Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Not a light touch

There was a time when theatrical lighting in museums was left to ethnic objects. The idea was to imbue the objects with some sort of museumised spirituality - a “smell of the jungle” as critic Thomas McEvilley once put it. A few museums have clung to this style, Te Papa is one example, but most have left it behind them and display different cultural objects in the same even light. So it was a surprise to visit Bill Hammond’s exhibition Jingle Jangle Morning in Christchurch and see many of the painting displayed in a darkened gallery glowing against black painted walls. Dramatic? Certainly, but it does raise the question of why. The dark room approach is not created for conservation or for optimal viewing of individual works. Its aim is to give a very specific and loaded experience that reaches for high contrast and the dissolution of detail. For some reason Hammond work appears particularly susceptible to this dramatizing. Lighting exhibitions is not as easy as it looks. We remember watching the expert from the Guggenheim Museum lighting the exhibition Masterpieces from the Guggenheim Museum at the Dunedin Public Art Gallery. His objective was to show the paintings without drawing attention to the lighting in any way. His horror, he told us, was to see photographs of exhibition hangings where the works were displayed in halos of light. While he worked he constantly took test photographs to ensure he was getting even light across walls and paintings. The City Gallery in Wellington is now showing Jingle Jangle Morning and they have ratcheted the drama up another notch. Their innovation has been to cut the shape of the light to the shape of the canvas. This has the odd effect of making many of the paintings look
like light boxes. It also makes them hard to see, your irises constantly opening and closing as they are forced to switch back and forth between brightness and gloom. Basic optics warn you that this is no way to light things you want to study at any length. The gloom also badly effects the readability of the labels which, except for the one pictured above (almost comically lit like a painting itself) are tough to read. The other galleries showing work in Jingle Jangle Morning, have been lit more conventionally so there is the opportunity to see the work under more traditional conditions. How the paintings given the grand opera treatment were selected is anyone’s guess.

Image: Hammond (detail) with specially lit label