One of the tasks of art is to remove us from the comfort of chatter (Das Gerede) and provocatively question commonly held values and widely accepted socio-cultural constructs. The transgressive rupture or erasure of these constructs in art can affect an awareness of our being in the world and deepen insight into who we are. In order to fulfil this function, art requires a particular reception that is often denied in the museum or gallery. The absence of ritual in the museum and distance between the viewer and artwork conspire against being confronted, disturbed or challenged by art as if it were a taboo.
Das Gerede smothers our connection with being to reassure us that the trivial actually matters. We can sometimes not even realise that our actions reveal a preference for art which does not confront us or challenge our sensibilities. The reluctance to be confronted by theatre and film leads to being cuddled by entertainment and the enshrining of images in a museum protects us from the unsettling reality presented by the artwork. Art can potentially draw attention toward our own existence, overcoming a dread of death, anxieties about sickness, and a sense of alienation and separation. Das Gerede promotes the opposite of what art can potentially offer and allows an unscrutinised acceptance of social constructs. The “real” self comes and goes, manifesting and withdrawing itself and is shadowed by an illusory person. The “false” self is preoccupied with concealing, disguising and covering the creative, vulnerable and mysterious inner self. Both silence and the closing gap between viewer and object are threatening because they allow unwanted thoughts to rise to the surface and open a frightening chasm that requires traversing. Instead of dealing with the “real” self, energy is directed toward avoidance, setting up a distance between the inner self and thoughts that disturb. Looking at art from a safe distance in a museum does not require or ask anything of us except our passive attention. The distance between our disguised selves and an unmasked, vulnerable self is protected by a taboo which promotes immersion in the abyss of confusion, absurdity and triviality. The taboo against being plunged into naked suffering and emotional crisis in museums and galleries can leave the individual feeling underwhelmed, bewildered and inadequate. A transformational experience is only possible when the taboo is broken, and this is a rare exception in the museum but a welcome response to art in ritual space.
Victor Bergin described a “prejudice against ritual”, which is evident in the museum and translates as a taboo against allowing oneself to be vulnerable before a work of art. Taboo protects against some (imagined) danger having implications for both the individual and society. Breaking taboo arouses fear but ritual provides a set of strict rules that can establish a sense of security to reassure and console the individual. In limiting the significance of ritual in a museum, the visitor is safeguarded against the challenge to reconcile the implications in a work of art with their own sense of self. Churches, Temples, Mosques, and Synagogues are spaces defined by ritual and have the power to insist on attendance to their rituals. The encounter with contemporary art in these ritual spaces insists on a dialogue firstly between the visitor and artwork, secondly between the artwork and the architecture, and thirdly between the architecture and the visitor. Ritual is the glue which draws the person, artwork and architecture into dialogue. The museum however, only offers a dialogue between the viewer and artwork, and perhaps between one artwork and another while denying the significance of the architecture.
The visitor is more vulnerable in a space that insists on attendance to ritual and more likely to feel safer being exposed. Some works of art are powerful enough to shake us out of indifference, causing us to forget that the museum is not set up to handle the inner commotion caused by art. Gillian Wearing’s Confess All On Video. Don’t Worry, You Will Be In Disguise. Intrigued? Call Gillian … (1994) is an example of such a work and has been shown at Whitechapel Gallery in London, Musée Rodin in Paris, the Guggenheim Museum in New York and the Palazzo Grassi in Venice. Each time the work has been exhibited in a museum or gallery its power to move its audience has been limited. The danger of viewing these private confessions of family violence, abuse and childhood trauma in the safety of a museum is that the viewer’s position is entirely outside of the drama. The visitors to the gallery can easily allow cynicism and indifference to stand between themselves and the artwork. This distance becomes increasingly impossible to maintain if the same work is placed in a ritual space where the viewer is absorbed into a ritual-architectural relationship with the work. When reciprocity and dialogue are built into the structure of art’s display, the position of the viewer becomes so significant that it is difficult to avoid the consequences of a confrontation. The installation of Anders Krisár’s The Birth of Us (Boy) in the Votivkirche embraced the viewer through the interplay of an unfamiliar object in an extraordinary space, but also through the most pronounced contrast of scale, ranging between the scale of the nave and the scale of the polyester resin sculpture. The range of emotional responses to the symbolic consequences of adult hand prints pressed into a child’s torso was immense. The location of the hyper-real sculpture within a space activated by ritual, where the viewer is symbolically removed from the everyday, gave permission for a thoroughly subjective response. Through ritual, this separation from the everyday enables an unexpected encounter with the threshold state of the symbolic ritual world. The Schauraum window installation of Krisár’s One as Two at the Sigmund Freud Museum might trigger critical reflection in the viewer by examining suppressed and repressed personal and social issues. The window faces the street and the viewer’s reflection is visible in the glass, drawing the individual passerby from public space into the private space offered by the artwork. The archetypal relationship between mother and child is the starting point for confronting the self. Through experiencing a self-positioning, the viewer might discover explicit statements and implicit suggestions regarding aspects of their personality, preferences, and beliefs.
Perhaps the most strongly enforced of all known taboos is the taboo against removing the mask. There seems to be a tacit conspiracy to ignore who, or what, we really are, and this is played out through distracting ourselves from the disruption caused by certain encounters with art. The attractive and appealing qualities in a photograph can turn attention away from the most disturbing of subjects, toward the medium itself. The museum can similarly draw attention away from the disturbing, terrifying and unbearable in art by setting up an ironic or cynical distance between viewer and object. Sentiment is however, more likely to crystallize around a work in a space defined by ritual, than on the walls of a gallery. We are more likely to be moved when the encounter with art is entirely unexpected and any mechanisms which support ritual are in place.