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Looking at Art in 2021: New Normals and Online Exhibitions

In the West, the way art is presented and exhibited has changed over the centuries, learning from various internal and external factors and criticisms. The development of the art market intertwined with different industrial areas. The opening of private collections to general audiences and the creation of public spaces, as well as the introduction of exhibition and museum culture to social life, are among important milestones in the history of exhibitions.

From majestic palaces, the colourful walls of the Academy, to the increasingly accepted white walls of museums, from avant-garde initiatives to studio aesthetics and institutional critique, it can always be said that the history of exhibition-making is an area that heralds innovation and change.

Figure 1 (left): Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Lilly Reich, Velvet and Satin Cafe, Berlin, 1927. Museum of Modern Art,

New York. Source: ich-designer-bauhaus-modernity

Figure 2 (right): Art of This Century gallery, New York City, 1942—installation design by Frederick Kiesler. Source: Pinterest.

Mies Van der Rohe and Lilly Reich’s 1927 exhibition ‘Silk and Velvet Cafe ́’ (Figure 1) and Friedrich Kiesler’s ‘Art of this Century’ (Figure 2) are just two of the many examples where we can see the relation- ship between progressive exhibitions and the use of space. What these developments have in common is the impact of the sensory experience on the human body and the use of space that is parallel with the history of architecture. Therefore, innovations in exhibition making are inherently linked to the spaces that include them and the bodies that experience the spaces created, within boundaries structured by art and the artist. The developments triggered by the interaction and sometimes friction between this trio have created exciting moments in the history of art, exhibition-making and architecture.

Considering the use of technologies and optimization in the history of exhibitions, how can the impact of online exhibitions in museums and galleries and the concepts of the viewer’s experience be assessed during the Covid-19 period? From this point of view, the use of the internet by the art world and its role in exhibition-making can be likened to the use of a steam engine during the industrial revolution. Although the steam engine was invented in the 17th century with various experiments, conditions in the 19th century allowed the technology to herald a new era. Similarly, although internet technology existed in the 1960s, its use in art practices, defined as new media in the 1980s, has become widespread in art institutions only since the 2000s. Of course, the long-term positive and negative consequences of this (both the revolution and the internet) are also open to debate

Museums and galleries, which are considered contact-zones and areas where collective experiences are acquired, that were closed to visitors due to Covid-19 restrictions, have still not recovered from problems such as the pressure on operating budgets, lack of revenue and the dismissal of key staff, as well as how to maintain the interest of audiences. Thus, many venues have turned to online exhibitions and digital-virtual reality (VR) opportunities with the possibilities offered by internet and software technologies.

Figure 3: Louvre Web Page. Source:

Online exhibitions that have become the new normal, feature artworks and various objects arranged in thematic and periodic rooms. Online arrangements mimic the ‘traditional exhibition’ experience, encouraging the viewer to go from room-to-room, almost as if they were in the venue. (Figure 3). This raises questions about whether these platforms allow for any innovation other than the satisfaction of leaving instantly with a click, and granting instant access to the artworks offered on view.

Figure 4: Interactive “Explore” spaces in Tate Modern’s Blavatnik Building. London. Created in the Bloomberg Philanthropies Sponsor, the rooms include other dynamic tools such as transforming the visitor experience and mobile apps on and off site. Source: author’s own photo.

Figure 5: Rachel Rossin, Alembic Cache Passes (Time-snark), 2016. VR Video. Kiasma – Finnish National Gallery. Helsinki. Source: author’s own photo.

In the increasingly virtual new normal, the experience of looking at art is simplified and, under the weil of open access/democracy intellectual or aesthetic value and experience is transformed into a capitalist tool beyond healing. With blurred lines between viewer, user, follower and consumer within consumer culture, the actors (artists, curators or institutions) who create new forms of exhibition-making must now share innovation with their new stakeholders; user interface, software, hardware and electronic engineers. (Figure 4)

While experiential art forms such as new media are trapped between the walls of old exhibition spaces (Figure 5), masterpieces remain dim and pale on online platforms, which have become new venues for traditional art. (Figure 3). The new architects of these platforms and technology fields have the potential to lead the way to different innovations, while challenging the conventional ways for thinking and working for artists and curators.

Thus, it can be said that we are expenencing a very different period in the history of exhibition-making: the framing power and factors of art institutions have changed; they are now shared with other disciplines, and the power of authority is transferred to designers, creators and users. More importantly, the budget and capacity of institutions determine the service they can buy, which ultimately effects the user experience and dissemination potential.

The necessity and benefits of permanent and sustainable digitalization are clear, but there are significant differences between use of such technologies by established institutions and the use of online platforms and the forms of digitization in Cyprus.

If we are to learn from the past, it would indicate that it is more valuable and useful to evaluate existing technologies in the context of when they can be most effective, in an organic and meaningful way as opposed to artificial leaps.

*This article was first publised in MIMARCA Journal and was originally written in Turkish

Asst. Prof .Dr Esra Plümer Bardak

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