The Gallery of Lost Art
July 2, 2012 – July 1, 2013
One of the first works a visitor to the Gallery of Lost Art encounters is a drawing by Willem de Kooning. Most would not immediately think of this drawing as “lost,” or even worthy of art historical consideration in its own right: it served as the basis for Robert Rauschenberg’s “Erased de Kooning” (1953), the seminal conceptual gesture in which the younger artist created a new work of art by negating a sketch by the renowned Abstract Expressionist.
Like de Kooning’s “Untitled,” the works featured in the Gallery of Lost Art, curated by Tate’s head of collection research Jennifer Mundy, have been erased, destroyed, stolen, attacked, or discarded. But how can a show exhibit objects—all from the last 100 years—when these objects no longer exist? In a space that transcends physicality: the web. Produced by the Tate in collaboration with the digital studio ISO, the Gallery of Lost Art is the most immersive virtual exhibition this writer has ever encountered. Unlike what Mundy and Tate Media creative director Jane Burton call “capturing the gallery” experience—for example, Google Art Project’s 360-degree tours of museums—the Gallery of Lost Art exists exclusively online.
While the exhibition is an entirely virtual experience, the Gallery of Lost Art plunges the visitor-user into an imagined physical space. Taking the scenography of Lars von Trier’s 2003 film Dogville as its inspiration, the gallery “space” manifests itself as an open-plan loft. Viewed from above, tables dot the concrete floor, each containing documents relating to a lost object that the visitor can click on to peruse. The visitor becomes an archaeologist of sorts, “excavating” photographs, press clippings, letters, and illustrations to uncover the narratives behind the disappearances of these works. Everything remains but the object itself.
The Gallery of Lost Art is transgressive insofar as it defies one major but unspoken rule of exhibition-making—that the exhibit physically exist. Otherwise, it adheres beautifully to the hallmarks of the traditional gallery exhibition: it is an immersive environment, it is designed for the viewing and critical consideration of art, its content has been carefully selected with a particular theoretical lens, its physical setting establishes a pace at which it should be viewed, and it has a finite duration. The Gallery of Lost Art also benefits from the advantages of a virtual exhibition: the viewer is unhampered by crowds or security guards, the space can be visited repeatedly at no cost, and its lack of physical constraints allows for content to be expanded over the course of the exhibition.
Opponents of technology-mediated art experiences—whether viewing images of works on the web or visiting full-blown virtual exhibitions—have claimed that artworks lose a certain Walter Benjaminian aura when not experienced in person. Visitor research has since debunked this myth; according to various museum studies, the dissemination of reproductions on the web has only increased visitors’s desire to see these images in the flesh. In the case of the Gallery of Lost Art, how can we lose the aura of objects that we could not witness firsthand anyway? A physical exhibit of the same photographs, press clippings, and letters would have been an equally mediated experience.
The aura surrounding these works is not contained in the object but instead in the remaining artifacts and stories. In fact, absence can sometimes increase, and in some cases generate, a work’s cultural value. Vladimir Tatlin’s unrealized “Monument to the Third International” (1919), a spiraling structure designed to commemorate the Russian Revolution and house the Comintern headquarters, has since been romanticized as a symbol for utopian Soviet ideals. At other times, loss leads to the creation of an entirely new object, such as with the transformation of de Kooning’s “Untitled” into Rauschenberg’s erased version. Not all loss, Mundy tells us, is negative; the death of an object may result in the rebirth of something greater. Thus the experimental online format of the exhibition makes perfect sense. There seems no better way to exhibit this underlying paradox—the endurance of loss—other than on the Internet, the medium in which information can be instantly lost forever or be disseminated in perpetuity.
In keeping with the spirit of the exhibition, on July 1, 2013, exactly a year after its launch, the Gallery of Lost Art will cease to exist. To some, literally pulling the plug on this skillfully designed and rigorously researched educational resource is heartbreaking. Renaissance scholar David Rundle described Mundy’s decision to forever delete the Gallery of Lost Art as an act of “creative vandalism.” This decision is unorthodox only if we consider the Gallery of Lost Art primarily as an online repository of information. But judged on the same terms as a physical exhibition, the self-sabotage of the project is a fitting and poignant end. (Tate spent more than $450,000 on this project, which is equivalent to mounting a small-to-medium sized exhibition at one of the four Tate museums.)
When Rauschenberg asked de Kooning for a drawing he could erase, de Kooning bristled at the thought. In the end he agreed to the scheme, selecting a drawing that would be difficult to erase and, moreover, that he would miss. For de Kooning as for the Gallery of Lost Art, we only miss it when we lose it.