cheekily in the Apollo Salon. The piece in the Hall of Mirrors, the most famous room in the palace, seems rather conservative compared to his works in other rooms. He has hung a three-meter-wide round balloon at the far end in the sparkle of all its mirrors and chandeliers and sheer scale of its 73-metre length. Interestingly enough, as you admire your reflections in its convex form, it does feel a little like being in a ball at the court of Louis XIV.

As with any juxtaposition between historic and modern, the contrast with Koons’ colorful shiny world is also a chance to rediscover the château itself and of course its gilded decorations, colored marble, crystal and oil paintings. These hilarious, oversize sculptures are still viewed as subversive mock commodities, satirizing the infantilism and banality of contemporary imagination. The dialogues between Jeff Koons and viewers of his works can only be generated by understanding the surroundings, Versailles.


Many installation artworks, in which so much money and energy are invested, are not made primarily for art collectors, but for the visitors who will perhaps never have an interest or enough money to buy art. As the art system is becoming a part of mass culture as an exhibition practice that combines with architecture, design, and fashion, it is becoming increasingly difficult today to differentiate between the artist and the curator. Thus, the idea of the artist’s intervention has been turned inside out by collaborative practice. From an unwelcome intrusion into the museum by artists, the intervention has become a curatorial practice of the museum itself. Institution and intervention are bound together in this process. Whatever forms of artists’ intervention with museum might be, the aim of such interventions is quite similar – to activate spectatorship, to increase immersion, trigger public inquiry and to generate dialogues.


Google Arts & Culture: A VR museum or a art search engine?

In 2016, the Internet search giant Google debuted a new version website of Google Arts & Culture, a website that promises to give people access to the world’s museums at just a click. In the official Google blog, a post wrote about the new version of Google Arts & Culture like this:

Just as the world’s precious artworks and monuments need a touch-up to look their best, the home we’ve built to host the world’s cultural treasures online needs a lick of paint every now and then. We’re ready to pull off the dust sheets and introduce the new Google Arts & Culture website and app, by the Google Cultural Institute. The app lets you explore anything from cats in art since 200 BCE to the color red in Abstract Expressionism, and everything in between.

Google Arts & Culture now claims “more than a thousand museums across 70 countries,” from big partners like the British Museum (with close to 9,000 works) and LA’s Getty (with close to 16,881 items), to the National Museum of Mongolia, in Ulaanbataar (with a modest 96 items to view) or the outdoor “Sculpture by the Sea” exhibit in Cottesloe, Australia (with 69 of its advertised 70 exhibits on view). I find that the whole website is interesting to play around with, but it’s still clunky to me. First of all, it integrates too many features together with the seeming grand ambition of becoming the one-stop web portal for museum-goers and feels a bit like a palatial new trophy museum that you slowly realize was built by robots who aren’t totally sure what anything really means. One minute you are staring in awe at some cool virtual attraction, the next you wander into another digital dead end. Though Google Arts & Culture provides some basic and useful functions, I would regard it as an art search engine. It allows users to discover works and artifacts, to search for anything, from shoes to all things gold, to scroll through art by time. For those who want to dig in deeper, the website could walk one through the vivid details of Pieter Breugel the Elder’s Tower of Babel, but to a rather inexplicable introduction to “Contemporary Art,” which posits that the tactile information of craft media spoke of a direct connection to an endangered humanity.

Some thoughts about photography’s influence on painting

The invention of photography, in the middle of the 19th century, caused many painters to consider that this signed the end of their art. When he saw the first daguerreotype, the French painter Paul Delaroche said this: “As from today, painting is dead!” Painters whose work consisted of the production of life-like images to satisfy, generally, the egos of their customers, could see that photography was a far more efficient and inexpensive way of achieving this. Another commentator of this period had this to say: “Photography is so rigorously true to optical reality that it is likely to destroy individual conceptions of beauty.”

This last remark was proved to be not true, as was soon shown by the work of the impressionists who went inside immediate, superficial vision to investigate how images, and particularly colors and shapes, are perceived by the eye and the brain. And many art movements since then have taken this much further. As for aesthetics, or perceived beauty, we have since seen just how much this lies in the eye of the beholder (or, to be more cynical and in respect to some contemporary art, in the pocket of the investor), and how impossible it is to set hard-and-fast criteria for beauty.

The realism of photographic images was also criticised from the start precisely because it was too realistic. This precise reproduction of what people really saw in the world around them kind of blew apart the hypocrisy of constructed, often idealized images of what people wanted to see, as in this nineteenth-century painting by Bochereau. And of course the same can often be been said about portraits prior to photography, with many very notable exceptions of course. Photography not only opened up new fields for painting to explore by removing the responsibility for slavishly realistic reproduction but, especially with the invention of films, it also profoundly changed our way of viewing things. Vision has never been the same since. The impressionists, like Monet, could do things like this:

What Monet showed was that vision was a continuum that ebbed and flowed and not a fixed snapshot. One could attempt to catch an instant of it, but that would merely provide an “impression” because capturing reality is an illusion. Reality is there, whether we look at it or not. All we can do is to create our impression of it and of its impact on our senses and emotions, as Lucien Freud said.

A little later, the Cubists would de-construct the traditional single viewpoint to encompass many perspectives in a single painting, something later investigated, perhaps with more finesse and in another way by the English painter David Hockney. He used Polaroid images of the same subject taken from different viewpoints that were minute variations on a theme, just as one’s two eyes, combined with the movements of the head, will produce small differences in the vision of a subject. 

So I don’t think art is concerned with the imitation of “real” life. Bonnard had this to say on the subject in the early part of the 20th century: “The question is not the painting of life, but making painting come alive.” Art is concerned with human imagination, and the juxtaposition of elements that may or may not be perceived directly in visual reality. The act of painting imposes choices on the painter, and these choices will constantly be confronted with the constraints of executing these decisions.

The word “reproduction” reminds me of the word “commodity” immediately. Last week, I happen to visit Hirshhorn to see the exhibition: “Brand New: Art and Commodity in the 1980s”. The 1980s was a seismic decade of global political shifts: the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989; along with the demise of Communism; a soaring stock market until the Crash of 1987; and the rise of U.S. right-wing conservatism under President Reagan. Moreover, extensive technological advancement led to Cable Television, with its multiple channels, MTV and CNN allowing viewers greater viewing options, along with late-night television and personal computers all contributed to altered visual viewing and the way we received information. The change in the art canon shifted in the 1970s toward Post-modernism inspired by the rapid spread of Critical and Revisionist Theory. Additionally, the AIDS crisis surfaced in the 80s, the rise of multiculturalism, Feminism theory and the intensive product branding demonstrated by Nike and Calvin Klein advertising on cable TV.

One of the key effects of the technological changes is that the art world exploded in the 1980s, becoming a disparate medley of new approaches and ideological contention. Artwork became a commodity and the artist, a brand. A commodity always depends for its status and its value on its relative scarcity; once the reproduction and distribution of that commodity become effectively free, then it necessarily loses that value and that status. This is great news for consumers of art, but for artists (producers), it means, quite simply, that they suddenly have nothing of value to sell. There is no doubt that artists need to and have to sell art commodities at a relative profit. However, there is a fundamental difference between them in terms of what the aim of generating those profits is. In the case of artists, the aim is generally to generate enough income for a decent standard of living which will enable them to keep making artworks.

But now we are living in an age of digital reproduction. This form of digital reproduction makes the advertising of original works by amateur artists to be on the same ground as professional artists because it becomes a level playing field. The influence of the art world as an institution is placed on the sidelines and in the area of art history while contemporary artists compete for hits, recognition, and sales. The sales of artworks online have increased dramatically since the 1990s and while there is no official census, one may conclude that the sale of art online might have already surpassed the sales of artwork in art galleries.

What does this mean for the contemporary art galleries? That depends entirely upon what direction the socially elite decide to go in, for that is predominantly the driving force behind art sales in art galleries. If the social elite maintains the status quo and continues to buy art through schmoozing at art shows, then contemporary art galleries will continue to maintain their own status quo. If the social elites decide to begin investing their money by purchasing artworks online from the vast plethora of artists available it could create a radical shift in the value of maintaining actual sale-oriented art galleries.

Walter Benjamin’s writings within “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” foretold this shift, but at the same time stressed the value of the ‘aura’ of the original piece. This ‘aura’ was the feeling of tradition, the feeling of the artist’s hand, and the uniqueness of the piece. He argued that it was this unique ‘aura’ that drove people to ownership of specific pieces of original art. I think that pieces do have auras that we attach to them, a sense of karma if you will, but I do not believe this is what drives us to possess these objects. Rather it is our greed and capitalist pleasure that we get from acquiring objects, especially rare objects, that drives people to spend enormous amounts in the effort to purchase rare art objects. For example, many people buy for aesthetics, but they do not brag about buying an aesthetically pleasing art piece from a no-name artist.


Communicating meaning: the dialogues in artworks


Reflecting on my own reading experience, the word “dialogical” and “dialogism” appear usually in literary critique or philosophy, but very little has been said about the meaning of these terms in artworks and visual media. From this week’s reading, I have a chance to gain a broader understanding and newer insights about these terms, especially when applied to arts. As Bakhtin mentions in Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, being-in-dialogue is a process that “a person participates wholly and throughout his whole life: with his eyes, lips, hands, soul, spirit, with his whole body and deeds. He invests his entire self in discourse, and this discourse enters into the dialogic fabric of human life, into the world symposium”. What I perceive is that “dialogical” or “dialogism” can be viewed as tropes similar to counterparts in literary theory, that is, metaphors to support the analysis of cultural products that are materially self-contained. In this way, we put ourselves in real dialogues and in certain forms of communication between two living entities when we are examining artworks.

Me, as a viewer, participates with the painter Paul Klee when I see Paul Klee’s painting Park near Lu., 1938 the first time. I couldn’t help putting myself at the nexus of minds and imaginations. The black symbols which represent trees and their branches, as well as roads in Lucerne. There is a strong contrast between the brunch and surrounding areas. My interpretation of this painting is that it represents hopefulness and anxieties at the same time. It is said that “Park Bei Lu” was created when Paul Klee was inspired by an impression he had of nature within a park located near Lucerne. His wife Lily needed to travel to Lucerne for health reasons to visit a sanitorium. Warm colors like orange, red and yellow get me in an energetic and warm feeling. The surrounding areas around branch do look like the blossom. But I still have a feeling of anxiety at the same time. So this is my involvement with Klee. I think that the dialogues between me and Paul Klee are more dialogic than monologic. Bakhtin’s notion of dialogism, the belief that language and thought are ultimately social in addition to being unitary. Bakhtin wrote of dialogism “After all, our thought itself — philosophical, scientific, artistic — is born and shaped in the process of interaction and struggle with others’ thought‘.

The dialogues also take place between Klee and other artists such as Kandinsky. Klee’s “inventiveness” includes pictorial transpositions drawn from music — he married a pianist and played violin every morning — and from a theater. The movement and rhythm in their paintings do reflect the influence of music on the visual arts. By approaching to music and painting it in their work, these artists have discovered unconventional techniques in their art-making approach. Also like Kandinsky, Klee took up a spiritual pursuit in color.

Purposes of museums

This week’s papers mainly talk about the history and the purposes of museums. The word museum originally comes from the Greek mouseion, it meant “seat of the Muses” and denoted a place or temple designed as a place of contemplation or a philosophical institution. The traditional mission of a museum is to collect objects and materials of cultural, religious and historical importance, preserve them, research into them and present them to the public for the purpose of education and enjoyment. When I read about the case of National Museum of Iraq in The Art Museum from Boullée to Bilbao, I love the saying that the museum is civilization and a place for cultural heritage. At the same time, I could not help thinking about the ethical dilemma of preserving world cultures. There are hundreds and thousands of priceless historical artifacts have long been stolen, traded, sold and passed through uncountable hands to be shipped away from their original countries and displayed in foreign countries museums. More than 150 years after British and French troops sacked and razed the Summer Palace, almost every year around the anniversary of the sacking of Beijing’s Summer Palace in 1860, come calls for the return of ‘stolen’ antiquities. By last year, the China Cultural Relics Academy was estimating that 10 million Chinese items were overseas. Should these museums return art or not? Who should own indigenous art? How can these ‘universal’ museums (mostly western) obtain and display artifacts without stoking the illegal art trade and reproducing colonialist narratives? Andrew McClellan regards museum as a place of refuge and dialogue. Some scholars focus on the enlightenment virtues and educational potential of museums and regards that museums should be universal. As far as I am concerned, in order to honor and nurture the cultural heritage of indigenous peoples and to foster the understanding and the cross-cultural communication, those stolen artifacts should be returned to their hometowns.

Beautiful and priceless’ ancient treasures stolen from Afghanistan on show at British Museum

Professor Irvine defines museums as “mediums with a message” in the paper The Institutional Theory of Art and the Artworld. What I understand is that museum is a space that mediates for other media, the collection and the senses, the ideologies, and also a mediator of time, history, and memory. For example, different types of museums mediate their ideologies in ways that serve distinct purposes. Museums can function as a symbol that represent the identity, power, and wealth of a nation. The art museum utilizes an aesthetic approach to ordering knowledge, utilizing art objects to mediate national pride, sophistication, and elitism. The natural history and science museum served as a platform for showcasing man’s domination over his surroundings through classification, description, and the establishment of hierarchies within nature. The museum can also mediate time by compressing the exhibition narrative in a way that conforms to the physical limitations of the exhibition space or the visiting time. In this way, the museum has the power to “re-present” history.

Museums and cultural perceptions

The very first impression I have about the exhibition of Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting is the crowdedness and the hustle and bustle of the room. After waiting in a long line, I shuffled along with all others struggling to see past the backs of so many heads. Though I want to spend a little more time with Vermeer’s artworks and look into the details of women’s skins, gestures and the folds of their dresses in those paintings, I feel that I cannot be selfish because so many others are waiting around me. On the one hand, I look the overcrowding as a good thing. Attendance numbers at Vermeer’s exhibitions reveal that this is a successful exhibition and National Gallery of Art has been sensitive to meet visitors’ needs. At the same time, however, I have some questions about this situation. Will the crowdedness build barriers in allowing visitor involvement and engagement? With so many people in the exhibition at a time, can visitor fully immerse themselves in a museum atmosphere? I know these questions can be tricky to tackle, because no matter how meticulous the advance planning, museums can’t always predict which shows will be megahits or whether the galleries will provide enough room for uncrowded viewing.

Another thing I would highlight about the exhibition of Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting is the layout and the light. I really like the decoration and the color of NGA. I think the lighting system of the museum matches those paintings in exhibition well. I like Vermeer’s work Woman holding a balance especially for this painting gives me a feeling of harmony and serenity. In this painting, Vermeer uses his iconic palette of blue, grey and yellow that lends the scene its cool tonality and harmony. The skylight from the window lends the peaceful highlights of the young woman’s skin. Her hood and collar have a crispness. His brush is virtuoso. I like the fine reflections in the balance, the highlights of the pearls, and the contrast between the fine blue fabric in the left foreground and the coarser texture of the woman’s yellow wool gown – and subtle handling of light seeping in through a gap in the curtains.

Johannes Vermeer
Dutch, 1632 – 1675
Woman Holding a Balance, c. 1664
oil on canvas, stretcher size: 42.5 x 38 cm (16 3/4 x 15 in.)
painted surface: 39.7 x 35.5 cm (15 7/8 x 14 in.)
National Gallery of Art, Washington
Widener Collection

In fact, I am really looking forward to more knowledge about how to utilize recent advances in lighting technology, such as LEDs, new lighting control options, the use of daylight to improve visitor’s visual experiences. What I know is many museums have adopted the new LED lighting system to illuminate paintings. Although emerging technologies such as LEDs provide wonderful new tools for improved illumination, the flood of new technologies has created confusion about selecting appropriate lighting solutions. How to enhance the visual experience and minimize light-induced damage is a question I would like to know the answer.