Interpretation and interruption at the museum


Jim Neidhardt’s “Museum” captures the meta-moment Joshua Hunt Vanguard staff In the small back room of NW Portland’s Blackfish Gallery, artist Jim Neidhardt has captured a uniquely meta-moment with his exhibition “Museum.” The installation of pigment printed photographs captures patrons of the British Museum in London engaged in what Neidhardt argues is an increasingly popular way of experiencing art.

“It begins with photography,” Neidhardt said. “When permitted, people will often take many photographs in museums, and I began to notice that the staging of photographs can dictate the experience. People move around, even bumping into one another, in order to get a good photograph, rather than studying or thinking about the artwork.”

Neidhardt observed another curious change in museum patronage during recent years, one not aimed at documenting the experience, but rather at interpreting it. The use of electronic devices, such as iPods, to offer patrons virtual tours is now practiced widely at institutions like the Portland Art Museum.

“Patrons are using these electronic devices in an attempt to educate themselves,” Neidhardt said. “While that’s nice, it fundamentally changes the way that an artist interacts with the public. These people are not allowing themselves to make up their own mind about art, they’re letting the technology dictate the experience.”

“Museum” takes full advantage of the British Museum’s allowance for both unfettered use of electronic devices and flash photography, which Neidhardt said is particularly rare. The photographs capture the compelling phenomenon of a museum full of people not viewing art, but also an inexplicable intimacy. Neidhardt’s photographs seem to document rooms full of people very publicly caught in private moments.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, photographer Thomas Struth famously captured images of patrons viewing paintings at the world’s great museums.

“I wanted to remind my audience that when art works were made, they were not yet icons or museum pieces,” Struth told the website. “When a work of art becomes fetishized, it dies.”

Neidhardt instead captures the fetishizing of technology, the implications of which may be far greater than the perceived life or death of individual works of art. Dr. Erik Palmer, a photographer who has instructed courses in Communication at both the University of Oregon and Portland State University, offers insights into what Museum says about the institutional aspects of art in society.

“Neidhardt’s project helps reveal deep ways in which the core identity of the museum has changed,” Dr. Palmer said. “We used to think of the museum as a shelter, a place shut off from colloquial or commercial intentions. But artists, curators and the public now see the boundaries of the museum as permeable. The contemporary museum promotes participation as a higher value than its traditional mission of preservation.”

There is a certain post-modern voyeurism implicit in “Museum,” and one cannot help but have a sense of staring deeply into the void. In the midst of Blackfish Gallery, a consumer art space, viewing photographs of people not viewing art in what is supposed to be a non-consumer art space, the museum. It is an experience that is confounding, if not deeply backwards, particularly when viewed in the context of Neidhardt’s artistic intentions.

“As an artist, I think that art should be mysterious,” Neidhardt said. “It should be what you make of it. People want to understand everything, but when they are busy taking pictures and listening to an audio tour, they can tend to not even notice the works that aren’t explained to them. I think that in order to become more accessible a lot of art has become too instructive.”

“Museum” is a challenging assertion of both the artist’s capacity for individuality and the tendency of the world at large to mediate singular achievements into tribal events. It at once charms and breaks its own spell, and in doing so, provides patrons with the maximum opportunity for reflection. In discussing the length of the project, Neidhardt gave the sense that the work has not yet ceased its effect on him.

“I worked on these photographs for about a year,” he said. “In that time, I noticed more and more unsettling things in them. Some of the people in these photographs don’t even seem to be in the room.” ?