On November 26, 2021, an exhibition called “A Gift to Yerevan” opened at the Tashir Street gallery, in the underground shopping center on Northern Avenue. On the occasion of the 100th anniversary of its foundation, the Museum of Literature and Art – the organizer – presented exhibits from the museum’s funds of various gifts that famous Armenian figures had received and given to each other. The exhibits were displayed in glass showcases along the center of the walkway, leaving space for passers-by on both sides.
Not used to seeing works of art or museum exhibits in a shopping center, customers and people transiting through the passageway perceived them as stands of goods for sale, and it was difficult to immediately notice that these were museum artifacts and not decorations or items for sale.
The exhibition was not devoid of certain traditional forms of presentation or stereotypical framing by the organizers. Nonetheless, it was a new approach to presenting exhibits, if only due to the QR codes on the showcases, which enabled viewers to learn more about the object, its history, and the space where the exhibition was presented.
There are not many exhibitions held outside of traditional art spaces in Armenia. At the same time, however, it is hard to miss the trend of recent years of displaying works of art or archaeological/ethnographic objects in malls and other public places.
What purpose could such exhibitions have? Are they new, and can art exist outside of its traditional domains? We can talk about three main intentions here: the change of art’s traditional display context, the commodification or commercialization of art, and the popularization of art.
After the 2018 revolution, we could observe a tangible increase in displaying works of art in public places. In fact, these related both to themes pertaining to the revolution (e.g. the “Faces and Events of the Revolution” photo exhibition in Mashtots park) and other subjects (e.g. “Huzank u Zang” artistic performance near the fountain in front of the Republic Square subway station). Even certain spontaneous public actions that took place during the revolution resembled an artistic act, to some extent.
Since art is an inseparable part of socio-political change, in these instances, the nature of art also changed towards more democratic and “mass-orientated” forms. Just as the public became the dictating force during the 2018 movement, thereby considerably erasing the barrier between the political elites and the wider society, so did the art “weaken” its position of hierarchical superiority and inaccessibility by “coming down” to the viewer. What occurred, thus, was the same process which we saw in social life: art was “liberated” to some extent from museum spaces and moved into the public space.
But is this transformation a new phenomenon?
The question of art’s placement has always been a focus of artists’ and theorists’ interests. If we turn to the history of contemporary art, we can see that the questioning of art’s spatial positioning is not new. In the frameworks of contemporary art’s pivotal inquiry of “what is art?”, it is not just the ordinary, ready-made objects that are brought into museum spaces, thus becoming works of art by acquiring new meaning and significance. There is also an opposite process, whereby recognized works of art are taken out of the museum or exhibition space and re-presented in entirely new, even contrary contexts.
The French artist Daniel Buren, for example, has always explored in his works the scope and context of art, directly linking the latter with the issue of the spaces in which art can appear.
In his 1973 exhibition “Within and Beyond the Frame”, Buren presented a work of art which consisted of 19 black and white striped banners, some of which were hung inside the John Weber Gallery in New York, while the others were flung out of the windows, onto the street, appearing at first glance as flags or laundry.
This is a vivid example of how the same work of art can have completely different effects on viewers in different spaces, because in this case space is not merely a place, but is instilled with symbolic meaning that is able to imbue objects – in this instance artworks – with specific substantive content. In other words, in this particular example, the change of place brings about a change of context and perception.
The story of one of the posters by American artist Barbara Kruger is another demonstrative example of the shift in the perception, as well as the commodification of an artwork due to its contextual transformation. In 1987, Kruger created the “I Shop Therefore I Am” poster, which was an ironic statement about the triumph of consumerism. But it completely changed its nature when, in 1990, the British supermarket chain Selfridges – with permission from the artist – used the inscription on sale and discount days.
In 1961 Claes Oldenburg, another American artist, opened the exhibition “The Store” in his workshop, where he displayed plaster models of products with slight deviations from the real size. In this manner, the artist was once again commenting on the commercialization of art by transposing the object from a commercial space into an art space.
The display of art in malls and shopping centers is a relatively new phenomenon, which has, nonetheless, managed to become quite ubiquitous. There are successful attempts to develop such cultural and creative spaces in different parts of the world. Ohta Lab and Zhemchuzhnaya Plaza (Жемчужная Плаза) in Saint Petersburg are among these. Ohta Lab is a cultural and educational space located in the Okhta Mall shopping center (now temporarily closed). Zhemchuzhnaya Plaza is a leisure center, which also regularly hosts art events. And K11 Art Mall in Shanghai is considered the most famous “art mall” – a hybrid model of art and shopping.
If the display of artworks in public spaces in Armenia is relatively infrequent, then exhibitions in malls and shopping centers is even a rarer phenomenon. One notable example that comes to mind is the discussion around the mural “Night” by painter Minas Avetisyan, which was going to be moved and displayed in the cultural space of Megamall Armenia shopping center. The area was meant to serve as a changing exhibition space for works by other artists. Though the restored mural has been installed in the mall, it has become the center’s fixed symbol and it is difficult to imagine the transformation of this zone into an active exhibition space. The other example is the underground shopping center on Northern Avenue – Tashir Street – which has been occasionally displaying artworks for the past three years.
What is the purpose of these sporadic exhibitions being organized in Armenia, and are they in line with the intentions of similar international efforts?
Coming back to the “Gift to Yerevan” exhibition, it must be noted that the organizers themselves have spoken about the purpose and imperatives of the exhibition on different platforms.
Hasmik Hakhverdyan, who is in charge of marketing projects at the Yeghishe Charents Museum of Literature and Art and the exhibition coordinator, calls this space a gallery, saying, “The idea is that it is widely accepted around the worlds for museums to regularly publicize their national heritage, thereby also contributing to the development of urban culture. We also wanted to take a similar course, and began with displaying just one item – Sayat Nova’s kamancha… We were looking for an area where there are a lot of people, and we had to work in that direction so that culture would go to areas where there were many people. And with this we also try to draw them towards culture; to bring a wave of public attention towards the museum.” Hakhverdyan also talks about problems related to the number of visitors and the use of technologies.
Thus, exhibitions in public spaces, including shopping centers, raise the key issue of contemporary art – what is art? – and question the importance of art space in that context. On the other hand, this is an attempt to expand the art space, to take it out of the traditional platforms and attract new consumers because – especially after the coronavirus pandemic – the old art practices and forms of presentation are increasingly losing their relevance and potential and are, arguably, unable to attract the desired number of visitors and viewers. The ever-increasing transformation of museum spaces into a “background” for various events, meetings and filming also attests to this.
By leaving the environment traditionally considered an artistic space and moving into shopping centers, a work of art becomes a unique product. This is an opportunity for both the museum and the shopping center to attract new audiences. So in shopping centers, in an environment that combines shopping and various types of entertainment, a new form of cultural entertainment emerges, which has considerable potential to popularize art. The question of what impact these commodification practices will have on the value systems around a work of art still needs to be reflected upon and clarified, but the discernible processes speak of radical changes in the presentation and perception of art abroad, and now also in Armenia.
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