The physicality of the gallery (A body of art)

Imagine I’ve written this essay out by hand, in fountain pen on crisp, creamy paper. I’ve added diagrams and drawings, notes in the margins, an illegible signature. I’ve folded it perfectly in half, inserted it in a matching thick cream envelope. Added a stamp, which is off-kilter despite my best efforts, and posted it. Would you feel differently when you read it? Would you notice the texture of the paper, the scratches of the pen. Would the texture and the scratches add to my argument? Would it feel like I was writing to you

I don’t need to tell you the physical and the on-screen look and feel different. Communication, whether it be through a physical object, an in-person interaction, an audio recording or an image, is received differently by individuals. People’s responses to each mode of communication are particular in subtle ways. We lose or gain something distinct through each different media or experience. Words might feel slippery to one person, images might be the ideal language for another. Articulation and misarticulation rule all forms of communication.

When artists make an artwork it is designed to be seen in the flesh, just like a handwritten letter is meant to be held. Time is to be spent looking at it, not scrolling past it. The artist’s own hand adds to it – it is not reduced down to a ‘type’ like a handwritten letter typed up.

Art galleries seek to present art in the best way possible, to ensure the environment is best suited for looking, absorbing, learning, discussing. The visual, the written, the audio, the physical come together to simultaneously communicate and question. Even though different people might respond to these different formats/forms of communication differently, the act of bringing them together enriches the experience and makes it palpable. SAW couples art together with enquiry – art is a catalyst to think about society, community and faith.  It’s why our shortened name literally means to have seen something.

SAW’s gallery has been closed since 18 March 2020. We have not looked at art ‘in the flesh’ together since then.

If looking at and discussing art helps us think deeply about topics such as community, society and faith, then the mode of viewing and means of communication we use to look and discuss has an impact on the experience, feeling and conclusions we come to. SAW has always hosted our discussion around art in a particular way, using food and laughter to break down barriers, and thought-provoking art which we consider in depth, bringing our personal experiences and different viewpoints to the conversation. We see the people who come into and use our building as part of a community, not simply as passing visitors. 

SAW aims to be a living community which sees art, not as a luxury for the few, but as part of our everyday lives. Looking at or making art helps us shape how we view ourselves and how we view ourselves within society. Doing this looking communally helps us understand how other people see themselves as individuals and within society. It helps us collectively understand what we want to change in society, and gather together to do this – sometimes through making (protest) art, group articulation or action. This living, breathing community finds strength and commonality in sharing food, art and often faith – complimented by the fact the individual participants may have varied life experiences, fractured relationships, differences in opinion. Human lives are messy, but can be gathered together through shared looking. 

Changing the mode of communication – from gathering around a physical artwork, the smell of a bowl of soup or the hold of a conversation to a screen – changes how we experience this community, and throws into question the purpose of the gallery and SAW’s building itself. If we can do it all online, why bother to look at art in the flesh?

The British museum discovered during lockdown that objects had begun to fracture and break. Puzzled, they eventually realised that the lack of 17,000 daily visitors was altering the humidity of the galleries. The living breath of the visitors was literally sustaining and maintaining the objects. 

SAW’s Un/seen programme examines our relationship with and articulation of art by facilitating an audio-guided relay race – with each artist creating a work inspired by the previous artist’s audio description of their visual art. It’s a chain of whispers which examines articulation and misarticulation, the difference between audio and visual, and how we relate to each other as artists or participants within a community.

You can look at things online – I’m sure many of the British museum objects are photographed and archived online, but the community and communion with the art is different. This, in turn, changes our relationship with this triangle – the inability to see art in the flesh alters the experiences and conversations we have, which alters how we see ourselves, and how we see ourselves within society. 

Of course, there are benefits to online – distance is no measure, we’re all in equally-sized zoom windows – but, the zoom fatigue can soon start to set in. We can represent ourselves in a curated way online, with altered backgrounds or no video. If anything, the pandemic has underlined the need for strong social, community connections both online and offline. It has sharpened our thirst for culture, the previously unarticulated need to understand ourselves not through role or status or place, but through common human connection. Humans are innately creative, and the need to gather around art and creativity is a need that existed before the pandemic, but was inarticulate in our hierarchy of needs.

The pandemic has sharpened our need for creative communities. For living, breathing communities who add their breath to art, to society, to faith, so they can form relationships and therefore enact change.

Written by Gemma Herries