Archie Gibbs dissects the remote gallery experience.
More on the “hate it” side of the marmite pendulum, the online viewing room (OVR) seems an inescapable, yet necessary, evil. Deputising the in-person exhibition which is currently on an intermittent hiatus, I do foresee a future for this distributive method stretching beyond the pandemic. A decentralised, easily accessible mode of viewing sounds ideal for many. You can never be underdressed, you don’t have to live in London or New York and, more seriously, there are far fewer accessibility concerns. This argument for the OVR definitely has footing. And yet, the entire art experience made digital serves some artists considerably more than others. While photography, video work and, to an extent, painting and sculpture are transferable to the OVR, the palpable in-person experience of land art, installations or even soft sculpture is unparalleled. Furthermore, the consumption of a curated exhibition online can come across as limp and disorientating. With Instagram’s take over as de facto visual engagement, galleries needed to make some shift to the virtual to regain power, with their leading allure – the in-person exhibition – being unavailable. The way in which we, as arts patrons, engage with this content is up to us, but it begs the question of how art is meant to be consumed, and more importantly, enjoyed.
Over the last decade, catalogue digitisation, online collections and virtual auctions foreshadowed this digital switch. However, the eventual switch to art digestion solely through a screen was a step many saw as inconceivable outside the most mitigating circumstances. Well now, in the midst of an unprecedented era, I find myself perusing the OVR until my eyes go hazy.
Adhering to a gallery’s social norms and practices completely alters when in private. The assumed need to say the right thing or look the right way in a high-end gallery or museum has little or no significance when looking at a painting on a website. While the ostensible equality of the online platform suggests progress, cracks are evident. The digital divide is alive and kicking more than ever since the pandemic. Furthermore, most galleries demand personal data before entering an online viewing room which may prove troubling for some.
The height of commercialism in the art world are the fairs, and the major ones (Frieze Art Fair and Art Basel) gave off an online department store aesthetic in their online interpretation. Part of me thinks why even try to hide it? The art industry is financialised and the overtness of recent developments in online consumption only makes this clearer to the naive among us who still hold out for some paradoxical anti-capitalist rhetoric in a commercial gallery.
The elsewhereness of an OVR provides plenty of advantages for a more global, decentralised art world. Instead of having artists outside Europe and the US only making a name for themselves once they have gallery representation in Europe and the US, now artists and their local gallery space can promote their work without needing to move abroad. Commercial spaces such as Gallery 1957 in Accra and Sfier-Semler in Beirut grew in recognition while Zeitz MOCAA in Cape Town established itself further as a key institution for contemporary art. This is not to say that they needed “discovering” in any sense, but the growing recognition of institutions and artists outside of the Euro-American axis will hopefully balance the distribution of money, power and fame globally.
Despite the socio-political opportunities the OVR may offer, it must be stated that the phenomenological aspects of an artwork are compromised. The crux of so many works are their existence within, and relationship to, a given space. Some OVRs are thriving; they consider their roster of artists, and display, the most digitally apt parts of their oeuvre. Jack Shainman Gallery is a particular stand out, with its recent Black Joy exhibition. A collation of Black artists whose careers span just shy of a century, the exhibition eloquently highlights a hope and solace often vacant from scholarship on Black artists, that is, joy. Yet many others simply show a high-resolution photograph of an exhibition and a few nice fading transitions, failing to consider the night and day difference in experiencing a show online rather than the envisioned in-person format. Spaces like the Storm King Art Center, a 500-acre, bucolic sculptor’s playground in upstate New York and home to the most notable land artists, are unable to sufficiently transfer the environmental “awe” effects of their space into digital format.
While exhibitions managed to briefly open up again in the summer and autumn, the rules on proximity and prescribed wayfinding were enough to dampen the appeal of an afternoon gallery visit for many. We must wait to see the future of commercial art consumption and the field of museology as a whole. Like any other art form, the visual arts needed to and have, for the time being, adapted. The beauty of the OVR is in the eye of the beholder, and while they certainly satisfy momentarily, presenting interesting solutions to a global divide and uneven distribution of power in the art market, nothing can quite replace the experience of a top drawer exhibition in person.