Green fabric walls stark and bare but the shadows of the past, walls stained with decades of sunlight. Ghostly memories of the works once hung in their decadent gilded frames. An empty space bar the secrets, the many eyes which once watched the room gone and replaced with absence.
An empty room is an empty room but when the past is hinted toward it becomes a vast once something. The work itself is gone but the suggestion of its existence still remains and that is what we now see.
Holes are punctures in the fabric, alien faces in awe, and a vivid green tapestry wallpaper. A space to pass through but not to observe. Warnings, splinters on the ground. The sun penetrates through the glass window, the sky lighting the space with a natural softness.
We observe the artworks hung in esteemed chronology, artworks which we believe of great importance, hung on the line for our viewing pleasure. We see the intricate brushwork of the great masters, the romantics, the painters of myth and those of reality hung between two rooms. These pieces are masterpieces, centuries old, carefully selected, worth money we can’t comprehend, yet I’ve seen this all before. In every gallery and every museum.
And so here I find myself in Room 6, the green room. Staring at stark walls that speak to me louder than any painting. My gaze lost in the faded fabric, the suggestion of the hang with overlapping multiple planes, which once featured works considered great. So am I failing in my role as spectator? Or is it the artwork that’s just failing to grasp my attention?
The metallic twang of the floorboards resonate through the space, each step a loud echoing sound like springs and cogs, machinery beneath my feet. Confronting eyes of a photorealist face demand attention and so for a moment I look, casting my gaze across the canvas before stepping forward to closer inspect, then ‘twang’, ‘creak’ staring at my feet again and listening. I journey through the space navigating my way by sound, ignoring the realist paintings trying to make me consider my context, the world lived in and interpreted. This is my reality, this is my now and this is where my attention lies.
It is, I believe, universally acknowledged within any gallery, that the art should be the main focus, and yet here I stand attracted to the chugging of the heater in the corner of the room, my back facing the Reynolds and Renoirs, listening to the sound of the pipes as opposed to focussing my attention on the palette of colour from the impressionists or the intricate dramatised scene from the academics.
First thing Adam did when entering the gallery was to lay down on the floor and peer into the large rectangles of decorative metal, the grates which disrupted the floorboards. Like a curious child, searching for secrets the curators of the space failed to acknowledge. The sculptures stood ignored, the artworks hung like forgotten clothes while a fifty year old student cast his gaze to the ground, the ceilings, the cracks in the walls, and the broken lightbulb.
Are we distracted because we did not expect it? Or are we drawing away from what we are being told is considered artwork? We continue to accept what we are told, because that’s what we’ve always done. Am I failing in my role if I consider that the accidental smudge on the corner of the canvas is more worth my time then the detailed landscape beneath it, spending longer finding the mistakes, the ghost lines which the artist attempted to remove but which are still visible beneath the whitewash. Should we educate our minds to only look the way we are told to, evaluate the work of art through our analysis of the brushwork, the colour and form, historical context, and concept? We are told to concentrate, distractions are seen as bad things, the distracting child is always sent out of the classroom, we take exams in empty halls, we interview behind signs demanding no one to disturb.
So with paintbrush in hand I whitewashed the walls, filling the holes and sanding them down. Nothing can deter the attention from the hang of the work, the windows are boarded up, the outside world shut out. You’re in a gallery, now look at the exhibition, nothing else. You may sift through the catalogue and the labels can be read but your attention has to be on the painting. Yet you stand there only for a moment, not even a complete minute before moving onto the next wall text. Passive spectator giving nothing back, but perhaps not receiving anything in the first place. Unstimulated you walk through, adjusting the bag on your shoulder, scribbling a few notes so you look like your looking, shifting your weight from one foot to another, staring at the picture plane but eyes not in focus.
Roisin Callaghan is currently based in Liverpool studying an MA in Art History and Curating after having completed her degree in Fine Art in 2014 from Norwich University of the Arts. Her work looks at experimental writing, an exploration into the reception and interpretation of artworks and the role of galleries in displaying work.