A show in the new Kettle’s Yard space highlights why the traditional gallery aesthetic is falling out of favour
Jul 12th 2018
by A.C. CAMBRIDGE
In dining room at Kettle’s Yard, a lemon sits on a pewter dish. Replaced every week, it directs viewers’ eyes to the adjacent wall, where the yellow spot in a painting by Joan Miró gleams a little brighter. Illuminated by an everyday object, “Tic Tic” is one of the many artworks in Kettle’s Yard which proves that intimate and domestic spaces are the best places to appreciate art.
The Cambridge home of the late Jim Ede—a former curator at the Tate—and his wife Helen, Kettle’s Yard is filled with work by the likes of Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth, Naum Gabo and Henry Moore, Constantin Brancusi and Elisabeth Vellacott. When the Edes donated their home and its collection to Cambridge University, their caveat was that it be left without labels or plaques; visitors view artworks as equals to the domestic collage of furniture, flowers and ornamental objects. The relationship between viewer and subject is solely personal: where one person is drawn to a glass sculpture by Gregorio Vardanega, another is pulled to the sprawling pot plants reflected inside it.
In the newly opened extension to the house, an exhibition of work by Antony Gormley (pictured, below) also seeks to emphasise the importance of perception. Normally installed in outdoor spaces, Mr Gormley’s recognisable rust-red figures explore the relationship between art, architecture and the earth. The show at Kettle’s Yard claims that “the ‘subject’ of this exhibition is as much our own bodies, their relationship to the sculptures in the galleries and to the architecture of the spaces, as the works themselves.” Above head height, Mr Gormley has struck two steel bars through the gallery’s main space. Casting vertical shadows down the walls, from certain perspectives the shadows conjure up an illusion of glass walls. Viewers walk uneasily around the gallery, not only looking at Mr Gormley’s sculptures but also interacting with the setting itself.
But while Mr Gormley’s wider oeuvre and the placement of his work in natural settings fits with the Edes’ vision, this new exhibition does not quite work. With their concrete floors and plain white walls, the new galleries at Kettle’s Yard contradict the Edes’ desire that the site be “a living place where works of art could be enjoyed…unhampered by the greater austerity of the museum or public art gallery”. Compared with an enormous bronze figure of Mr Gormley’s which stands on the riverbank at nearby Trinity College, or the hundreds of iron men placed on Liverpool’s coastline, in the new galleries his sculptures feel flat and uninspiring. Mr Gormley’s attempt to subvert the space with steel bars and shadows only highlights its shortcomings.
Indeed, the decision to open another “white cube” is not only misguided, but well behind the times. Art in isolation is fast falling out of fashion, which may well be a testament to the attraction of Kettle’s Yard itself. Led by Chatsworth House, Britain’s historic attractions have made a virtue of the combined experience of subject and setting; Damien Hirst’s spot paintings recently brightened up the panelled walls of Houghton Hall, while Jenny Holzer projected text onto the stonework of Blenheim Palace. Opera and contemporary art might once have seemed unlikely bedfellows, but the recent “White Cube at Glyndebourne” partnership was accepted without question. These relationships aren’t just marketing ploys to double the attractions’ potential audiences. In the stately setting of Houghton Hall, “Charity”, Mr Hirst’s 22-foot-tall sculpture of a disabled girl with a broken collection box, becomes particularly poignant.
The trend isn’t limited to old venues and new art: contemporary artists, galleries and audiences are increasingly breaking away from the plain wall, too. In 2014 Hauser and Wirth opened a new space on a farm in Somerset, currently host to the sculptures of Alexander Calder. Dynamic galleries such as Cecelia Brunson Projects and Eleven Spitalfields, both in London, are not just former houses, but current homes.
This return to the domestic setting is fitting, given that the art gallery was born in the home. Joaquín Sorolla’s house in Madrid and Sir John Soane’s house cum museum in London (pictured, top) both retain this dualism, a legacy of the Renaissance period, to great effect. Hans Ulrich Obrist, the director of the Serpentine Gallery, says that a show he held in the 1980s in his own kitchen still informs his work today. It did so particularly in an exhibition he curated in 1999 in the Soane’s museum, where “there were no didactic panels or sound guides, and visitors moved where they wished through the rooms, encountering unexpected works of art in unexpected places.”
As Mr Obrist observes, there is an appealing accessibility in these intimate, lived-in spaces. A spartan room and a security guard can make viewers feel like they’re also on display: trying to engage with the art is like trying to have an intimate conversation in a starkly lit restaurant while an overbearing waiter hovers by your shoulder. Removed from the sacrosanct gallery, art creates a more lasting impression: viewed alongside other objects and in familiar frameworks, artworks are not left behind at the gallery’s door, but carried imaginatively into our everyday lives. Later, when life hands out lemons, the viewer might recall a Miró.
This article is published on https://www.economist.com/prospero/2018/07/12/why-art-exhibitions-are-returning-to-domestic-settings