The third floor of the National Portrait Gallery is my favorite floor because of its romantic architecture. I am in awe of the never-ending marble floors, grand doorways, and lofty ceilings. But what makes the floor even better is that the east wing is usually home to contemporary art. Last weekend, I left my boyfriend in the Twentieth-Century Americans exhibit and snuck over to the east wing. I stood in the center of the room trying to decide where to look first and noticed a small passage-way to the right of the wing entrance. The passage led to Snails-Space with Vari-lites, “Painting as Performance” by David Hockney. Of course, I had to investigate.
I heard a light crackling noise as I stepped into the dark entrance. After blindly walking for about three feet, a large colorful painting gleamed before me. The Smithsonian describes the piece as “two attached canvases and floor piece to look like a tiny, tangled world blow up to preposterous size.” The three-dimensional piece consists of spirals, swirls, and dots that can be interpreted as a fantastical landscape. My curiosity was peaked. I decided to take a seat by the two viewers sitting on the bench to my right.
(This video is poor quality but it gives you an idea of the transformation of the exhibit. The red phase is my favorite part.)
A computer program uses various types of lighting to highlight certain aspects of the piece. Over a period of nine minutes, valleys glow red and blue as specific dots light-up and then fade. Meanwhile, a slow crackling noise ripples at the “pace of a snail”. The couple left the room and I sat alone on the cushioned bench for one cycle of the piece, reveling in this beautiful meditation. At one point, the entire work smolders in a brilliant red light almost as if the painting is blushing. I could not help but smile-Hockney is a genius.
Eventually my solitude was broken by the presence of other visitors. Numerous visitors walked into the room and turned around after about 30 seconds while others sat for a minute and grew impatient before shuffling out. Finally, one man came to sit by me for a few minutes. He seemed enthusiastic about the piece and only left in order to find his wife and son to bring them back. Unfortunately, his son was unable to appreciate the work. “When is something going to happen?” he asked. “And what is that noise? And when can we go to lunch?” The man undoubtedly regretted his attempt at sharing the piece.
The family forced me to consider the decisions made by the curator surrounding this piece. My first instinct was to believe that the curator needs to somehow get every viewer to stop for nine minutes in order to enjoy Snails Space. But after sitting through three cycles of the performance, I feel differently. The job of the curator is to create the best experience for viewers that want to appreciate and to protect them from disturbances by others. The fairly secretive location of the space in the far corner of the east wine was one advantage of the exhibit. Viewers must be truly interested in order to walk-in. Once they enter, they feel that they discovered something that others have missed. Also, the cushioned bench adds to the relaxing feel of the experience and invites the viewer to stay for a while. Finally, the minimal amount of description outside of the exhibit contributes to the mystery and permits the viewer to make their own assumptions.
While I really enjoy the enigmatic feel of the exhibition, I believe it lessens the protection offered to the interested viewer. If the exhibit boldly states that the performance requires nine minutes of your time, then impatient visitors may be deterred. Additionally, PLEASE BE QUIET signs would definitely obstruct the atmosphere of the exhibit, but they could stop viewers from chattering loudly as they enter the dark hallway. Noise distractions dilute the impact of the work and interrupt the meditative qualities of the piece.
The fact that Snails Space was the only piece shown by Hockney is another aspect of the exhibition that I have considered. Maintaining the individuality of the piece was advantageous because the viewer’s attention is not diverted to other works. I sat in the room fully concentrated on examining the performance and left feeling lighter and invigorated by the piece. I did not want to see anything else. Snails Space had filled my creative thirst for the day. However, it would be interesting to experiment with installing additional Hockney pieces in the east wing. The piece is an evolution of Hockney’s earlier works. “It grew out of his practice of arranging separate canvases around the studio, painting the floor, and inviting his visitors to step into the world of his paintings.” I would like to see an exhibition that tells the story of the evolution of Hockney’s work with Snails Space as the culmination.
My experience with Snails-Space with Vari-lites, “Painting as Performance” pushed me to expand my definition of curation. Curators not only put together exhibitions that tell a story and evoke the message of the artist, but they compose an entire experience for the viewer. The curator of Snails Space tried to develop an atmosphere in which the viewer would be able to receive the artist’s message. While the curator was successful in many ways, the exhibition could certainly be improved upon-and Snails Space is certainly worth the effort.