The temples of design for the display of art
In the early 1960s, the concept of the «white cube» was attacked both for its lack of imagination and elitist approach to art. Criticizing institutions and doubting traditional values had become the forward-looking viewpoint at the time and artists shared this broader enthusiasm by looking for alternative ways to exhibit their art: something less elitist than the white-washed walls of the white cube gallery, more open to the public, more flexible and, in the end, more innovative. Much of what they did was hailed as radical, as an open and daring assault on the power of institutions and the exclusivity of high art. But once all of that became the norm and art finally appeared to be more accessible, the question turned to whether art’s democratization was not yet another disguise for cultural dominance. Art was maybe not elitist but could it be that it had turned into a spectacle? Terms like «commodification,» «cultural industry» and «cultural consumption» became the catchphrases of this renewed critical approach and the frequency with which they were used produced yet another cliche. The argument went that modernism and its display of art was elitist but that postmodernism and its own version of artistic display had its failings too, for it was both non-historical and subject to mass culture. Some of this debate continues today. As museums and art events proliferate all over the world, one point often discussed is whether art and mass culture are moving so close as to compromise artistic standards. The whole mechanism involved in the production, display and use of art is again thrown into question, although from a different perspective. If the «white cube» is now outdated, what is the alternative? How far has the display and role of art gone since then? «White Cube,» a one-man show by Artemis Potamianou, currently taking place at the Hellenic American Union, captures an artist’s concern on the subject, particularly on the role of museums in the display of contemporary art. «White Cube» is a series of photographs, all of the same size and format, and identically placed on lightboxes, which show the interiors of contemporary art museums around the world. The Tate, the Guggenheim in Bilbao and in New York, the Pompidou Center and the Frankfurter Kunstverein are some of the museums in which the artist has taken photographs. Potamianou has computer-processed and color-manipulated the initial photographs to create a sleek, high-tech, almost virtual effect. She has also intentionally left out the artwork on display and the visitors, to focus on space, form and shape. Through her attention to the formal properties of interior architecture, Potamianou compares museums to aesthetic or design objects (the lightboxes with their sense of advertisement enhance the impression) and suggests that museums, far from being neutral, value-free spaces, condition the way we experience and appreciate art. Though most of those spaces are more intricately designed than the traditional, spare «white cube,» the idea behind the exhibition is that they are a modern version of what the white cube used to be, that they, too, are not value-free spaces but sites that color our perception of art. By presenting them as perfect objects, Potamianou may also be suggesting that contemporary museums have not departed from the elitism of modernist, high-art that is now criticized as outdated. Potamianou’s images have a wonderful stillness to them and are beautiful in their play of light, color and shape. They are seductive, as museums can be. But behind their beauty, they harbor a critical subtext about the role of contemporary art museums and the presentation of art. «White Cube» at the Hellenic American Union (22 Massalias, 210.368.0000) to October 2).