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Photo from the exhibition Fleeting Moments – Drawings by Auguste Rodin

Behind | Exhibition | 22.sep.2016

Thoughts about an exhibition – using materiality and sensuousness as a narrative device

By art educator Mette Houlberg Rung

An exhibition is a medium that tells stories. Many different devices, narrative methods and dramaturgical deliberations are brought into play when we work with special exhibitions at SMK. In this blog entry I muse a little on the question of what an exhibition actually is, how the exhibition Fleeting Moments – Drawings by Auguste Rodin was created, and the choices we made while preparing it.

Fundamentally, an exhibition is a story told in a space. Works of art, texts, images, sounds etc. are arranged in a more or less structured manner in a designed environment that we users move through. Exhibitions differ from creative formats such as films, where audiences sit still in front of the screen as images and sounds are presented to them in predetermined sequences. They are also different from theatre or dance performances, where bodies in movement are usually found on the stage while the spectator’s own body keeps still. 

This is to say that the exhibition is a unique genre. Users move through it, stop, focus and let themselves be enthralled by specific parts. It is an experience that engages body and mind alike, stimulating our emotions as well as our intellect. 

Research conducted here at SMK has shown that we are directed by our curiosity and immediate attraction to objects as we move around the exhibition. In his book The Practice of Everyday Life (1984), the French philosopher Michel de Certeau describes how the basic plan of a city is devised by municipal urban planners, organised by rules, etc. This is the city as a whole. But the pedestrian never sees that city. Instead she moves around her own neighbourhoods, makes shortcuts and forms pathways that no-one had planned. She makes her own city.

In many ways exhibitions are like that too. You are directed by whatever happens to appeal to you, you find favourite spots and spend your time where it makes sense to you. You piece together your own experience, rather like cutting and editing a film out of raw footage. No two people ever see exactly the same exhibition.

Research-based exhibitions

The exhibitions presented at SMK are almost always rooted in an art historical research project. A researcher has spent several years working on a given project, and their findings are used as the basis for the story told in the exhibition itself. The art works themselves are always the main ingredient. 

An exhibition offers a unique opportunity for bringing together original works of art – sometimes they are flown in from every corner of the world to be shown together for the first – and possibly last – time. The works bring out and accentuate certain traits in each other, thereby prompting us to see and experience them in new ways. Traditionally, the arrangement of the works is supplemented by texts and perhaps images, sound and film. Exhibitions are also typically accompanied by a catalogue that enables visitors to immerse themselves further in the exhibition’s subject.

New narrative devices

However, stories can be told in other ways than through text, sound or film. For example, might it not be possible to convey the exhibition’s subject matter through materiality, sensory stimulation and physical spaces? 

In recent years, we at SMK have experimented with exhibition architecture as a setting for physical, sensuous encounters where colours, shapes and materials contribute to the overall experience. But we would like to explore this in greater detail. Is it possible to engage the entire body and communicate by using specific materials, moods and architectures? When creating the exhibition Fleeting Moments – Drawings by Auguste Rodin we set out to explore this question, deliberately forcing ourselves to think outside the box. 

Rodin and his drawings

The star of this exhibition, Auguste Rodin (1840–1917), is one of the greatest masters in all of art history. But why is that? Rodin was one of the first sculptors to modernise sculpture. Before Rodin, sculpture had mainly been used for classical, idealising portraits and monuments. Rodin, however, used it to depict emotions, movement and sexual desire. But this exhibition is not about his sculptures, even though six of them are included – it is about his drawings.

Rodin drew prolifically throughout his career – several thousand drawings from his hand still exist today. They are not sketches for sculptures, but works in their own right. In 1910 Rodin himself explained that his drawings are the key to his work, and that he regarded sculpture as a form of drawing in all dimensions. In his drawings Rodin experimented with capturing movement, playing around with space and with materials. In drawings all things were possible, and he transposed the lessons learned here to his work with clay.

Sensuousness and materiality

Rodin’s drawings differ greatly. Some are created as layer upon layer of pigments, executed in ink, pen and gouache, others sport loose contours and flowing watercolour washes. Most of them depict naked female figures. They seem ephemeral and volatile, yet also carefully finished and precise – their colour schemes can be delicate, yet at the same time powerful and passionate.

In order to highlight these qualities, we envisioned the overall presentation and the exhibition architecture as an interconnected whole. We have to some extent sought to let the properties found in the works themselves flow out and spill over into the exhibition architecture. This is, for example, evident in the choice of materials for the walls: their stained surfaces echo the watercolour washes, and the concrete walls interact directly with Rodin’s layers of ink and gouache. At the same time the works stand alone on the walls. The signs traditionally seen next to exhibits are nowhere to be found; instead the information is presented on sheets of paper, with a separate sheet provided for each themed area. The other texts within the exhibition are placed on low tables, keeping them below the level of the works themselves.

Auguste Rodin, Centaur Abducting a Young Man, c. 1880
Pen and brown ink, brown wash, heightened with white opaque colour. SMK Foto

Exhibition view

The decision to use pure materials instead of simply painting the walls of the exhibition space was quite nerve-wracking for the entire exhibition team: it is difficult to predict what the large sheets will actually look like once they have been pieced together to form large walls. Would they become overpowering, distracting attention away from the works? What do they look like when lit? How will the joins between the sheets show up?

Moving the body

The exhibition design also takes its starting point in Rodin’s relentless work with space, direction and movement. It incorporates glimpses through fissures and cracks, intermissions and pauses, a sculpture dragging you into a room, a table that graphics lead you around. Devices such as these get the body involved, co-creating the narrative presented by the exhibition. The benches and podiums are deliberately designed to be broad and low, pushing audiences out towards the works, prompting them to get close to the art.

The exhibition as a place where stories meet

Taking our starting point in the works, we have endeavoured to translate key concepts from the curator’s research into the materials and spaces used in the exhibition. This means that we tell the stories in slightly different ways than usual. Perhaps audiences will spot this, perhaps not – but one thing is certain: the exhibition will be used in many different ways. Visitors will make the exhibition their own, inserting stories that mix and merge with the ones we put forward. Hopefully, they will feel an echo in their own bodies of how Rodin works with materiality, sensuousness and space.

The exhibition team behind Fleeting Moments – Drawings by Auguste Rodin comprises room designer Pernille Jensen, curator Thomas Lederballe and art educator Mette Houlberg Rung.

arrow Comments (1)
Et spændende indblik "bag kulissen" på udstillingen. En meget æstetisk oplevelse, og relevant når man skal skrive opgave om udstillingen.
Det som jeg lagde mest mærke til på udstillingen, var netop de arkitektoniske og scenografiske greb.
  • Ida Lehrmann Madsen
  • 16-12-16 18:19
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