As I walk through exhibitions, I find myself staring around the works on display, straining to see how paintings are hung from the walls, how sculptures rise from the floor. I look for projectors and speakers. I stare at the benches and chairs, the corners of walls, electrical outlets and lights. I am not avoiding the artwork. I am searching for the whole picture, yearning for everything the works contain. I want the story of the work, a record of its history, not simply the final object.
I was absorbed by Mitchell Syrop’s steel wall pieces in Hidden at Midway Contemporary Art, intrigued by their static flow, the impermanence of their solidity. As others visitors were absorbed in reading the text of his massive, nine panel Hidden, I stared at the nails holding up Family of Secrets, wondering about the hands and machines that had pulled them from the earth, shaped, packaged, shipped, sold, and hammered them. What narrative unites these steel objects on and in the wall? What happens to the nails when Family of Secrets is removed? Will they be united again?
I visited the Katherine E. Nash Gallery at the University of Minnesota, and I fell in love with the artworks installed in a particular corner. I marveled at their seamless pairing with an incredible, ambient sound piece, until I remembered that the sound comes from the heating and cooling system. I could see the works without the rasping rumble from the depths of the building. Of course, the context of any artwork influences our experience of it. The temperature of the room affects the book we read. The argument we hear in the alley outside affects our experience in the gallery. The lighting, hardware, and soundscape of artworks shape our viewing. I am looking for those other aspects of the objects because I want to know the narrative held within them, the time they embody even if we do not know how to see it.
I was thrilled to see a Roman Opalka ‘detail’ in the Walker Art Center’s Art Expanded, 1958-1978. The rows and rows of numbers embody time, daily practice, a life of dedication, but that time is lost among the other “expanded” practices. I strained to read the numbers, searching for the hours of its creation, wanting to hear Opalka’s recordings and see his self portraits to begin to fill out the narrative of this singular painting.
I have been visiting artists’ studios and installing work, slowly seeing objects unfold and absorb layers of meaning. I have seen ideas and conversations transform through unknowing, testing, exploration into artworks that hold each incarnation, each thought within them. I have watched white walls fill with works that travelled across the country, bringing with them the time and miles they travelled, their stamps and handlers, the nails and screws upon which they balance.
When I see artworks in galleries and museums, I know I am witnessing only one small portion of their narrative, and I want more. I search for the out of sight parts of these artworks to begin to enrich their stories, to attempt to understand their lived experience as changing, mutable objects who contain our time with them as they move into their future.
There is a chill in the night air. Fall is here, carrying the weight of the year behind it, breathing changes into the trees and gardens that begin to show the passage of time, the slow revolution of the seasons. I return to Opalka. He writes, “Time as we live it and as we create it embodies our progressive disappearance.” Let us look to the objects we create to see our progressive disappearance. They reveal the briefest moments of that disappearance when we see them displayed, but they will hold the passage and passing of our lives long after we have disappeared.