Looking for Texture in Online Viewing Rooms

As physical spaces begin to re-open, virtual platforms need to add something to the art experience 

In her new book, Theory of the Gimmick (2020), the scholar and critic Sianne Ngai defines a particular function of aesthetics under capitalism. To Ngai, the ‘gimmick’ is a superficial quirk, update or upgrade that seems to accomplish less than what it promises; though it might convince some, it turns out to be a facade. The consumer is disappointed. Bitcoin, the Fyre Festival and those single-step banana-slicing devices are all examples of gimmicks. ‘It’s first and foremost an aesthetic dissatisfaction, but one that immediately refers to an economic misgiving,’ Ngai explained in a recent interview with The Nation

With physical spaces shuttered during lockdown, many commercial art galleries have turned to online viewing rooms. Are these also gimmicks? They promise to make the gallery-going experience mobile, dynamic and convenient: you can access it from anywhere in the world, at any time, without the irritation of opening night crowds. What they actually do is reduce the art-buying experience to its bare fundamentals, which, in more cases than not, boasts all the passion of clicking the Add to Cart button on Amazon.

‘How Can We Think of Art at a Time Like This?’, 2020, website screenshot. Courtesy: the artists, Barbara Pollack and Anne Verhallen

Putting a high-resolution JPEG of a painting on a white digital background (maybe with an illusionistic slice of floor at the bottom) doesn’t make for a rich experience. It flattens not just the art but the transaction, the social function of art galleries and the educational aspect of collecting. Non-commercial online exhibitions like Barbara Pollack and Anne Verhallen’s ‘How Can We Think of Art at a Time Like This?’ are also emerging. The project describes itself as a platform, but the experience is more like clicking through an overstuffed museum website: the information is all there, but it’s not organized. True curation is hard to translate when the word has been cheapened to the level of reshuffling Instagram accounts. 

David Zwirner gallery put on a more intricate production for the painter Josh Smith. In the digital exhibition ‘High as Fuck’ Smith tours viewers through paintings (brushy canvases depicting stolid tenements and empty streets) installed on the roof of his building in Brooklyn. There are glamour shots of Smith carrying paintings up the warehouse stairs, an artist at home. He explains the body of work himself in a deadpan video reminiscent of a Wes Anderson short. There’s been a trend in recent years to present trailers for books – short video clips that tease some of a novel’s story or characters, especially if the author happens to be quite famous already. This is an exhibition trailer for a show we’ll never be able to see. As an extension of the artist’s subversive brand, it works; as an experience of art, it doesn’t. 

Josh Smith, ’High as Fuck’, 2020, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and David Zwirner, New York, Paris, London and Hong Kong 

'"The gimmick" is actually an indictment of the failure of something to reduce effort in the way it purports,’ Ngai said. How much more convenient is an online sales platform when art is already often sold through an emailed JPEG, a PDF of available works or an Instagram post? The viewing rooms that move beyond the status of gimmicks meaningfully contribute to the viewing experience rather than just reifying the status of the transaction. Gallery sites need to create more texture, to slow us down. There are enough online platforms promoting the fast, easy consumption of images.  

For a show of paintings by Giovanni Copelli and Ulala Imai, the London gallery Union Pacific created a digital rendering of its entire space and a meandering video-walkthrough of the virtual exhibition, like a Second Life tour. It mimics the normal pause-and-wander routine of an opening and even includes a brief dip of the camera into a CGI garbage can full of ice and Peroni bottles – a familiar relic of IRL openings now turned ghostly. It has an unpretentious, un-self-serious sense of humour. 

‘Indie Folk: New Art from the Pacific Northwest’, 2020, installation view. Courtesy: the artists and Adams and Ollman, Portland, Oregon

My favorite online viewing space so far is from Adams and Ollman in Portland, Oregon. The gallery presented a survey, ‘Indie Folk: New Art from the Pacific Northwest’, curated by Melissa E. Feldman, on its website, bringing together more than a dozen artists. The aim was to evoke the atmosphere of a (geographical) place through the artwork made across it: ramshackle, casual, constructed and collaged. The art was only roughly photoshopped onto photographs of the gallery walls; slickness was not the goal. It came with a lo-fi music playlist from the label Mississippi Records, the musicians curated with as much care as the artists. 

Taste is more of a factor here than any form of innovative technology. What the show offers is an opportunity to dive into a hitherto unfamiliar niche of culture. As galleries start re-opening, this kind of context-heavy online exhibition will co-exist with the process of making appointments to see the physical shows, which will come with some of the annoyance of scheduling a haircut or restaurant reservation. Both serve a different purpose: online, you can learn about the material and conceptual environments in which artists work; in physical space you can actually see the art.  

Main image: ‘Giovanni Copelli: Amor Sacro & Ulala Imai: LOVERS’, 2020, video still. Courtesy: the artist and Union Pacific, London

Kyle Chayka is the author of The Longing for Less, a book on minimalism in art and life, which will be published by Bloomsbury in January 2020.

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