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Could Reading Be Looking?


Imagine, if you must, walking into an exhibition space and encountering work so oblique you don’t know what to make of it. You start looking for text. First on the wall, then, by the door or a desk someplace. You scan whatever copy you can find, searching for coordinates, landmarks, bits of conceptual breadcrumbs, or a bright stripe of familiarity amidst the thicket of ideas. You hope to find some meaning in the work in front of you. Sometimes you do.

The average museumgoer stands in front of a work for fifteen to thirty seconds. An average reader can comprehend about two hundred words per minute. A viewer who reads a standard wall label (which averages about one hundred words) will spend as much time reading as looking. The wall labels, introductory texts, and section texts condition the pace at which visitors move through an exhibition, the amount of information they receive beyond any preexisting knowledge, and their sense of what the museum wants them to know or learn over the course of the show. To group together these three textual mechanisms—the introductory wall text, the section texts, and the labels—is, in a way, to go against a museum’s best practices, since each of these plays a different role in communicating an exhibition’s thesis and pace. But they all support each other in an endless loop of authority.

What do we look at when there’s a text present? Where do our eyes go? Vinyl lettering on the wall near the entrance to a show colors it, shading it thematically or in terms of an artist’s biography. If a label is aligned with a painting, eyes wander between text and image, comparing authority and subjective experience, looking for the places where text touches what it describes. Guides, maps, and lists plot the works in a sequence, delineating ways of moving through the space. All of these devices—wall texts, labels, press releases—are built into viewing art. Reading has become part of looking.

One of the most personal and comprehensive accounts of looking at art began in January 2000, when art historian T. J. Clark arrived at a six-month research residency at the Getty Institute in Los Angeles. He had no exact research program—“the most likely bet was Picasso between the wars”—and during his first days he wandered around the Getty Museum in search of specific paintings. Clark titled the resulting study The Sight of Death: An Experiment in Art Writing, though “an experiment in attention” might have been more accurate.

Read the full article here.


Image is of Jérémie Bennequin’s Erased Proust Writing

This idea of reading as looking reminds me of an exhibition currently up at Bury Art Museum in the UK: Reading as Art that was curated by @Tombrec that examines the relationship between reading and art.

The museum describes it as:

Simon Morris examines the relationship between reading and art . The works included in the exhibition find different means to foreground and to investigate the activity of reading: the forms it can take (silent reading, reading aloud, spontaneous reading, purposeful reading, and so on), the matter of reading (the book, the screen, the space of the page), the bodies that engage in it and the contexts in which it occurs. All of the works are concerned to make reading manifest in some way; in so doing, they each show – differently – how reading is its own form of making.

Here is an excerpt from a review that can be found here.

In crevasses and dark places, a few works are linked by the responses of writings by big 20th century writers turned philosophers including Marcel Proust and Iris Murdoch whom used their writing to document a certain way of thinking. Of course, one of the most famous works of fiction heavily influenced by memory and loss – Proust’s In Search of Lost Time is the ultimate journey of experience and an epic search for identity. In Jérémie Bennequin’s Erased Proust Writing we witness an hour long film of the erasure of one page out of Proust’s mammoth 3000 page novel. The noise from the rubber scrubbing at the pages echo throughout the space, acting as both white noise, and a small act of violence against an object that is seen so holy in the eyes of many cultures.

Here is the Bury Museum’s exhibition page.