Have you ever found yourself staring blankly at a painting in an exhibition, trying to come to some conclusion about it … but ultimately feeling a little short changed? It seems like you’re missing the point, and a little help would be nice.
How can we really make the most of these experiences? Gulf News spoke to Sarah Daher, an independent UAE-based curator who has previously curated her own exhibitions at Alserkal Avenue, to find out.
Creating sparks within you
“I want to touch people with my art. I want them to say 'he feels deeply, he feels tenderly’.” – Vincent Van Gogh
An art exhibition is always carefully curated space, with the artwork ordered with a certain meaning in mind – and every light, or word placed next to the work after great deliberation. So, what makes a good exhibition visit? Daher says, “I think a good exhibition stays with you.
“I think if you come away with something that's on your mind, whether it's this big question of - why is this here? How is this even art, or how important is the topic that this exhibition is talking about. If you have burning questions in your mind, that’s when you know an exhibition has done something to you.
I think if you come away with something that's on your mind, whether it's this big question of - why is this here? How is this even art, or how important is the topic that this exhibition is talking about. If you have burning questions in your mind, that’s when you know an exhibition has done something to you.
“It doesn’t have to be some big philosophical idea; it doesn’t have to change your life. Every exhibition can do something different for you. It can cause you maybe to have an argument with the person who you came and saw the exhibition with; because they love it and you hate it. And that’s interesting - all of that is interesting.”
Here are her top tips for making the most of your art viewing experience:
1. Go in with an open mind for unexpected encounters
Right, you’ve now entered an art gallery or exhibition. What next?
One thing that can help in improving the value of your experience is having no expectations beforehand, explains Daher. She says, “Entering the space with an open mind, and not coming in with preconceived notions, or making assumptions based on whether or not you recognize the name of the artist, or whether or not, the work is immediately beautiful to you.
“I think if you leave those expectations out of it, you can often be very surprised about the encounter you have - when you kind of leave yourself open to the possibility of something being not what you expect.”
2. Just look around first, for your own unique interpretation
Rows of paintings, sculptures and other artwork line the walls on either side of you. You may be used to prioritizing the text and handouts first – but just looking around without having read these details about the artwork can help you bring your own unique interpretation to the table.
Daher reminisces on studying curating in London, and what her professors would advise her to do, “They would always tell me go in and just look at it. Don't read the text. Don't read the names on the wall. Just go in, have a look and see what you get from walking around and asking yourself questions in your mind. Then once you've had like a second to think about it, go back and pick up the piece of paper that has some information or go read whatever you find on the internet or on the QR code that's on it.” It helps create a unique interpretation and personal response.
3. At an exhibition, order is important
At an art centre, exhibitions are designed to convey a certain message. Some current ones this month in UAE are 'Stories of Paper' at the Louvre Abu Dhabi and 'Eyes Wide Shut' at Alserkal Avenue.
Daher explains that the connect between the works add a different layer of meaning to your understanding in such cases: “In that case, it is incredibly important to think about the connection and the relationship between all of the works that are in a show.”
4. Ask yourself and others these questions
Whether it’s abstract splashes of colour from Jackson Pollock, swirling wondrous night skies by Van Gogh or a tremendous sculpture by Isamu Noguchi – viewing an artwork elicits a certain feeling or emotion in you, and it is valuable for you to explore it.
Daher says, “I think with everything, curiosity, and asking questions about why something is making you feel a certain way, even if that feeling is boredom.”
Some questions you can ask yourself and others at the venue:
• How do you feel on viewing the artwork?
• Why is this the reaction you’re having?
• What do you like or not like about the artwork?
• Does it feel like something you’ve seen before? Why would it? Maybe the artist is doing that on purpose.
• Why is this being presented here in this context, in Dubai in 2022 for example?
• Why is this the title of the artwork? Daher says, “The title, which is part of the work, it's just as much part of the work as the brushstrokes and the colors, and could open a whole new way of thinking for you about that piece.”
This can also be part of the process of ‘slow looking’, which according to the Harvard Graduate School of Education, is the practice of observing detail over time to move beyond a first impression and create a more immersive experience with art, an idea, or any other kind of object.
Daher encourages us to ask questions to the guides present as well, and of course, there is no such thing as a stupid question.
5. Consider the context
Year and Place: It can be helpful to consider both the world the artwork was made in, and the world it is being presented. Daher says, “So what does it mean for a work that was made in 1980, that looks like this, and is presenting this topic to be shown now in Dubai, in this specific space?
“Curators think about all of the things that go into an exhibitions presentation, so that the audience can, can come in and kind of feel like this is something that isn't separate from their real world, it is part of their real world….”
The artist: Reading up on the artist from the information shown can help bring to life your understanding behind the creation of the painting. Where did it come from? This is especially meaningful if the artwork is intended to make a political statement from a historical time – such as 'Guernica' by Pablo Picasso, regarded as a powerful anti-war painting depicting the devastating aftermath of the German and Italian bombing of the Spanish town during the Spanish Civil War.
6. Take your time and be present
“Art is something that we interact with very differently from almost anything else that we encounter in our daily lives,” says Daher. She recommends trying not to speed up the process, and to give yourself enough time to experience it while being respectful of others present there.
7. You don’t have to like it
No compulsions. “It's only natural, some exhibitions are a lot to take in and you can't see every single work. Maybe you come back and see it several times. Alternatively, maybe you just don't like the exhibition and you can't make it through the whole thing. That's okay. You don't have to like everything you see,” explains Daher. “The thing that is important is to give it a shot.”
What captivates you at an exhibition?
We spoke to UAE expats and Gulf News readers about their experiences visiting art galleries and their favourite memories. Valentin Spasov, a musician, guitar teacher at the Dubai International Art Centre, and Executive director at Valentin’s guitar academy, 55, says, “Any art is a subjective representation of reality. When I visit an exhibition, concert or any art event, I’m looking for how the artist is representing reality – that’s number one. The second is what tools are they using to convey this message? What techniques? In addition, number three is, how well prepared technically is the artist. “
Any art is a subjective representation of reality. When I visit an exhibition, concert or any art event, I’m looking for how the artist is representing reality – that’s number one. The second is what tools are they using to convey this message? What techniques? In addition, number three is, how well prepared technically is the artist.
He believes that how the artwork is presented in the space, can be pivotal in our appreciation of it. He dislikes overt commercialism in art, and his recent favourites include:
• Bonny Mathew -Exhibition (Oil and Watercolor) at ‘Gallery 76’, Dubai International Art Centre, Jumeirah in October, 2021: Spasov says of Mathews’s landscapes of the UAE, “He was able to capture not only the shape – he was far from realism actually - but there was his touch in each of the picture and each picture had an emotion.”
• Huzefa Goga, an Aquascape artist’s exhibition, March of 2019 at Fine arts gallery in Al Qouz. He designs the landscapes inside aquariums. Spasov says, “You can see trees, valleys inside and the small fishes - they look like birds in the forest and up in the sky.
• “I was impressed by the by the knowledge, the techniques and the views about the world of those people,” says Spasov.
Ananya Kumar, a 21-year-old economics student at the University of Warwick, based out of Dubai, loves exploring galleries on her own, mulling over artworks in her own time: “I have more freedom over how long I spend viewing different pieces. I pay the most attention to galleries that document history or have elements of surrealism, because viewing historical pieces feels like time travelling. I enjoy how surrealism challenges the viewer's typical perspective on reality.“
I pay the most attention to galleries that document history or have elements of surrealism, because viewing historical pieces feels like time travelling. I enjoy how surrealism challenges the viewer's typical perspective on reality.
She has a benchmark for when an exhibition works for her: “An exhibition is good when you are inspired to tell others a story about the art you viewed there. It means the experience was memorable and influenced you in some way. I've enjoyed telling friends about 'Art of the Brick' - it's an exhibition with art created solely out of Lego bricks. The concept was unique and innovative, and some pieces provided interesting social commentary as well.”
I once went to an exhibition where the works had pastel colours - a symphony that resounded with me and I left the place feeling very soothed. In spite of it not being the kind of art I generally like to see, that vision has stayed with me.
Amarendra Nandkeolyar, 66, a tea taster and Gulf News reader based in Siliguri, India, prefers abstract art, paying attention to the vibrancy of the colour and the rhythm of the patterns in the work. He says, “I once went to an exhibition where the works had pastel colours - a symphony that resounded with me and I left the place feeling very soothed. In spite of it not being the kind of art I generally like to see, that vision has stayed with me.” Like Spasov, he believes that appropriate lighting and the display of the artwork, such as the sequence and set-up makes a huge difference in its impact on him.
The best part is, the more art you experience, the more you’ll find out just what you like and what moves you.