Please Do Not Touch the Artwork, is a familiar museum rule. Danish artist Jeppe Hein rendered it glowing red neon. Placed in one of the Contemporary Art Gallery’s street front windows, it confronted the gallery visitor before they had entered the space, and set the tone for what was to come. For Jeppe Hein’s first exhibition in Canada, he presented three works that physically addressed the viewer’s relation to the art object. Hein’s work has been situated within an extended lineage of Minimalism. It is defined by its close examination of the formal and spatial concerns of the Minimalists as a sincere attempt to develop their concerns and reinvigorate a discourse, not for its historical relevance, but as a still vital energy for contemporary sculptural thought. His two works for the gallery space challenged the convention of the sculpture as a static object. Each offered an opportunity for viewers to experience art outside of the traditional passive role of the art viewer. Both pieces sat still and silent until they were engaged by audiences who, in viewing the artwork, triggered outbursts off sound and movement.
Please Do Not Touch the Artwork, in glaring red neon, was the first thing to be seen upon entering Jeppe Hein’s exhibition at the Contemporary Art Gallery. Confronting the visitor at the entrance to the gallery, it was a strict reminder of one of the rules of etiquette usually expected in the context of an art gallery. It was also an instruction that a visitor to the exhibition might find difficult to follow.
The forms and materials of Hein’s work are self-evident and literal, declared in their tacit presence as well as their unadorned titles. Shaking Cube is, literally, a shaking cube: an aluminum volume of modest size – a mere half-meter on edge – it was programmed to shake when a visitor came near. But such self-evident features were not all or sufficient to account for the work and its effect on a viewer. Despite the notice in the work’s title, the shaking of the cube took the visitor by surprise; it seemed an unwarranted and uncanny behavior in an object that was the epitome of solidity and stability.
In contradiction to the modernist axiom that a rose is a rose is a rose, for Hein the cube is not merely a cube but the elementary form of sculpture in the minimalist mode. Hein has made many cubes. Constructed of aluminum, neon, or broken mirrors; with sensor arrays that respond to the viewer’s presence and electronic parts that cause them to walk or collapse or burst into flames; these cubes nevertheless recall the manufactured aesthetic of Minimal Art. Within a current aesthetic discourse that takes relationality and performativity as a matter of course, Hein’s revisiting of the minimalist canon inspires a historical double-take. Like the minimalists before him, Hein works with the presence of the object, the space that it occupies and the physical participation of the spectator as a unified ensemble. He has taken the “theatricality” of minimalist sculpture so derided by Michael Fried (1) and turned it into an opportunity for the viewer to play with the work. To say that Hein’s work is playful seems obvious but requires that a certain distinction be made: the work is playful not merely as a kind of amusement but in a more serious sense of discovering and using the sources of perceptual pleasure. (2)
More importantly, Hein has taken the materialist, literalist agenda of minimalism to launch his own investigation of “the real.” It was a challenge to conceive the material reality of Invisible Cube. Using motion sensors and alarms to define a cubic space within the otherwise empty space of the existing gallery, Invisible Cube couldn’t be perceived until the viewer walked into it, causing alarms to sound. The more viewers there were in the space, the more obvious this mechanism became. Upending the museum convention of alarming the space immediately in front of pictures in order to keep visitors from getting too close to the artwork, here the visitor had to stay close to the wall to look at the work displayed there. Beyond a narrow perimeter in front of the wall, the visitor came into full body contact with the work itself. No matter how much a visitor might wish to respect the “proper” decorum of not touching the work, such an imperative was impossible if one was to experience the work at all. Through this Hein affirmed the active role of the spectator in the creation of the work, while accommodating the possibility of non-engagement. Making it something of a game sustains the condition of non-judgement.
On the other hand, it could be argued that walking into the alarmed space isn’t actually touching the work, there being no palpable physical sensation for the visitor in the event. In either case, non-compliance with Please Do Not Touch the Artwork might provide an uneasy satisfaction for the non-conformist, or cause discomfort for the obedient, but the conundrum cannot be ignored. Thus the material reality of the work encompasses the pre-existing space, the social conventions that govern its use (including the request to refrain from touching the work), the specific interaction of visitors with these elements, and the social and ethical positions of an individual that might inflect their response. This last element shows the distance Hein has moved from the precepts of minimalism, from a situation that was theorized strictly within phenomenological bounds, to creating situations – relational and performative in the ways that even minimal art subscribed to – that open onto a broadly positive humanistic dimension.
- Christina Ritchie
The exhibition is presented by the Cultural Olympiad Vancouver 2010 (VANOC) and sponsored by the Vancouver Foundation.
Danish Artist Jeppe Hein discusses his work and his CAG exhibition Please Please Please in an artist talk held at Emily Carr University of Art + Design on Friday January 30, 2009. The talk is introduced by Christina Ritchie then Executive Director of the CAG and curator of the exhibition Please Please Please.
Are you a teacher looking to further educate your class about one of our exhibitions? Or, maybe you are planning a field trip and would like some further guidance.
Teachers’ Guides support educators who wish to visit the CAG with their students or who wish to carry out lessons related to CAG exhibitions in their classrooms. They include artist biographies, thematic exhibition overviews, suggested points of discussion, as well as recommended readings and references.
Lesson Plans are designed to bring the resources of contemporary art and artists to diverse classrooms. It is our goal to introduce students of all ages to the richness that engaging with contemporary art brings. Such breadth and diversity show that it can be used as a meaningful springboard in teaching a variety of subjects. Please feel free to adapt lessons to suit the specific needs of your class and curriculum.MORE