I’d like to begin by stating, paradoxically, that a good exhibition at The British Museum is a bad show. In order to explain this, please permit me to create a linguistic separation between an ‘exhibition’ and a ‘show’: Exhibition concerns the display of the work. Show when an exhibition is viewed by an audience. A press viewing or private view is an exhibition, it exists within perfect viewing conditions. A show is only limited by maximum capacity.
It is therefore possible that reviews of exhibitions at The British Museum are dramatically different from the publicly accessible show. When The Independent critic Michel Glover says of Hokusai: Beyond the Great Wave that “Everything is evenly spaced. You have room to breathe and reflect”, he conjures an experience of viewership dislocated from reality. Equally Laura Cumming writing for The Observer can say a hundred things about Hokusai’s art without once mentioning what it is to experience it at the museum, because her experience has been sanitised of interruption.
When a show receives numerous four and five star reviews it ensures that it will be sold out for the entirety of its run. It destroys the conditions necessary for reviewers’ appreciation. Good reviews create bad viewing conditions. Inversely it follows that bad reviews create good viewing conditions. Somewhere in the middle an ok show will have ok viewing conditions.
Hokusai is an excellent exhibition, deserving of the acclaim critics have lain upon it; accordingly it is an awful show. I attended with my parents, who unanimously support these assertions.
If you’ve never seen the Norman Foster built exhibition space at the British Museum, The Rotunda, I should explain, it is too much architecture, too little floor space. A circular building within a building, you enter on the first floor, waiting for your allotted time-slot, in what closely resembles a queue to the lavatory, contrary to the intended grandeur.
Inside you are beholden to conform with another queue, one which works its way through the entire show. Principally this occurs because a) the rooms are small and do not permit free movement and b) the numerous works are tightly packed and each contextualised with long paragraphs of text imploring a slow must-see-and-read-it-all manner of progression.
Visibly and verbally pissed-off by this my mother immediately declared “I’ll see you at the exit” and cuts through the crowd to what first catches her eye. My father and I follow suit together before diverging on our own paths. Blessed with above average height we are able to see over the shoulders of other visitors, pinpoint artworks and take opportune moments to slip between the queue. Consistently we move into gaps, we defy the calculated viewing times, we ignore explanatory texts preferring to get lost in intricate landscapes of Hokusai’s Japan.
Several rooms in, I am enthralled by Old View of the Eight-part Bridge at Yatsuhashi in Mikawa Province (1834), an exaggerated depiction of a famous bridge. Planks of wood are set at right angles weaving a path across crystal waters, reeds and outcrops of land. In the background an island floats as if a cloud, collapsing the distance into both earth and air. Across the bridge life takes place, men move with bushels of straw mounted on their backs, an old figure steadies himself with a cane, a woman carries a blue parasol which connects her to the blue cloak of another figure and up into the infinite reach of the heavens, men wear bright orange hats which bind them to the framework of the bridge and into the distant landmass.
For five minutes I am intricately invested, following these connections back and forth, moving my eyes and body, traversing the space physically as if I am one of the characters in the scene. Until, inevitably, the pressure of a little old lady over my right hand shoulder becomes too intense. Her disdain for my failure to observe British etiquette, queue properly, is too much. My reverie is broken and I am forced to move on, the beaming smile that was set across my face crushed to a dissatisfied humpf.
A couple of rooms further on I get stuck in the masses, no opportunities to sneak through the ranks present themselves. So I stand, like a dumb turkey, on the small patch of land isolated between the mechanical procession. I end up talking to a couple, about my parents age, who are equally perturbed, or more accurately pissed off.
It almost becomes too much to bother anymore. But then as I’m exiting one room I fall in love with another piece, a hanging scroll, red ink painted on silk depicting Red Shōki, the Demon Queller (1847). He’s entirely mesmerising. His strong gait is complicated by his pendulum arms, bundled up in each other’s sleeves. It’s a complex pose, one I can’t quite figure, yet Hokusai makes it appear entirely natural, painting a warm smile across the Shōki’s face. His eyes are deep pinpoints, framed by a heavy set brow and a thick nose. His facial hair wisps across his torso, animated in an entirely different fashion. In the dialogue between viewer and image the Shōki is entirely in control, he commands a presence. Until, of course, someone’s head interrupts my line of sight. The queue must go on.
At the exit I am forced to wait. A temporary shop (selling exactly what the museum shop sells!) has caused a bottle neck. I cannot leave until some books, pencils, postcards, coasters, keyrings and cushion covers have been sold.
Outside my parents have been waiting. My mother has had time to buy the exhibition book, practically having failed to see the show! I leave conflicted, one half exuberant, one half frustrated. In all likelihood I will never get to see those works again, never again spend time tracing the paths Hokusai tails across his landscapes, never again become engrossed in his delicate characterisation’s of the Japanese. I feel thankful, yet robbed, an experience of Japan’s greatest artist has been soiled by inadequate curation and the English propensity for queuing. God help us.
Elliott Burns is an independent curator, exhibition production-er, writer, ex-artist, sometimes photographer, occasional teacher, approximate art technician, able bartender, decent cook, events co-ordinator, budget organiser, spreadsheet handler, competent admin-er, and happy copy-editor.
Since graduating from MA Culture, Criticism and Curation at Central Saint Martins he has worked with the University of the Arts London as an exhibition curator and teacher. He is the co-founded Off Site Project, an online exhibition space, and lives between Mexico City and London.
Featured image: Under the Wave off Kanagawa / The Great Wave, from the series: Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji (1829-1833), Katsushika Hokusai. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.