Continuing my series of small interventions in the museum, I want to investigate a state of seeing which might be a little closer to a sense of touch and which shifts the regular distance that we maintain between ourselves and what we’re looking at.
Working with a variety of the museum’s visitors on a mid-week day, when the museum feels alive yet tranquil, I spend a couple of sessions in different rooms in the museum, gently approaching people who looked like they were happy to be interrupted or who had made eye contact with me. Introducing myself and explaining that as an artist I’m all too aware of the ways in which how I see things determines the kind of work I make and the way I write about it, I mention that I’m actually more often interested in how other people see the same things and so I’m carrying out research into how different people look at things. I then request them to help me if they’d like to, and offer them a magnifying glass. Louise – the first person I speak to in The Court Room – is drawn to looking more closely at the clock which sits in front of one of the windows.
She says that having found the room somewhat overwhelming, she was drawn to the clock for its plainness and lack of ornamentation. Looking through the magnifying glass she is, “struck by the variegated nature of the case, its simplicity, signs of damage – slightly mottled in places.” She says the quality of the sound is incessant. “The sound can have a visceral effect. It echoes a heartbeat. It’s a weird melding of the mechanical and the natural.”
She goes on to say: “The face of the clock looks strangely like a human face, we look for faces in other things, it’s strangely compelling – I don’t think its austere even though its relatively simple.” When I ask her if it reminded her of anything else, she said, “Yes. Perhaps a monument – like the cenotaph.” However it’s the sound which is the most memorable thing about it for her, it reminds her of her grandparent’s Grandfather clock.
The next person I talk to is actually a new member of staff at the museum – and we’re in the Picture Gallery so he chooses to look at the bust of Handel. Holding up the magnifying glass to Handel’s face he says:
“I see blemishes and I’m surprised that in looking closer at the bust, it’s what I would expect to see if I was looking at a real face. Some strange dirty blemishes… which make it look even more real, which is bizarre.”
I asked if it changed how he felt about the bust, he said perhaps. He was intrigued by the holes in the eye balls and why that would have been an important part of the sculpture. “I don’t know if that makes it more or less real. I guess it gives him a piercing gaze as if he’s looking back at me ever more as I investigate his eyes with my magnifying glass. The hole is catching the light as the eye might, beneath the surface that we see.”
The next three people I talk to are school girls on a class trip to the museum. All of them are drawn to different frames surrounding paintings in the Court Room.
“The rose on the frame: it looks like it’s been cut out quite carefully and then there are bits where it’s been plastered over. You can see the different shades of colour of the material. I don’t know what it’s made of though. It looks like a rock, or… wood. From far away it looks like it’s meant to look like stone.
“The border on this frame. It reminds me of an oak tree…I can see lots of acorns. It’s like it’s building up to something big and it’s going to stay there for quite a while. It’s really strong. Before I used the magnifying glass I didn’t see the acorns – I just saw leaves.”
“I like the frame because it shows how it’s more like nature. Underneath the magnifying glass, you see more how it’s been moulded and made. Without the magnifying glass you just see leaves.”
The next person I talk to happens to be in The Committee Room and is leaning over the table in front of Hogarth’s painting trying to get a closer look. So it seems only logical and helpful to offer her a magnifying class. I ask her if she would mind speaking aloud her thoughts about what she sees as she lets her eyes roam over the painting. She has a friend with her and she describes what she sees to us both. Here is a link to her audio: