During a recent visit to the Smithsonian Hirshhorn, while my attention was divided between my iPhone and the piece in front of me, out of the corner of my eye I saw a young woman on staff walking towards me. She stopped, asked how I was and paused before asking, “So what do you think of the exhibition?”
Now, not only was I surprised to be approached in a museum for a purpose other than to be informed I was somehow breaking protocol, I was taken off guard by her desire to instigate a spur of the moment conversation. But this, I would come to find out, is her job.
Yves Klein, “Leap Into The Void,” 1960
The exhibition was Yves Klein, With the Void, Full Powers, a retrospective that was open, free to the public, from May 20 to September 12th 2010. The young woman was what the museum has called an Interpretive Guide, a subset of the Hirshhorn’s volunteer program. The goals of the Interpretive Guides are generally listed as providing “informal programming that engages visitors one-on-one in the galleries… [and seeks to] foster an open dialogue about works that encourages visitors to explore their own experience and interpret the art themselves.” The fact I was on my iPhone during her approach was in fact a relevant gesture. In addition to face-to-face interaction, With the Void, Full Powers was paired with an iPhone app, which as a point of interest was the first ever app developed from a Smithsonian art museum. The implementation of both physical and virtual guides was a strong showing on the half of the museum to open the content of the show to a broader audience, while bringing educational materials inside the space in a personable and technologically relevant way.
Investigation of the institutional confines, protocols, and architecture of the white walled gallery space has been (and continues to be) a prevalent interest within modern and contemporary practice. However, where as I tend to be quite aware of the role of the viewer in relation to both the museum space and the art in that space, in being confronted with the guide’s one-on-one conversation I realized had never given much to the interaction between museum staff and viewers. Moreover, my preconceptions of my personal viewing expectations were challenged a second time when, as I paused for a good amount of time in front of a particular piece, one of the guards spoke out from across the room, “Do you like that piece?” I felt required to respond, but as I hadn’t necessarily paused out of reverence but more out of curiosity, this question was more complicated than the guard had intended, so I answered with a simple, “Yes.” Weight
During my short talk with the young woman and even shorter talk with the guard, I was left thinking about her role of serving as a conduit of sorts between art and the public as well as her relationship with the title of “interpreter.” Furthermore, I continued to expand upon the role of the exhibition app, when afterwards a reviewer who was unable to attend in person commented that the application itself served as a sort of virtual visit.
As a product of an art school education, I have a very particular way of engaging with art. The underlying theme of the exhibition dealt with Klein’s exploration of presence and absence, and his practice of striving to produce art whose meaning is not reliant on the tangible, or embodied in the art object itself, but rather activated by the space it inhabits. For me, it was this notion of the void alongside the two interpretive resources present to assist one in decipher meaning, which made the artist’s interest in the dynamic between meaning existing in and/or outside the art object (and even the museum space) all the more significant.