Something unusual is happening to visitors’ attentions in the Van Abbemuseum’s fourth and final installment of Play Van Abbe, an 18-month exhibition program considering artists and exhibition makers as diverse “players” within the museum. The current exhibition adds further players to the roster, putting the museum-going behaviors of viewers up for scrutiny. There’s no shortage of art that relies on or even exploits the viewer, but here it’s the exhibition using its visitors. The artwork on the walls doesn’t ostensibly change due to the presence of viewers; instead it becomes secondary to their heightened awareness of themselves looking at the art on the walls.
Confusing? Well, so is Play Van Abbe, presumably by design. In the spirit of the semi-absurd role-playing “game” this exhibition is meant to be, the best I can do is walk you through my experience as a player. We aren’t Top Hats, Cars, or Thimbles with an appetite for real estate, but Tourists, Flaneurs, Pilgrims, and (increasingly self-aware) Workers with different expectations about seeing art. Nor are we committed to any one of these roles, but encouraged to change our character at will, as many times as we like.
I began the game as a Tourist. What better way, I figured, to get acquainted with my surroundings and obtain a feel for play? Conveniently, the Tourist’s main tool is a rather lovely annotated map, which recommends “must-sees” and offers pertinent facts about the artwork. I visited the first floor ticking off works by Long, Beuys, Kiefer, Holzer, Mondriaan, and Douglas Gordon from my to-do list. (The diversity of this selection should give you some idea about the wide-ranging scope of the exhibition more generally). I took lots of photos, congratulating myself on my very touristy behavior, and felt bittersweet about trading in my handy map for the Pilgrim’s audio-guide.
Worker notwithstanding, Pilgrim comes closest to my normal art-viewing habits. She “focuses on the work of art itself… often by means of texts… contemplatively, testing and deepening knowledge.” I suspected I was a Pilgrim when I realized the role encouraged my compulsive collecting of exhibition materials. I won’t lie to you – even when I was I meant to be a Flaneur I was on a secret reconnaissance mission for Team Pilgrim, picking up every available text to take home with me. I made pilgrimage to the shrines of Ulay and Abramovich, Surasi Kusolwong, and Martha Rosler, before making my way to the nearest transformation station to swap roles.
I am apparently a terrible Flaneur. I’m clearly no Parisian dandy, but as an uncommitted spectator who finds inspiration in everything and nothing, my viewing habits leave something to be desired. I didn’t write or draw anything in the communal moleskin-style notebooks and I could only endure a short period of the ever-changing “soundscape” before removing my sensory-deprivation headphones, the Flaneur’s other provided “tool”. I fixed my hair in a Pistoletto mirror without recognizing it as art, pondered briefly over Gerrit van Bakel’s Utah-machine, and shrugged off Yang Zhenzhong’s I will die… because I’d see it before. Truth be told, my attempts at being a Flaneur reminded me a bit of that other Game (you know, the one you just lost) as I was irritatingly aware of myself seeking unexpected inspiration.
As I secretly knew all along, in the end we are all Workers, drawing our own conclusions and offering new insights about artworks and exhibitions. Through our participation in Play Van Abbe we contribute in any number of ways including solicited dialogue (via live IM chat), logistical and thematic feedback, and video appearances. Indeed, Play, in this incarnation, is work. It’s a high maintenance exhibition, requiring not only the very active presence of knowledgeable docents aka “Game Masters”, but also the physical and mental engagement of its visitors. Play Van Abbe wants to have its cake and eat it too: sure, it’s about the art, but it simultaneously demands we think beyond art, about our dialectical role in meaning construction and museum practice. Being asked to apply that sort of mental flexibility to what, for many, is a leisure activity is no small request.
Play Van Abbe divides our art-viewing habits into discrete categories, but Real Life is a lot messier. We have a bit of all four characters in each of us – I certainly do – and we can confront art with any or all of their material and intellectual tools. But whether we visit museums seeking experience, inspiration, facts, culture, or even capital, we perform a vital role, one that helps shape not only exhibitions, but the history and legacy of museums more generally. Without us, the directors, curators, and other pieces in the museum board game would surely be playing with themselves.
~Andrea Alessi, a writer living in the Netherlands.
(Images:Erwin van Doorn, ... maar nu moet het maar ..., 2007 – 2010, Installation view Van Abbemuseum. Photo: Peter Cox; Van Abbemuseum route map; Courtesy Andrea Alessi; Richard Long, Wood circle, 1977; Installation view Van Abbemuseum. Photo: Peter Cox; James Lee Byars, Hear TH FI TO IN PH Around This Chair, 1978; Play Van Abbe Part 4, installation view, 2011; Photo: Peter Cox)