I think a lot about messiness and disruption. To me, there is something so magical about being able to see open ends, art-making processes laid bare, and thoughts that might seem incomplete. They provide gaps or rifts that act as passageways into works of art—openings that lead to open interpretations.
Yet when we go to art museums, we go with certain expectations. Maybe we expect to have all of our questions about art answered. Maybe we expect to find tours that dictate how to move through the space. Maybe we expect to find definitive guidance on how to interpret work. In short, there is an expectation of finding closure that is closely associated with museums.
But what happens when we are confronted with work that rejects closure?
Dominic Quagliozzi’s Untitled (2020) rejects closure by literally rejecting enclosure. The drawing disrupts the presumption that works on paper in a museum must be framed—that they must be contained for their own protection. Instead, the work simply hangs at four points along its top edge with only a sheet of plexiglass separating the work from viewers. Through its display, Quagliozzi’s light clinic-room tissue paper is meant to rustle in response to the air currents caused by our movements in the space. In fact, Quagliozzi typically presents this work without the plexiglass in front of it. This choice of display emphasizes our role in creating an experience with the work. It lends itself to an openness wherein movement guides its reading. In the constraints of a frame, this type of engagement would not be possible.
The clinic-room tissue paper itself is a risky choice of material; it is a delicate paper designed to be disposed of after a single use, and yet here it is, in the gallery, open to possible damage. In the context of the work, the fragility of the paper reminds us of the vulnerabilities that our bodies are subject to in medical spaces. But beyond that, I appreciate having this precarity in a museum space. It de-centers the idea of museums as infallible institutional bodies that exist to preserve a single, neat historical narrative in perpetuity. Instead, it reminds us that the gallery is not a place of closure, but rather a place of instability and openness to the elements and to the visitors. We become empowered to create friction in the standard dynamic of institutional bodies controlling the narrative of the work, and we find our own meanings within ourselves.
Another work that carries a similar sense of precarity is Walead Beshty’s copper box whose form mimics a type of box used by FedEx. Instead of being carefully packaged and transported like one would expect a typical work of art, Beshty’s work is shipped as-is and bears the marks of transportation and handling, including shipping labels, fingerprints, and dents. The title of the work serves as documentation for the sculpture’s movement; each time the box travels, the new travel information gets added on to the already extensive title.
Beshty’s work will never be complete. And its incompleteness is what gives it value. Every time the sculpture takes on more wear and tear, it arguably becomes more interesting, de-centering the idea that works of art in museums must remain pristine, untouched. What I also love about the work is that it makes us aware of all of the lives art objects have lived and all of the people and places they have passed through. Art isn’t confined to the walls of the museum, nor should it be. Art is to be shared, and art passes through so many hands. Beshty’s sculpture is a reminder of this process of travel that a work of art goes through. Its openness lies in its rejection of stillness in the gallery. Even though it may sit static in a gallery space, it makes the process of movement visible.
There is also work in the collection that disrupts traditional viewing experiences. Fiona Banner’s Shy Nude (2007) is displayed in the gallery with what seems to be the front of the work facing the corner, a part of the gallery that we often neglect to notice. We are only allowed to see the words “Shy Nude” on what appears to be the back of a frame. When on view, the work may be accompanied by a label that includes information about what we can’t see: a block of written text that describes a nude model.
Banner’s work raises many questions that remain unanswered. Can we turn it around to see what’s on the other side? Why make something that we will never see? Is it even a drawing if we can’t see it? The experience of viewing this work feels unfinished and gives us more questions than answers. There’s an uncomfortable boundary of desiring to touch the artwork and turn it around in order to see the work in full—a boundary that will remain uncrossed. Through this incomplete experience, we become more aware of our own viewership, or lack thereof, and investigate what is seen and unseen in these gallery spaces. With this also comes the complication that only museum staff have the privilege of being able to see the work. There is a greater acknowledgement of our positionality in the space.
So while we might expect to find neatness and closure in art and in art museums, the experience of viewing works that provide moments of instability, disruption, and restlessness makes me, as a viewer, feel centered in these spaces. I feel like I am contributing something to a work of art, rather than having an institutional body dictate my experiences and my interpretation. These are moments I embrace, as they make space for reflection on my relation to these art objects. I invite you also to navigate these moments of uncertainty and openness within the RISD Museum’s collection.
Grace Xiao was the 2022 Mellon Summer Intern in Prints, Drawings, and Photographs. Grace is a junior at Brown University studying History of Art and Architecture.