The image is a striking one. You’re looking from above at a naked man sitting on a toilet, his legs apart, his hands spread supplicatingly on his thighs. He’s in what looks like a cell – there’s barely a foot’s clearance between his blistered ankles and the grimy walls on either side. He stares fixedly at something straight ahead of him, something we can’t see. And, most disconcertingly, he’s covered from head to toe in flies.
The photograph is Zhang Huan’s 12 Square Meters, and it was exhibited at the Guggenheim as part of the generally excellent Haunted exhibition, which finished this week. It was hung about three quarters of the way up the gallery’s iconic ascending spiral, part of a largely somber exhibition of images and video that made for a collective meditation on life, death and the nature of memory.
Knowing nothing about the photographer, I guessed the image was a really impressive piece of photojournalism – a prisoner of war, maybe, or some benighted dissident locked up for speaking out against the government. It struck me as an eloquent protest against the maltreatment of prisoners, and an embodiment of the aphorism that a picture is worth a thousand words.
As it turns out, I was completely wrong. The man in the photo is Huan himself, sitting in a public restroom in Beijing. The image documents a performance piece, wherein he apparently smeared himself with honey and some sort of pungent fish sauce to attract the flies (which shows a devotion to his art that goes above and beyond anything you or I could probably conceive of).
None of this was revealed at the Guggenheim; it wasn’t until I deciphered the scribble in my notebook and looked up the image on the web that I got the full story. In the meantime, by default, I ended up doing something that happens less and less in major galleries these days: I looked at a piece of art with no context beyond that in which it was presented. No biography of the artist, no explanation of what I was looking at, no nothing.
It got me thinking about how the context of a piece of art can dictate what we perceive that piece’s meaning to be. Clearly, establishing a cultural/social/whatever else frame of reference for a piece can lend depth to your understanding of it. And in any case, no piece of art can be removed entirely from its social and cultural context – without it, it has no meaning at all.
But the best pieces of art kinda transcend this context; the best art shouldn’t need an explanation. It speaks for itself. You can look at, say, Goya’s terrifying Saturn Devouring His Son or one of Francis Bacon’s visceral horrorshows without knowing a thing about them and still be affected by the power of what you’re seeing.
Too often, it seems to me, we go straight for the little plaque on the wall next to a painting or photo or sculpture, looking for an explanation of what it is that we’re supposed to be seeing. We want to be presented with the answer, rather than appreciating a piece on its merits and finding our own meaning in it
Further on up the Guggenheim helix, there were a couple more images that explored this ida further. I foolishly forgot to write down the artist’s name, but basically, it’s like this: you see some spectacular war photographs that appear to date from the Vietnam War. The access the photographer appeared to have enjoyed is remarkable. For instance, there’s a photo of a Viet Cong soldier sniping at a group of Americans, in which you see both sides: the sniper, camouflaged, taking a bead on the GIs, who are creeping tentatively through the jungle, unaware of the the imminent danger.
You marvel for a while at the shot, and wonder how on earth it was taken. This image did have accompanying information, and when you read it, the cleverness of the image becomes clear. It turns out that what you’ve actually been looking at is a group of people in Virginia who spend their weekends re-enacting the Vietnam war.
In this case, the images function both with and without their immediate context – clearly, you need some sort of grounding in history for them to make any sense, but beyond that, they’re initially striking images of war, and then an astute commentary on how we look at art. They make the point that it’s better to form your own impressions before you go and look up “the answer” – you might find a meaning that’s yours and yours alone.