I go to formal openings for the same reason I go to zoos: to watch the people.
Then a few days or weeks later, I return to actually see the exhibition. But opening day is all about the crowd. Yesterday was the reopening of The Rasmus Meyer Collection at The KODE Art Museums of Bergen. One of the largest collections of Edvard Munch paintings in the world was among the works on display. Some 700 people visited the museum during the day, and looking at the queue a few minutes before the doors opened, most of them thought it a good idea to come at the exact same time. I guess quite a few actually was interested in hearing the director’s speech, but I suspect that for some it was of equal importance to be seen themselves.
I was in that queue, but seeing that I wouldn’t get in with the first (and keenest and thus most photogenic) wave of visitors, I left and had a few coffees elsewhere. Returning a couple of hours later, the speech was over and the crowd had thinned out quite a bit (possibly to go and observe World Naked Gardening Day). At this time it was possible to actually see the Munch paintings, but considering what I had really hoped to capture – the ladies of the arts clutching their glasses of faux Champagne and investing in their cultural capital by mere attendance – it was also a bit of a downer.
Watching the watchers
Incidentally (or maybe not) two of my favourite photographers have also worked a lot with the theme of museums and their visitors – in two very different manners. Thomas Struth, a German photographer associated with the so-called Düsseldorf school of photography (including Andreas Gursky, Candida Höfer, Axel Hütte and Thomas Ruff) makes extremely rigid, sober and straight-on pictures with large format cameras – and usually presents his works in gigantic prints often measuring two by two meters. In his museum series, he would set up his 13×18 camera in front of certain works of art and wait long hours or even days before feeling that the crowds in front of him fell into the right formation. I especially remember seeing a large exhibition of his in the Whitechapel Gallery in East London a few years ago. If I remember correctly, one of his pictures from the Art Institute of Chicago – printed so large that the people in the picture was almost life-size – was the very first thing you saw when you came in through the doors. And that meta feeling of me, an actual gallery-goer, looking at a huge photographs of other gallery-goers looking at paintings – that is really, really engaging.
The other museum watching favourite is Elliot Erwitt, a Magnum photographer and the grand master of ironic and absurd photography. He actually has a book called Museum Watching, consisting of pictures from 40 years of attending museums in his spare time in between assignments. Compared to Thomas Struth, Elliot represents the opposite end of documentary photography. Working with small Leica cameras, his work is spontaneous and affectionate and more often than not very witty. His Museum Watching book is in no way one of his best, but at times it is absolutely superb. I honestly think that his 1995 picture from Museo del Prado in Madrid is one of the funniest photographs ever made (Erwitt has several contenders for this prize).
Looking through Erwitts and Struths work today, there is one thing that strikes me: no one in the pictures are taking their own pictures of the art. Since then of course, the camera phone arrived. Yesterday at the The Rasmus Meyer Collection, as good as everyone was snapping away. A few were seemingly trying to capture the mood of the opening, but most were taking pics of the paintings, and I guess a fair share of those pics were going straight on Instagram and the like – showing that yes, we were there.
According to Thomas Struth: “[…] when art works were made, they were not yet icons or museum pieces. When a work of art becomes fetishized, it dies.” I’m not so cynical myself. Munch’s work is obviously fetishized, but I have a feeling that it’s still able to evoke some feelings independently of the fact that they are Munch paintings. But it’s difficult, of course. The Scream, for example, is so much a part of our common cultural heritage that I find it impossible to separate the picture itself and my emotional response to it from its role as an artefact in popular culture. The only Scream on display at The Rasmus Meyer Collection is a tiny pen and ink version. I don’t think that will be able to elicit any new emotions. But maybe some of the other works will. I’ll have to return another day to find that out. And leave my camera at home.