virtual viewing

Kilbride Bay by me, Tom Barr, from my Light by the Sea exhibition

Hello, it’s Tom here. This week I’ve been thinking a lot about what’s been happening with digital / virtual exhibitions, and I thought I’d spend today’s post talking about some of the ways in which galleries and museums, large and small, have chosen to share their collections with us while they remain physically closed to the public. At the moment it may feel easy to sideline the importance of art, music and culture in terms of their perceived importance, and we all know that, in terms of public funding, these are often the first things to get the chop. But I think that experiencing and sharing the creative work of others is of fundamental importance to our lives. Perhaps now more so than ever.

Dorothea Lange, Grandfather and grandson at Manzanar relocation centre (1942)

Amongst the many “virtual exhibitions” I’ve been visiting, the one I’ve enjoyed most in the past week is Dorothea Lange: Words and Pictures, presented as part of MoMA’s weekly “Virtual Views” series. Lange carefully and intentionally combined images and words in her work, famously stating that: “all photographs—not only those that are so called ‘documentary’…can be fortified by words.” Whilst many photographers might find this statement contentious, Lange’s body of work really makes a compelling case for this argument. She weaves together quotes, folk song lyrics, field notes, road signs, newspaper clippings and factual information with her now-familiar photographs of displaced peoples and migrants, the struggles of women, minority workers, the interned. Together, her words and pictures combine into a deeply affecting and compassionate expose of social injustice and inequality. “I am trying here to say something about the despised, the defeated, the alienated,” Lange wrote, “…about death and disaster. About the wounded, the crippled, the helpless, the rootless, the dislocated. About duress and trouble. About finality. About the last ditch.”. Alongside Lange’s iconic and lesser known works, the MoMA “virtual views” exhibit has a wealth of additional material to explore including audio files, podcasts, resources for children, writing from various critics and a Q&A session with curator Sarah Meister and photographer Sally Mann. It’s definitely worth a look!

Dorothea Lange, Children at the Weill public school in San Francisco pledge allegiance to the American flag, prior to the internment of Japanese Americans (1942)

Other “virtual exhibitions” I’ve recently enjoyed are those in the BBCs Museums in Quarantine series. From visual art to live music to theatre, I think the BBC are really to be commended for the creative ways in which they are continuing to bring many different kinds of culture to us. Though the quality of the commentary of this series has been a little variable, and the shoehorning in of lockdown references can occasionally feel clunky, I’ve enjoyed the series as a whole and have always found something eye-opening and interesting to reflect on in each programme.

William Hogarth Heads of Six of Hogarth’s Servants c.1750-5 © Tate Britain

James Fox’s exploration of Tate Britain gave a good flavour of the diversity and depth of the gallery’s permanent collection, but it was Simon Schama’s thoughtful walk-through of the Ashmolean’s Young Rembrandt exhibition that really blew me away. Kate can be a bit sniffy about Simon Schama (who for some unknown reason she refers to as “the new Schmoo”) but I loved his careful and detailed commentary in this programme, which really brought things like Rembrant’s innovative use of light and texture to life for me. I know very little about Rembrandt’s work, but this programme made me want to know much more, and was presented with narrative cohesion, critical sharpness and an obvious humanity.

Rembrant, Self-portrait in a cap, open-mouthed, c1630. © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

In addition to these online exhibitions, commissioned specifically for lockdown, there are those galleries who have great online collections already. Following Kate’s recent blog post about the samplers at the Rijksmusuem, I’ve spent several happy hours in their collection finding inspiration for my own work (still life with cheese!)

Floris Claesz. van Dijck, Still Life with Cheese, c. 1615 ©Rijksmuseum

. . . and I’ve always enjoyed the online photography collection of the National Galleries of Scotland. The early photography section is a great place to begin a deep dive into their extensive collection.

Thomas Annan, Close 37, High Street, Glasgow (1868) © National Galleries of Scotland

With a spotlight on major galleries, it can be easy to overlook smaller institutions. These spaces are often at the heart of local communities and play a central role in sharing the work of local artists and creative people. Like the big galleries, many small institutions are finding innovative ways to bring their collections to us. One such gallery is my own personal local favourite – the Tighanbruaich Gallery.

Full Swing from Light by the Sea

The Tig gallery is run by Rosalyn and her husband Neil and the exhibitions they host range from painting and ceramics to jewellery and photography. You may recall our visit to Jane’s “Hush” show at the Tig Gallery a couple of years back, and my own first solo exhibition also launched here earlier this year. While her space is closed, Ros has decided to organise a series of online exhibitions, shining a spotlight on the work of different artists whose work the gallery features, including (ahem) me. As I’ve suddenly found myself reflecting on how art might be presented differently online or on a TV programme, it has been really interesting to talk to Ros about how developing an online exhibition might provide a distinctive kind of creative opportunity, and perhaps encourage some different ways of seeing. Might presenting art digitally enable new kinds of conversation to begin? Some museum and gallery environments can feel rarified and fetished: is there something to be gained for many people from not being in that space? As Ros put it to me:

I am very aware that visiting galleries can be a daunting experience. You are confronted with multiple works and it can feel overwhelming.  I have long maintained that any person can only absorb a handful of works in any one gallery visit. Although I always aim for my space to be friendly and welcoming I know that, for some, galleries can make you feel self-conscious and uncomfortable. The beauty of a virtual exhibition is that people have the freedom to view at their own pace, without fear of being judged or watched. You can view art in a way in which suits you best. You can dip in and out, looking at just one piece, or two. You can revisit the pieces you are drawn to, or spend time with pieces that challenge and intrigue you.  

Stravagin’ no.2, from Light by the Sea

Might presenting art digitally or virtually allow us to approach it in ways that are a little more contemplative, a little less linear, a little more exploratory? I think these are good questions to reflect upon right now. I’d be really interested to hear your point of view: do you find the physical spaces of galleries or museums essential to experiencing art? What might be lost or gained in virtual presentations? Also, I’m hungry for more online exhibitions and collections – please do let me know of others that you’ve been enjoying!

Thanks for reading! Tom