Kunst, Rückblick, Veranstaltung

Where does my body belong? Or: What happens to my body in a museum?

Von Anna Düringer. Dieser Beitrag wurde im Rahmen des Seminars «Wessen Wissen? Wessen Kunst? Situiertheit, Materialität und Kritik» bei Dominique Grisard im Frühjahrsemester 2022 verfasst. Er ist Teil der Blogserie «Heute Nacht geträumt» und nimmt Bezug auf die Veranstaltung «Where does my body belong?».

New Zealand Aotearoa artist Ruth Buchanan asks museum visitors: Where does my body belong? This is a central question for me when I visit an art museum. Why do I feel so wrong in this space? Is it my lack of knowledge of art? Shouldn’t the museum help me understand what I see, maybe even teach me how. It is intended as an educational institution after all.

There seems to be good reason for my feelings of discomfort. Other museum visitors and museum employees appear to scrutinize how I look at the art on display. Am I giving the art enough time to reach me, even inspire me? Do I look at it from afar or from close by? Am I choosing the right distance to the artwork? It all comes down to me feeling judged by the environment of the museum.

A waterpipe just outside the Kunstmuseum Gegenwart in Basel with lots of entry stickers from the museum. The colourful stickers showcase the issue of access to the museum in a simple way. ©Anna Düringer, 04.05.2022.

Historically, art museums have been spaces of elitism, open to a bourgeois and well educated public. Could this selective audience be because the fine arts (which are mostly displayed in art museums) are deemed preciously rare high culture in contrast to readily available, mass produced popular culture? Or is it about the people with cultural capital who frequent the museum? Who visits the museum regularly in the first place? The entry fee is not affordable to everybody. This is a deciding factor in who can and who cannot visit the museums on a regular basis. What would this space feel like if I had visited it regularly since my childhood? How does it differ to someone visiting just once or a few times?

As a white cis-woman based in Switzerland, I’m part of a highly privileged demographic. I am represented in the art museums which is evident when looking at the artworks, maybe even looking at the white walls. So shouldn’t it be easier for me to access the museum?  

This takes me back to the evening event titled «Where does my body belong?» at the Kunstmuseum Gegenwart in Basel on April 13, 2022, especially Dr. Henri Yéré’s contribution. He read one of his poems on the topic of the night. For Yéré, the night is not  dark and scary but rather a time and space of power for those who do not belong to the powerful. It is a safe space. Taking back the night is a mode of empowerment. Taking back the night also entails taking back the museum, the stolen artifacts and artworks, and restituting and recontextualizing them in their former homes. As we learn from the short film «Restitute Objects – Ancestors Return», this sounds easier than it is. For one, western museums have a different way of handling and displaying those artifacts than the way they were originally intended to be used. The fact that many of the artifacts were in western museums for over a century complicates the whole process. What should happen with the looted objects of art upon their return?

The question of how my body belongs in the museum is also influenced by conventions of how art and artifacts are displayed. Western museums have a very specific way of presenting their objects. They are «safely» stored behind glass or with an alarm system installed to warn people from getting too close. It seems as if the only way to interact with them is through the visual sense at a distance. Furthermore, the majority of objects are not on display but stored away and therefore impossible to interact with. As Felwine Sarr explains in «Restitute Objects – Ancestors Return», some of the artifacts were not made to be handled this way. The stolen statues of the kings of Benin, which have recently been returned, are an example for this. They contain the royal souls and were meant to be interacted with more than just visually. Originally intended as spiritual objects, they were treated like art in French/European museums, which was and is not their purpose.

Western museums were and still are the domain of those privy to cultural and economic capital. However, their role in society is more and more contested. What strikes me as crucial is how museums face this challenge, whether they choose to assume responsibility and deal with difficult questions about the provencance of their art and artifacts or their role in excluding, policing and othering certain bodies while privileging others.

Bild: A waterpipe just outside the Kunstmuseum Gegenwart in Basel with lots of entry stickers from the museum. The colourful stickers showcase the issue of access to the museum in a simple way. ©Anna Düringer, 04.05.2022 (Ausschnitt).

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