Opinion | The importance of teak bannisters

I recently attended a student exhibition opening in Auckland with the aim of recording people’s conversations. Yes, this makes me sound like a creep, but I assure you it was merely an innocuous social experiment.

NB: This is not a record of those conversations (sorry to those of you who were interested in reading them) but rather a thought-piece on how we attend exhibition openings.

What was noticeable, as I leered and jotted down people’s private musings, was the fact that there was very little art being discussed.

Right here’s where I’m holding back some gems of conversation I recorded, and it’s really hard.

But, is this what we should be doing at openings? Should we be using these events as a chance to create a discourse around the work(s) being exhibited?

Student art shows fit into a special groove on the teak bannister up the stairway to an arts career. They’re a way to get your name out into the sector, to network and hob-knob. They’re also a way to develop one’s practice, to receive feedback from one’s peers, to imbibe a free midweek drink. Essentially, they are not just spaces to discuss the work on show. Except, it feels like no one ever even mentions the art on show, like the raison d’être is the wine and the crowd of visitors is totally invisible.

In Of Ourselves and of Our Origins: Subjects of Art, Peter Schjeldahl questions whether ‘we can speak sensibly about art’. He posits that due to art’s inherently subjective nature and the relatively muddy discourse surrounding it, that it’s virtually impossible to. He also critiques the ways in which art is discussed, using politicised pronouns as an example of how rhetoric can get in the way of interpreting what it is that we really like about art.

Schjeldahl suggests that ‘all art is rhetorical’ but asserts that this is not a particularly valid or useful definition, as it displaces experience. Instead, he proposes a rather utopian approach to talking about art – that rather than using “I” it should be “we” – as if it is a kind of collective experience rather than an individual one.

Perhaps, as Schjeldahl posits, the experience of physically being at an opening is more important than open discussion occurring. That said, spirited discussion can be a neat varnish on the teak bannister of experience. And sometimes it’s polite to at least mention the tapestries.

Aimee Hudson.

Schjeldahl, P. (2011, March). Of Ourselves and Of Our Origins: Subjects of Art. Frieze Magazine: http://www.frieze.com/issue/article/of-ourselves-and-of-our-origins-subjects-of-art/