Sign o’ the Times

11059690_10155615841125223_1768839524338883606_nIsn’t it great when something that looks ‘arty’ turns out not to be art at all? A well-designed object that is anonymous and, yes, commercial is always much more genuine, and therefore much more moving, than one that comes with an ‘art-world’ pedigree attached to it.

This became apparent during a recent trip to Copenhagen, where I came across this fantastic neon sign, a photograph of which I immediately and dutifully posted to a well-known social network. I didn’t add a caption, nor was the context of the object immediately apparent in the photo. Sure enough, the first comment to be posted by someone read: “Is this in the street, or is it in a gallery?” (Es en la calle, o es una galería?)

Come to think of it, it’s a very appropriate question, because context makes a world of difference when it comes to something as banal and ubiquitous as a neon sign. Thanks to pop art, and the continuing use (and abuse) that has been made of neon and indeed commercial signage by contemporary ‘gallery’ artists, it has become harder and harder to distinguish art from non-art when an institutional context is unclear or ambiguous. After all, a work of art hanging inside (or on the façade of) a gallery is something very different from a work of commercial art erected in the street for the commercial purpose of advertising. Gallery art is precisely not supposed to be about money (at least in theory), in exactly the same way that money has always been a taboo-subject in aristocratic circles (as well as among architects).

Since Duchamp, as we all know, an object propped up in a gallery is viewed very differently from a similar one that is not. As a result, the space of the white cube has a profound effect on us: our attitude becomes unrelaxed when we’re inside a gallery. We nervously look for the label accompanying a work in the hope that references, ‘hidden meanings’, and subtexts –things increasingly necessary to appreciate art today– might become apparent. In the street, on the other hand, there is less need to ‘get’ the meaning behind objects (unless we’re architects, of course): things are just what they are, and we are perfectly free to like them or not to like them. There is not as much societal pressure to appreciate and respect what is seen (and never to be touched).

Therein lies the problem of contemporary art: because an object within a gallery context has been validated by an ‘expert’ (i.e. a curator), increasingly that means we become suspicious. Is the wool being pulled over our eyes? Is this supposed to be great? Looks like a neon advertising sign to me. Am I supposed to have heard of this artist? Etc.

It’s when something has no name, no title, no label, no curator, and no white cube ‘pedestal’ that we can candidly say what we think without fear of offense or committing a gaffe. (Unless you’re an architecture critic). We’re also much more likely to enjoy it on a visceral level. If this sign were in a gallery, it would be ‘so-so’ as far as art goes. In the street, on the other hand, knowing it’s a piece of ‘ordinary’ commercial graphic art, we can find it endearing and take a certain pleasure in it.

Architecture belongs in the street, not in galleries.

About Rafael Gomez-Moriana

I am an architect, writer and educator. rafagomo.com chronicles my architectural making, writing, teaching and curating activity, while criticalista.com is an archive of my writings as well as a platform for venting personal rants and observations. I studied architecture at the University of Waterloo (Canada) and at the Berlage Institute (the Netherlands). I direct the University of Calgary’s architecture term-abroad program in Barcelona and teach at CIEE, and have previously taught in the Metropolis Masters Program in Architecture and Urban Culture as well as at Carleton University and the University of Manitoba.

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