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Posts Tagged ‘the art gallery as a theme park

QAGOMA: THE ART GALLERY + The Photographer

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My interest in the world I engage with has led me to be a photographer, sometimes more specifically, a photodocumentary photographer. In my life, art and the space of the gallery, has been a constant companion to my every present desire to encounter both the idea, and the ideas of artists. Linking the two: the gallery and photographic documentation can create problems. This means that I observe and can receive a trigger, a response to make images. I have had to control this impulse to comply with the prevailing gallery institutional morays around photography in their controlled public spaces. Although, for around twenty years to subvert this bureaucratic impost I have photographed where no security could observe and intercept image making—I’ve photographed art gallery dunnies![i] Sometimes I still steal a photograph or two in the gallery: the call of the architectural space, the art in situ and the interaction of fellow patrons is far too strong. And sometimes I get cautioned and asked ‘not to photograph’ by art gallery attendants.

Some art gallery dunnies

But that has all changed, most significantly in QAGOMA in Brisbane. Now, gallery photography (except in loaned exhibitions where copyright issues preclude photography), has been democratised as every visitor now has an iPhone, a point-and-shoot camera or a DSLR and they are not afraid to use their devices to document artwork, the gallery itself or their interaction with both. This liaison between the camera toting gallery patron and the gallery is a concession that may have arisen from the gallery’s recognition of a changing expectation of the gallery by art viewers. Before taking up a new position as Director of the National Gallery of Victoria the then QAGOMA Gallery Director Tony Ellwood stated in an interview in the Australian Newspaper that: ‘As a director, you continue to reinvent an institution as audience trends and expectations evolve.’[ii] This relaxed attitude to photography seems to be popular as is the revised approach to the ‘quiet as a library’ noise etiquette gallery maxim of the past.

Visitors to galleries do want to encounter art and they want to be rewarded by their engagement with it. Whether this is educative, informative or experiential the act of personal documentation for future reflection and sharing with others is important. In some ways the act of photography is a signifier of the meaningfulness of the art or the experience of that moment for the person with the camera. When images and personal reflection is posted in social media, Facebook and Blogs, the artist/artwork, the exhibition and the gallery become an extended space. But there is also something of the theme park in the nouveau gallery visitor’s expectations, and that is that they want to be entertained, and be seen in that mode of behavior.

Cai Guo-Qiang: Heritage 2013, GOMA.   Photo: Doug Spowart

Cai Guo-Qiang: Heritage 2013, GOMA. Photo: Doug Spowart

Cai Guo-Qiang: Head on 2006, GOMA.   Photo: Doug Spowart

Cai Guo-Qiang: Head on 2006, GOMA. Photo: Doug Spowart

A patron as a clothed Maja Portrait of Spain: Masterpieces from the Prado

A patron as a clothed Maja ……..Portrait of Spain: Masterpieces from the Prado

QAGOMA’s huge visitor numbers, the highest in Australia at 1.8 million last year, acknowledge the success of catering for this emerging visitor expectation and it would appear that Director Ellwood has brought changes like these into the mix. David Walsh the entrepreneur behind Hobart’s MONA in the Age Newspaper comments that Ellwood: ‘… crosses the boundaries between high art and fun.’[iii]

To enlarge upon the gallery’s audience development strategies QAGOMA Acting Director Suhanya Raffel’s wrote, in the foreword for ‘The 7th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art’ publication a claim that: ‘This Gallery is renowned for its inclusive and innovative public programs’ and that the APT has been seminal to the Gallery’s awareness of the importance in, ‘developing interactive art works with contemporary artists and creating meaningful ways for audiences to engage with contemporary art.’[iv]

While it may seem that it’s logical for a gallery to do all it can to attract visitors it seems that there is a political expectation for the gallery to do just that. The Honourable Campbell Newman, Premier of Queensland, in the press release announcement of Chris Saines as the new QAGOMA Director appointee, that ‘I’m confident he [Saines] will fulfil [sic] the brief to provide an accessible and engaging art experience to audiences, while enhancing QAGOMA’s reputation as an art museum of international standing, and Queensland’s reputation as a culturally dynamic state.’[v]

A visitor photographs Parastou Forouhar's Written room 1999–ongoing

A visitor photographs Parastou Forouhar’s Written room 1999–ongoing


As a photographer I am not alone in my interest in photographing in the gallery and making images of gallery patrons viewing artworks. Thomas Struth[vi] is well known for his close-up views of visitor’s expressions made in the world’s swankiest galleries. Elliott Erwitt’s[vii] photographs exhibit his wry humour and the juxtaposition of subject and situation. The gallery inspired work of both photographers has been famously published in exhibitions and books. While my style sometimes has a kinship with Erwitt’s humour the work I do is more about the incongruities presented by a peopled vibrant space full of large and small-scale objects, fames, architectural forms and 3D experiential rooms.

A gallery visitor photographing ......Portrait of Spain: Masterpieces from the Prado

A gallery visitor photographing ……Portrait of Spain: Masterpieces from the Prado


Yayoi Kusama’s The obliteration room

APT frame reflections

APT frame reflections

Noël Skrzypczak's Jungle 2012

Noël Skrzypczak’s Jungle 2012

As gallery patrons move within these spaces and spontaneously respond to what they encounter—my objective is to observe and record moments in which a synergy exists between the subject, the place, maybe the artwork and a sense of order that the photographer in me needs resolved. These are unpredictable and fluid moments where intuition and patience contribute to a desired outcome. Work in the space of the gallery I do so cautiously not wanting my presence or activity to impede or influence my fellow visitors. Often the camera is turned on my partner Victoria and myself, as we experience the gallery. As always, in this space the viewer becomes the viewed, and I in turn I am also viewed, by the now benevolent gallery attendants.

Every visit to QAGOMA is now not only an opportunity to connect with the artworks on show but also to document fellow visitors and their experience of art—often themselves being compelled by the same impetus as mine, to photograph and inter-react with the gallery and the art presented within.


Dr Doug Spowart

Many of my gallery photography exploits are posted, with commentaries, on the blog <wotwedid.wordpress.com>

[i] I made an artists book entitled Places of quiet introspection in 2006 that features some of these surreptitiously made art gallery dunny photographs. A copy of the book was purchased by the State Library of Queensland’s for inclusion in their Artists Book collection.

[vii] Amazon.com book description for Erwitt’s Museum Watching. <http://www.amazon.com/Elliott-Erwitt-Museum-Watching-Photographs/dp/0714863114>

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