Contemporary art and its institutions are subject to frequent accusations of irrelevance: that we live in a society where art is inaccessible, where the study and appreciation of art is a pastime for the elite and not much more. Art is, apparently, for the pseudo-intellectual, bourgeois middle classes or those collectors who pay extortionate amounts for whatever the latest celebrity-come-artist has trusted their way. Art is not for us.
Whilst this, unfortunately, appears to be the prevailing opinion towards the art world nowadays, there exist many attempts on the part of artists and curators to rectify this apparent snobbery by resituating the power into the hands of the public. Perhaps the most famous of these, Hans Ulrich Obrist’s ongoing Do It project, arrived at Manchester Art Gallery in July (it’s on until 22 September) and dominated the city’s International Festival.
Obrist and his colleagues have spent the last twenty years collecting hundreds of instruction-based artworks from some of the best-known names in contemporary art and releasing them for completion by audiences around the world. On this landmark anniversary of the project’s creation, Obrist and the eminent Manchester-based graphic designer Peter Saville have joined forces to carry out, reinterpret and exhibit some of the most famous and challenging of these instructions – allowing audiences to appreciate already-completed instructions whilst simultaneously being relied upon to create and complete some of the art works themselves.
Being a student with a keen interest in any contemporary art that questions audiences and pushes boundaries, I was lucky enough to secure a place volunteering as a gallery steward in the exhibition itself.
The first thing that struck me about Do It 2013 in my short time working there was the duality of the checklist. The more obvious half of the displayed instructions played up to the bizarre, novel and unorthodox means of presentation that are adopted by many conceptual and installation artists today. On entering a stoic white cube space, the last thing you’d expect to find contained within its four walls is a makeshift kitchen complete with a production line of chefs creating a pungent Thai curry paste, yet there it was (Rirkrit Tiravanija, Untitled). No less, I would ordinarily be either disgusted or highly amused at the presence of an alcohol-dispensing vending machine placed in the gallery with as serious an intention as the Pre-Raphaelite masterpieces in the next room (Carsten Holler, Homage to Emmett Williams). Or even at large geometric shapes forming gaping holes in the walls of the gallery (Koo Jeong-A, It’s OK For Lovers). This plethora of apparently unrelated and peculiar installations were, evidently, examples of the instructions already completed for the audience’s immediate aesthetic appreciation, which together result in a grandiose display that could rival the most elaborate of today’s BritArt retrospectives.
The rest of the collection consisted of the uncompleted direct instructions from the artists to the audience. Placed within both the designated Do It 2013 space and creeping into the permanent exhibitions at the gallery, they appear conservative and unpretentious, purposely presented in a similar size and typeface to the small synoptic cards that accompany Manchester’s typical displays. These were amongst my favourite; they ignored the more extravagant aspects of contemporary art representation (a shortcoming that Obrist and Saville’s arrangement was all too guilty of) and, in their simple aesthetic, focused on the social and intellectual challenges that the exhibit boasted.
By placing these two forms of interactive artworks side-by-side, the hope was evident that the general public would be eased in to the often-misconceived world of conceptual art through the elaborate and innovative completed instructions. The further hope would be that these viewers would eventually be drawn to both the physical and conceptual challenges posed by the less-conspicuous direct instructions. And as it happened, the curator’s wishes came true.
Despite my unwavering belief that art will always challenge and guide those who observe it, the best part of my time volunteering on the gallery floor was spent in silent frustration at the general public’s incapacity to misbehave in gallery spaces – even when told to. I too often found myself repeating the well-exercised mantra “of course, go ahead!” to the timid, bemused visitors (often accompanied by the odd “no, you have to squeeze these lemons using that bicycle seat” (Andreas Slominski, Untitled) and “yes, this piece does require you to write obscenities on the paper, table and walls” (Emmett Williams, Game with a Radio). Finally, with all the encouragement I and my fellow volunteers were able to muster, the gallery-goers were actively engaging with any and all works that they were faced with.
It was easy to derive a huge amount of satisfaction from seeing this diverse audience; for many it may have been their first time in the Manchester Art Gallery, taking a genuine interest in the current work of today’s most famous artists and having fun whilst doing it. Inquisitive teens climbed ladders to engage with Ilya Kabakov’s White Cube; elderly ladies smirked at Ai Weiwei’s subversive and didactic instruction CCTV Spray; literary students silently indulged in their own copies of handwritten poetry from Tracey Emin’s Take this to a Stranger.
To my own surprise, people from all walks of life were appreciating the simple brilliance of the smaller, discreet direct instructions, with my two choice highlights being Stephen J Kaltenbach’s Instruction 2012 and Ben Kinmont’s The possibilities of trust as a sculpture and the question of value for each participant.
Regardless of my opinion, the communal aspect of Obrist’s aims determine that the success of his exhibition relies purely on its social effect. I believe that throughout history, artists have always played a culturally authoritative role from an audience’s perspective – artworks are, in essence, visual stimuli that inform emotional responses from their viewers. When art reaches a point where the visual encounter creates only a perplexed reaction from its viewers, that audience becomes uninterested and culturally inattentive. I also believe that through his project Obrist hasn’t sought to change this in any way; indeed, the concept of an artist giving a direct order and an audience willingly completing it is an extremely explicit representation of this intellectual hierarchy.
What he has sought to shape, however, is a realisation in the mind of the viewer that art is art regardless of whether we are invited to engage with it physically or not. There is no difference between Yoko Ono’s famous Wish Piece and, for example, any immediately unintelligible Abstract Expressionist or Modernist canvas created in the last century. Artists are nothing without their audiences, and these audiences have a right to create their own meanings and subjective truths whether they are informed or not.
For me, these socially altruistic aims are what made my experience in Do It 2013 as rewarding as it was. Working towards aims as radical as Obrist’s will always be a journey worth relishing, and the experience is made ever sweeter with each newly-converted art lover who finds something in common with the criticised middle classes, the culture-vultures, the elitists and the snobs. And even sweeter still with each person who simply leaves the Gallery and thinks ‘maybe art is for me after all’.
Aaron Shaw (BA Art History student, 2012-2015)