Sometimes when you go to an exhibition it is funny how different your experience is, depending on whether or not you read the pamphlet that accompanies the artworks.
I learned just how important that can be, when I went to see American artist Dara Birnbaum at South London Gallery this weekend.
By studying the reading material the piece all of a sudden had a depth to it, which I failed to see just by observing the artwork.
When I sat down and watched the loop in the gallery all I saw was women playing the same piece on pianos, some quotes on a screen and a cheesy love story shown in still frames with subtitles to make a storyline. After coming home and reading the pamphlet, the piece suddenly made so much more sense. Not only because I understood the content better, but also because it had a really thought through concept.
The piece “Arabesque” (2011) is named after a composition by the same name, which was composed by Robert Schumann. It is a four-channel installation showing different content on each channel.
Robert Schumann wrote “Arabesque” to his wife Clara Schumann. Birnburn found various clips on YouTube, and in the installation she shows female pianist playing this composition.
Clara Schumann was also a composer and composed among others “Romance 1”, which was a piece composed to her husband.
Birnbaum found that there was only one video of this piece available on YouTube, something made clear in the installation. The screens playing “Arabesque” are constantly shifting from one pianist to another, while the pianist playing “Romanze 1” remains the same though the whole loop.
One screen has shifting still pictures, accompanied by subtitles to make a storyline. The pictures are taken from the movie “Song of Love” (1947). A film that tells the story of Robert and Clara Schumann. In the film there is a scene where Clara plays “Arabesque” on the piano (this is however not shown in the installation). The subtitles accompanying the still pictures are all quotes by Katharine Hepburn. She played the role of Clara in “Songs of Love”.
From time to time we are seeing quotes on one of the other screens as well. These quotes are all extracts from Clara’s diary.
The Circle is complete.
“Arabesque” (2011) doesn’t only concern the relationship between Robert and Clara Schumann. It also explores the relationship between genders. The balance between Arabesque and Romanze 1, but also the quotes and the storyline show this.
This piece is really thought through and every video had its place in the whole.
Here the background knowledge was essential. It made me see each bit in the coherence.
This is however not the case with every artist. In the end it will always depend on the individual artist. Birnbaum seems to work very conceptual. Other artists have a much more relatable and simple approach to their work.
One of the main reasons that I often neglect to read the pamphlets is that it is nice to see artworks unaffected by what other people wrote about them. One of the beauties of art is that it is subjective and each person has a different gain.
In this case it really astounded me how different my perception of the piece was, before and after I had read the information. I would have never guessed that it had so many layers to it.
This shows the importance of background knowledge and that we should always consider ourselves to be a bit stupid.
I am not saying that I will start reading the pamphlets religiously every time I go to an exhibition, it is still nice to see things fresh. But I will definitely be more critical and seeking in the future. Curiosity is an important quality, in order to gain and make life more interesting.