Should we be uncomfortable with art gallery furniture?

Most contemporary art galleries have little in common with our homes. The works on display may deal with everyday subjects, but the exhibits tend not to resemble home settings. Their white walls, harsh ceiling lights and calm atmosphere all point to their apparent purpose: to encourage the viewer to give their full attention to the art on display, to let it completely dominate their perception. In the white-walled, “non-domestic” gallery, there’s just you and the artwork. Such a communion between the exhibition and the viewer seems to require a total abstraction of the detritus of everyday life. But what happens when the gap between the house and the gallery is crossed? At first, seeing exhibitions incorporating household furniture worried me; they seemed to dilute the distilled experience I describe above, placing artwork alongside products and turning galleries into luxury goods boutiques. But this concern is misguided. Furniture is a false flag that does not reliably signal commercialism. In fact, a space that feels like home can facilitate a kind of embodied engagement with art that the sterile art galleries we’re used to don’t offer.

Orlando is the name of one of the characters of Virginia Woolf, writer and esthete who never gets old. Last year, Pi Artworks in London held a group exhibition titled An ode to Orlando who imagined what their home might look like if they were alive today. Orlando is also the name of a loveseat made by Ada Interiors, a luxury interior design brand whose furniture was featured in the exhibition. Being accustomed to sparsely furnished non-domestic galleries, to see the trappings of bourgeois family life pervading this exhibition was shocking. It reminded me that the paintings and sculptures on display weren’t just there for me to enjoy as a viewer; they were also products for sale. Like the chairs and tables with which they shared space, they were objects that were part of a journey that would end in a transaction.

Installation view of An ode to Orlando at Pi Artworks in London (photo by Alperen Ergin, courtesy Ada Interiors)

Galleries don’t just show furniture next to art; sometimes furniture is Art. For instance, David Zwirner website advertises plastic sofas, coat racks and chairs made by Franz West for sale starting at $12,000. Museums are getting into it too: some time ago, I overheard the Barbican blockbuster Noguchi Retrospective called “the IKEA exhibition” – probably because of the many paper lampshades, now mass-produced by the Swedish furniture giant, on display. A sin An ode to Orlando, blurring the line between art and furniture seems equivalent to blurring the line between a gallery and a boutique. It transforms a space for enjoying art into a space for buying art. It seems that the purpose of the non-domestic gallery is for viewers to engage with the work on display, while the gallery-furniture showroom is for customers to make purchases.

But the gallery furniture is a false target. While this may sound like a cynical, commercial approach to exhibition programming, it is not. The gallery that looks more like a house isn’t necessarily more guilty of commodifying the art it shows. The dealer who refuses to include furniture in an exhibition is just as likely to regard the works of art – or more worryingly, the artists – as products. Also, I’m sure if the right collector offered the right amount of money for one of the works he exhibited, he would then be led into a back room to sit at a mid-century mahogany table. century on a classic design chair. write a cheque.

I believe we should resist works of art treated and traded as commodities, but understand that gallery furniture is largely value neutral. In fact, it may even be a good thing. People have been arguing against galleries trying to transcend real life for as long as they’ve existed. In his book Inside the white cube: The ideology of the gallery space (2000), Brian O’Doherty describes the non-domestic gallery as a place where “this strange piece of furniture, your own body, seems superfluous, an intrusion”. He makes a good point: to achieve the kind of communion I described earlier, one is expected to somehow let go of one’s own existence as a physical body, an expectation that seems unrealistic and deeply problematic.

To RESIDENCE, an aptly named multifunctional space in North London, that expectation is completely dropped. As well as running a program of exhibitions, it offers a communal desk for working, a small library of books and magazines to read, and armchairs for sitting and reading. There is often music playing and there is a kitchen in the corner where everyone can make themselves a cup of tea or use the microwave. Here I feel welcome to relax, read, listen, eat, drink and enjoy the art on display. Here, the body is not a superfluous intruder but a central element of my experience of the exhibition. Spaces like this confirm to me that one should not worry about the presence of home furnishings in the galleries. We have seen that it is not a reliable marker of a commercial attitude towards art exhibition. When we understand the transcendent and abstract experience that non-domestic galleries seem to offer as an unrealistic ideal, the home that finds its way into the gallery becomes an opportunity to embrace a more concrete and embodied way of experiencing art.

About Eric Hudkins

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