A Case for the Abolition of Exhibition Headsets

Sunday afternoon gallery visiting is a time honoured tradition amongst the culturally involved. It is a lovely idea: you finish lunch, head to the gallery and amble on a cloud of  bliss in a clean and quiet room. You nod a nod of intellectual union to the other, roll neck wearing and car coat draped culture vultures and the ladies-who-lunch, who not only are gazing, head tilted in speculation at the new Martin Creed, but cradling the sleeping baby in a sling. You make the most of the quiet to contemplate each work, before regrouping with your companions and discussing your ideas over a satisfying, albeit overpriced soya flat white in the gallery café.

It is a lovely idea. In reality, weekend gallery visits are quite the opposite.

The culprit for this insanity? The headset. Thrust upon you at the door, they tell you all about the artist’s mother and child while directing your eye to some stunning chiaroscuro and sensitive patina. Transfixed by the pixelated image on the screen of the very painting they stand before, spectators bump and pace along beside each other like junkies at a trance rave.

The headset is the perfect gadget: it makes art accessible, explaining what to look at and why it is there. In an age when unmade beds and polka dots litter the gallery floor, surely this is invaluable? What is troubling is that thanks to this item, the art itself is basically made redundant. Why look at the painting if it’s reproduced in front of you, complete with commentary. As such, the crowd gathers around the painting, presses a button and walks on to the next with a very solid understanding of what the curator thinks the piece is about.

When contemporary art is so driven by concept, perhaps this approach ensures that the spectator understands what is intended by the artist? It is certainly entertaining to hear what the art world thinks, that’s why the infamous rants of the late Brian Sewell were so popular. If it is confided that Tracey Emin was in a depressive state when she made her bed, while being directed to look at the bottles and the cigarette ashes, the viewer can move to the next famous work in the room without further thought. What is pointed out may be the only thing that is noticed.

If the most important ideas are the only ones outlined, why look further at the smaller details? Even their importance is subjective; while John may be fascinated by the context, Jane may be touched by materiality, but the only information they will absorb is Professor Doe’s preoccupation with narrative. Surely, this selectiveness of information is no different than to going to the Louvre, seeing the Mona Lisa and leaving. What about the Delacroix? What about the Fra Angelico?

Contemporary art thrives on controversy. Non-figurative and abstract work is ambiguous and that invites an interesting conversation to be had. Therefore, perhaps allowing the viewer to establish their own opinions on a work before researching further is more in tune with the artist’s intent. Most well curated exhibitions have a paragraph on the wall to give explanation to the work, and the exhibition itself should presumably contextualise the painting through a coherent layout. The question then becomes: ‘Is the headset just a smokescreen for poor curating?’

The view of the art is being obstructed by people looking stubbornly away from it. There is certainly irony in the point being to make art more accessible while you cannot get within two metres of the art in question. The solution perhaps is to just do away with the things and let the art do the talking. After all, art is supposedly thought provoking, so give it a chance to provoke some thoughts.

Image: Pete Aylward (Flickr)

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