Years ago, when I lived in London, making my tentative forays into the art world, passing through the door to a gallery was a momentary ordeal, bedeviled by halting indecision and uncertainty about what lay beyond.
Gaining admittance to galleries through requisite monoliths of steel, industrial grates, or oceans of glass can be daunting to the uninitiated. There are doorways, certainly, but many are camouflaged. Often shorn of handles and other domestic aids, even visible mechanics such as hinges, one is assailed by a rapid array of choices on whether to push or pull, and with what amount of heft. Several times I have been jammed between edge and frame, or toppled off balance having misjudged the effort required to shift the menhir. And the resultant echoing clang alerts watchful eyes inside that one has stumbled.
On a quiet residential road in the East End, one gallery in particular, the Chisenhale, compounded my trepidation. It was bounded by a canal to the back—which I perceived as a protective moat—and wrought iron fencing in the fore. I would approach, longing to enter, to understand this oblique sentinel to the realm of contemporary art. As the moment arrived, wraiths of courage would evaporate and defeated, I’d retreat. It was to be a rough wooing.
In time, I secured my nerves and passed through the doorway in the metal barrier, an opening so modest in proportion to the building as to suggest resistance rather than invitation. And there I stood, on the other side of the mirror. An inexorable, concrete ramp descended into the sheer, white plane of the interior. As the floor leveled, the empty, seamless grandeur of that pristine entity revealed itself. It embodied the art world; was, the art world. Penetrating its silence, its detached austerity, was a fraught but necessary part of earning the intoxicating thrill of entry and reaching the art within. I had begun the process of demystification, or was it assimilation? Here was the vernacular mesmerizingly conveyed; the code breached.
The civics of museums differ. Vast, public porticos enrapture, drawing in the visitor. The sliver of awe one feels upon declining into Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall—the Olympus Mons of museums—is staggering. Museums are more democratic, less severe. They crackle with social activity; people; community. The greatest of them are engines of collective sensation, flowing beyond the perimeters of art; dynamos for the firmament of human experience. An astronomically imposing example is Olafur Eliasson’s “Weather Project”(2003), which transformed Tate Modern into a spellbinding, solar dimension. It is a memory in polar opposition to that of seeing Wolfgang Tillmans’s coolly distant photographs of Concorde soaring out of reach, taken in the same year as his Chisenhale exhibition, I Didn’t Inhale (1997).
The political structure of the art world may be discerned in the architecture of galleries, where the etiquette of navigating these suspended territories can be opaque. Often the chilled atmosphere is perpetuated by those who work inside, as hushed operatives studiously uphold the environmental sensibility. In cultivating a perception of value and status, perhaps a veil of glacial remoteness is required to brace the artistic choices on show. This could be viewed as an attempt to bestow an illusion of authority upon the director’s or curator’s opinions, over a currency—taste—to which they have no definitive claim.
After all, if anyone can enter at ease, might one begin to articulate disagreement with what is presented? If individual preferences find a voice, might the spark of cultural rebellion grow brighter? Through this prism, the political and commercial system of such venues seems fragile. As I breeze without concern through the doors of these spaces today, I recall how I toiled through my early discomfort in crossing the threshold, and how vital it was to persevere that I might fully appreciate the work of art.