Silence in the Gallery

by Sarah Fay


How are we meant to speak in a gallery? Is there a specific way that we are meant to behave and act when faced with what we are told are masterpieces? In all honesty I prefer to be by myself when surrounded by art, I like the quiet contemplation and connection of looking at something in solitude. Yet, often I’m not alone and I do believe that silent isolation in the gallery is not always the best method of experiencing art. It is in these cases of being with friends and talking in art museums that makes me wonder how different artworks can impact our conversations. To what extent does art challenge the verbal communications happening beside it and how does this effect the art itself? What follows are my musings on listening instead of looking in a gallery…

The recent commission for the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern, by the Dutch artists’ collective SUPERFLEX, filled the space with swings. It created a childish glee in so many people that took part, there were shouts and laughter as the artwork reduced the audience back to a younger self. Instead of the expectation of serious conversations surrounding art there was play.  I visited the installation with a close friend I had not seen in many months, it was whilst we swung that we exchanged Christmas presents and talked about life. And as cliché as it is, I was reminded of similar conversations when I was young.

Nonetheless, the reverberation of sound that so effects one room can be so fully contrasted by another at the same gallery. The Rothko room also at the Tate Modern is reminiscent is cocooning. The standard fluorescent lighting common through out many gallery spaces are significantly dimmed. Moreover, the paintings spread themselves across the walls leaving only slight spaces bare, and in the middle is a couple of benches to sit on. Everyone who came in suddenly started whispering, perhaps a determination to not distract from the meditative quality the space creates.

But the response to sense of importance and sacredness of the Rothko room can be challenged again by another that incorporates the same feeling. The Castello di Rivoli is currently the museum of contemporary art of Turin, but previously was The Residence of the Royal House of Savoy and retains a sense of opulence. One room in particular caused an interesting way of talking. The structure of the room was still evident, but each wall had been painted a different primary colour. A small collection of us sat on the floor and looked around at these bold colours and we talked about how it made us feel. The childish colours and grandeur in the room is a bridge between the swings and the Rothko, our response of sitting and quietly talking reflecting this.

There is often a determination to find the artwork that makes you cry. But perhaps looking for such an overt emotional outburst is foolhardy and instead we should look at our more subtle reactions to art.

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