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Doodling on Museum Walls

1. The Artist Who Doodles on a Museum Wall

On a recent trip to Vienna, I visited an exhibition focused on contemporary drawing at the Albertina Museum. Titled A Passion for Drawing (11 October 2019 – 26 January 2020), the exhibition show highlighted the Guerlain Collection from the Centre Pompidou Paris, featuring works by contemporary artists who explore the diverse uses of the medium of drawing. Amongst the 20 artists featured in the exhibition, one artist’s work is easy to be missed accidentally. It was not until I was about to exit the room that I noticed the tiny wall label next to the entrance:

Wall text for Nedko Solakov’s Albertinadoodles, 2019 (Photo: Ellen Wang)

With the determination of fully exploiting the show, I went back through the display rooms, and discovered these naughty adaptations to the wall labels and doodle figures sporting around humble corners. One has to look closely to notice the black little doodle men swinging under the letter ‘A’ in Marcel Dzama’s name or the men pulling apart the bottom parts of ‘p’ and ‘e’ in the word ‘transparent’ in a paragraph introducing the works by Aya Takano.

Nedko Solakov, Albertinadoodles, 2019 (Photo: Ellen Wang)

Doodling, this innocent means of expression, feels somewhat inappropriate on a museum wall, which always seems to have a ‘secret’ and ‘untouchable’ connotation to it. Taking a pen to a museum wall would have normally been seen as an act of vandalism, if the ‘criminal’ were not the artist himself, since a regular visitor is not allowed to even come up close to the wall (listed as one of the 15 forms of ‘museum etiquette’ according to a travel guide). What if the artist himself does the vandalising? What happens when an artist doodles on a museum wall?

Nedko Solakov, Albertinadoodles, 2019 (Photo: Ellen Wang)

The artist who conducted the ‘crime’, Nedkov Solakov, lives and works in Bulgaria, and worked for the Bulgarian secret service for seven years, until finally quitting in 1983 out of suspicion toward the authoritative Communist rule. First shown in 1990, Top Secret is a card-index chest filled with a series of cards disclosing details of Solav’s youthful collaboration with the secret service from 1978 to 1983. Since then, many of Solakov’s work have challenged the various ways authoritative institutions and systems function. Albertinadoodles is not the first time Solakov has challenged a white exhibition space. In his 2005 exhibition A (not so) White Cube at MoMA PS1 in New York, Solakov disrupted the ‘white cube’ model by refusing to display any visual elements in the white minimalist space other than his microscopic writings and doodles traversing through the shadows and the corners of the wall, unobtrusive and unconcerned. Sometimes, the writings seem almost like the artist’s unconscious mumbling, humorous yet melancholic at the same time. One of the lines reads ‘the white cube’s pet’ with an arrow pointing to a living spider; another one says ‘I’m entirely not in the mood to start working on this piece. 17, 9, 2005, 9’ 27 a.m.’ However insignificant, the tiny marks on the wall have changed the behaviour of a normal gallery visitor (the audience have to lean forward and put their faces close to the wall to recognise the doodles), and interrupted the conventions of an exhibition space.

2. Jenny Holzer: Wall Labels for Everyone?

With museum wall labels, some people read only the basic information--the title, artist, medium, and a few highlighted words from the curator; some people completely exhaust them (recalling myself in my BA2 curating class doing an assignment on ‘observing visitor behaviours’). 99% of the visitors at the Met in New York or the Louvre do not care about these wall texts--a lot of them came here to take a selfie with Mona Lisa. Regardless, art critics and art historians get into heated debates about these labels (such as Michelle Hartney who posted guerilla wall labels next to artwork by misogynist artists and the The Steins Collection exhibition which was called out for not mentioning Gertrude Stein’s Nazi sympathies).

Since everyone seems to have a different approach when reading museum wall labels, is there a way to satisfy everyone? Jenny Holzer, the contemporary artist known for her LED electronic signs, answers the question by replacing wall labels with electronic running text designed for the permanent collection display of Empire Style Biedermeier at the Museum of Applied Arts (MAK) in Vienna. The artist, who claims to ‘have never liked museum labels and brochures’, wanted to find an appealing way to show the tediously long text on Biedermeier and Empire for every kind of visitor:

Because some people hate to read in museums, I placed the signs near the ceiling so they can be ignored. To encourage people who might read, I varied the signs' programs and included special effects. For serious, exhausted readers, I provided an aluminum mock-Biedermeier sofa on which to sit.

Jenny Holzer, Sofa for Visitors, 1993 (Photo: Ellen Wang)

3. Behind the Words

According to the definition, and in most cases throughout history, museum labels are supposed to provide objective facts of an artwork and sometimes ‘a block of didactic (interpretive) text related to the artwork.’ However, thanks to the increasing sensitivities to moral and ethical issues regarding race, gender, and cultures in the past few decades, curators have to be more conscious of questions of political correctness, sources of funding, and acknowledging an artist’s questionable past when writing labels. For instance, more and more American museums have started to put up land acknowledgements which respectfully honour the original inhabitants of the land on which the museum is built, since Sylvia Yount, the Met’s American-wing curator, started the fashion.

Essentially, wall labels are literal articulations where different intentions from the artist, the curator, and the exhibition staff meet. It is precisely because of this inherently limiting nature that wall text cannot contextualise an artwork completely in accordance with its creator. Conflict between the artist and the wall text’s interpretations have led to incidents such as the 2015 Lyon Biennale, when the unhappy artists took up the role of an editor, crossing out, underlining sentences in the wall text, or straightforwardly commenting, ‘some of this is untrue’. In the wall label for Beijing-based artist Guan Xiao’s video installation, someone crossed out the adverb ‘painstakingly’ describing her image-sourcing process. The comments are reminiscent of Alix Rule and David Levine’s critique on what they call ‘International Art English (IAE)’, a phrase they use to describe the mucky, jargon-filled art-world-language. ‘This language has everything to do with English, but it is emphatically not English’, write Rule and Levine.

Thankfully, the Internet is not short of spoofs on IAE. At least Tomas McAuley seems to have grasped the essence of it, when he writes: ‘Part of the famed “Annoyes” school of visual artists, McAuley’s works have long sought to shock and to disturb, but ultimately to deepen out collective understanding of the human condition. This work probes the intersectional boundaries of art to question...the limits of acceptability, culpability, and conceivability, using the translucency of everyday show...the fundamental elision of the artistic and the human’.---on a label next to an empty oatcake wrapper left on a kitchen table after his angry wife asked him to stop leaving trash in the kitchen.

Not to mention the mysterious ‘mixed media’ installation (thanks to the artist and the Courtauld facilities staff for the attempt to fix the leaking pipe) recently left on the third floor at our Vernon Square campus:

Anonymous, Untitled (Let Me Drip?), 2019 (Photo: Dr Edwin Coomasaru)

In the end, what do we do with wall labels? How should exhibition-makers approach them under the progressively democratic scrutiny from the public in the digital age? The various responses by the artists mentioned above might not provide a precise answer to the question, but at least next time when you go to an exhibition, you should be aware of the hidden narratives and institutional ideologies behind the seemingly innocent words.


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