Fun for all at EM15: The Pavilion’s challenging of traditional gallery etiquette, making leisure something for everyone at this year’s Biennale

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©Zorcha Dean, 2015
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©Zorcha Dean, 2015
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©Zorcha Dean, 2015
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©Zorcha Dean, 2015

When you hear the words ‘contemporary art exhibition’, what do you think of? Many of your answers to this will be much the same, walking from piece to piece in silence with a catalogue in your hands and stopping at one or two pieces while you ponder “what the hell does this mean?” Of course, this may be wrong for many of you versed in the contemporary art world, but unless you know the artist’s work well you are often at a bit of a loss to what it is trying to say. Don’t be embarrassed, we have all experienced this in an art gallery at one time of another. At EM15’s pavilion at the Biennale Venezia, you see less of this. Yes, it is contemporary art, and one could argue as contemporary as art gets, but what it allows for is everyone to be able to engage with the works in one way or another, even if that is not primarily through the meaning of the artworks themselves. “How?” I hear you ask. Well, the pavilion is a mini-golf course, and yes visitors are allowed (or rather encouraged) to play. For €1 visitors of all ages are able to indulge in a game of mini golf which allows them to stand on the art works, take photos and videos, laugh and talk about them, and play each hole in whatever order they fancy.
This is far from the very traditional viewing experience we would have found perhaps fifty years ago within a traditional artistic hub such as Venice. However, this level of engagement is not all that new to contemporary art as pointed out by Kathleen McLean in ‘Museum Exhibitions and the Dynamics of Dialogue’. Michael Spock directed the Boston Children’s Museum in the latter half of the twentieth century. At the same time Dr F Oppenheimer was exploring ways within Museum Studies to encourage learning through hands on approaches. These two figures spearheaded understanding and research within museum studies to encourage utilisation of different medias and platforms for exhibiting. This supports a point made by Mclean, which emphasises the role of museum visitors and the role of museum/gallery organisers, as ‘listeners’ and ‘talkers’. This point became crucial when I myself was within the pavilion, observing visitors playing and looking, as well as hearing their comments on the art.
“Awesome! My Kind of Art!” Fun for visitors
McLean notes how in recent years “Museum professionals are coming to think of them (visitors) less as passive spectators and more as active participants”.[1] Doug Fishbone’s pavilion epitomises this. An example of this is Hetain Patel’s Coloured Processor, which resembles a crouching figure in which players are physically required to wind a cog in order to move the golf ball through the art work and then hear it clanking around inside it. The ball appears out the other end of the art work which is always a source of great amusement for visitors, adults and children alike. By physically having to assist the ball in this manner, I was often then asked by amused and confused visitors what this action and work in particular represented. By engaging with the work physically, it encouraged many to do so mentally as well.
My third day working at the Pavilion, my colleague Michael and I met a couple named David and Catherine visiting from Derbyshire, East Midlands. They explained to us that what initially sparked their interest in the pavilion was the familiar University of Nottingham and Nottingham Trent University logos. They thoroughly enjoyed the golf course and said it was a “breath of fresh air” from the rest of the contemporary art they’d already viewed. David made an interesting comparison to art work he’d viewed on a recent trip to Florence, where he bashfully admitted the Renaissance art all looked the same to him and the religious symbolism went straight over his head. Despite this statement being one purely of personal preference, it raised the notion of the approachable appeal about the pavilion. Unlike many galleries and exhibition spaces which automatically emit a controlled and perhaps even elitist atmosphere. In spaces such as these visitors feel obliged to stand and look at an art piece for a set amount of time comparing themselves to the person who had just previously viewed it in the steady moving production line that is gallery viewing. With this exhibition, viewers (or for the purpose of this concept, we shall call them players), spend as much time on each art work as they need to until they get the ball in the whole. They needn’t understand or even try to read the information on the art works in order to appreciate them, as for many players their appreciation is purely through the act of playing golf. This raises questions about the notion of contemporary art, and the art world in general. It appears to create invisible class and age boundaries a lot of the time therefore creating a much skewed audience. This leads on to Doug Fishbone’s concept of leisure and the cost of it. Art viewing in itself is supposedly a concept of leisure, but generally speaking it appears to be also an act of forced leisure in which you act how you think one should, what not you feel you should.
Leisure at Work
Being a Biennale Volunteer came with other upsides as well as getting to work at one of the greatest art events in Europe, there were some great social perks. Other invigilator volunteers would tell me of their experiences at their pavilions, providing me with insight that I would not have been subjected to if merely visiting. The general consensus from other volunteers was that all of us at EM15 who worked at ‘The Leisure Principle’ had landed the jackpot. Its atmosphere is completely different from that of the other pavilions which were very traditional in their gallery behaviour, where the invigilators sit in silence counting visitors and every now and then instructing a rebellious viewer to “non toccare” (“don’t touch”). This explains many shocked visitor reactions I observed whilst working when I asked them if they wanted to play, and then encouraged them to stand on the artworks in order to take the perfect putt.

On reflection; both with the ability of hindsight and reviewing chats with visitors and their comments in the visitor book, Doug Fishbone’s ‘Leisure Land Golf’ was the highlight of the Biennale for many. Comments include those such as “Best thing at the Biennale”, “Awesome! My kind of Art” and “Good family engagement and though provocation”. What these comments highlight is how the pavilion reached out to all kinds of people. On my first day, the site manager Antonio Guerrieri mentioned to me as a bunch of young children ran in, that these were its most loyal visitors. He then went on to say that the locals appear to appreciate the pavilion just as much if not more so than the visiting tourists and art enthusiasts, as for them it is the greatest source of leisure and fun they have accessible. This for me is the whole point of Fishbone’s exhibition. It is what the visitors make it, whether it is just a game or something more, like a political statement voiced through the Costa Concordia themed golf hole (addressed by my colleague Mike Eyley on his piece “Cruise ships are what Venetians love to hate and hate to love”). This concept is corroborated by scholars such as Valerie Casey who emphasises the importance of viewer reaction in making art, art.[2] In terms of this pavilion, I see it as artistic as an exhibition can be, as everyone is invited to view and play, and more often than not visitors do not realise at first that they are engaging with art at all, which from observation makes them do just that.

[1] Kathleen McLean, “Museum Exhibitions and the Dynamics of Dialogue”, Daedalus 128 (1999): 84.
[2] Valerie Casey, “Staging Meaning: Performance in the Modern Museum”, TDR 49 (2005): 80.

Zorcha Dean

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