ROITD

Final Major Project: Exhibition Engagement

One of the key aims of this project has been to stimulate dialogue about the issue of solitude and hopefully contribute towards a more open communication about this difficult topic. 

This aim underpinned the decision to hold an exhibition in a gallery, as one of the intended consequences would be to bring people together in the same place for a shared experience and hopefully some discourse about the issues explored in the work. 

During the MA and particularly leading up to the completion of this FMP I have made largely unsuccessful attempts to provoke discussion about the issues on social media. Aside from the occasional comment agreeing that it’s a topic worthy of examination, it has been difficult to get people to participate in any meaningful way or to volunteer to talk about things more deeply in a more private setting. 

I was thus hoping that by bringing the audience into a physical space there may be opportunities to engage with them in a more immediate way than had been possible via social media. 

Another aim of the project had been to produce an online space that would allow the work to be explored in more detail, and that will hopefully continue to evolve into a richer and deeper resource as the project continues after the MA as the scope of the work naturally broadens. I thus created a project website, which launched the day before the opening of the exhibition. In another CRJ post I will outline how this site developed and the response it has had so far.

ROITD Project Website

ROITD Project Website

As the exhibition was only of short duration I felt it was important to try and maximise its impact as much as possible. This would be partly achieved by it being supported and accompanied by the material on the website. The location of studio1.1, in a busy and traditionally creative part of East London also helped in this regard. I had preceded the show with an Instagram poll asking what solitude meant to the viewer and received only a few responses. However, I posed a similar question to exhibition visitors and placed comment cards to allow anonymous responses to this question. 

Comment box placed at the front of the exhibition

Comment box placed at the front of the exhibition

Once the exhibition was finished I was delighted to find that in the two days the show was open there had been a really encouraging response to this very broad question. I received a number of intriguing answers and what was reinforced is that these experiences are not easily generalised, as everyone experiences being alone differently.

If forced to organise these responses, I would say that they fell into two main categories – those who value the opportunity to connect with themselves, and those who are silently battling against unwanted isolation while maintaining an external façade that all is well.

Comment cards collected during the exhibition

Comment cards collected during the exhibition

Another benefit of holding an exhibition was the opportunity to get into conversation with visitors. It was so heartening when a passer by stopped in, spent some time looking at the work and then unprompted volunteered that they felt this was an important topic that needed to be more frequently discussed, and then went on to share personal experiences or reflections on solitude and loneliness. This happened on many occasions over the two days and was the definite highlight of the exhibition for me. 

This validated a number of ideas: that it is an important issue that merits exploration, that more people than is immediately evident are experiencing (suffering?) this in silence and that it would therefore be a desirable objective to try and stimulate a more open and inclusive conversation about it. Having seen the sequelae of loneliness in a medical context for many years, mainly in older people, it was illuminating to have clear evidence that this issue affects younger people of varying demographic profiles also and this was reflected in the conversations I had with visitors over the two days. 

Another element of the work that was validated during the two days was that of the visual approach taken in this project. I’ve written previously about narrative and how I’ve struggled to find a way to tell stories visually. I have spent a lot of time looking at the work of Crewdson, Soth and Hido in particular during the latter part of this MA and this research, as well as having a revelation while attending the London Nights exhibition earlier in the year about how using a series of images together could be an effective way to suggest a story, I had been convinced that this would be the way to create narrative in this work.

As I had continued to reflect on this and also realised the importance of including people in the work, I’d settled on triptychs as the vehicle to tell this particular story, each anchored by a portrait. In the exhibition I also experimented with combining triptychs to create even larger stories. It was really interesting then to see how visitors responded to these series of images. The various interpretations of the image combinations, particularly those that were presented in a group of 6 images, were really interesting – people finding all sorts of different elements, which were on the whole very different from my nominal intention when grouping the images together. This is exactly what I’d been aiming for. It did mean though that a number of visitors were frustrated when, after asking me to tell them whether they had gotten the ‘right answer’ when trying to interpret the images I replied by telling them that there wasn’t a right answer and that the fact they’d arrived at a completely different interpretation to myself, or another viewer, was exactly what I’d intended!

Holding the exhibition therefore served to allow direct engagement with the audience, in a way that had not been previously possible via social media. The accompanying website definitely worked in conjunction with the exhibition to provide different ways to access the work and explore it in depth at a time that suited the viewer. The exhibition also provided direct feedback about the success or otherwise of the work in communicating the themes and achieving the aims of emotionality and open-ended narrative. Judging from the verbal and written feedback received during the show, I am reassured that these objectives were largely met and this is very encouraging when considering how to take this project forward after the finish of the MA course. 

I was asked on a couple of occasions during the exhibition – ‘what’s next?’ – whatever the answer to this question, this exhibition assures me that the work is on the right course.  

Final Major Project: Reaching Out Into The Dark Exhibition, November 2018

The ROITD FMP exhibition took place this week, November 27th and 28th, at studio1.1 gallery on Redchurch Street in Shoreditch, London. The decision to actually hold an exhibition was only taken earlier this month, so pulling it together from conception to opening occurred in the space of 19 days.

studio1.1 London gallery

studio1.1 London gallery

The progress of the work during this FMP period has been slow and hindered by outside factors, such that I initially felt that trying to hold an exhibition would prevent me from focusing enough time and energy on actually having enough work to submit by the December deadline. I was also discouraged by preliminary enquiries into potential exhibition spaces. Space hire seemed so prohibitively expensive and difficult to arrange that I figured I should concentrate on putting the work together for online presentation in the form of a project website, which I’d always envisaged as the main repository of the finished work.

I had wanted to present the images in triptychs, aiming to suggest quite open-ended narratives, and had decided that each triptych would be anchored by a portrait. After completing a couple of portrait shoots in the last six weeks or so, I saw this vision finally begin to take shape in a way that made an exhibition now seem possible.

Triptych

Triptych

Additionally I was encouraged by a conversation with tutor Wendy McMurdo, an incredibly accomplished artist in her own right, who seemed to confirm that the work was heading in the right direction and encouraged me to keep pushing forward. She perfectly understood the internal conflict that I was having – ‘that’s the artistic process Justin’ – and this reassured me that I wasn’t going crazy and that I could possibly pull it off after all. 

I also realised that without an exhibition I’d be missing a great opportunity to engage with the audience, to ‘reach out’ as I had always been aiming to do with the work. Reflecting on this aspect of the exhibition is something that I’ll discuss further in another CRJ post.

So, once decided upon, it was key to find a space to show the work. I was really fortunate that studio1.1 were able to accommodate me for two days at the end of November at a discounted rate that was within my budget. I had enough time to pull everything else together and also make more work, which at the time of deciding to have an exhibition was still necessary.

The initial plan was to show 12 to 15 images, but it quickly became clear that to do so would not allow me to articulate the idea well enough and would also not fill the space that the gallery afforded. The final exhibition consisted of 18 images presented with accompanying text panels taken from the project research, as well as some additional contextual information about the issue of urban solitude and loneliness. 

Following on from my recent experience with the Shutter Hub Open, I explored the possibility of using newspaper for the printing and made enquiries with Newspaper Club about the papers and sizes available. The price to print on newspaper was certainly very attractive compared to my usual printer Digitalarte (approximately 10 times cheaper!) but once I was clear about which images I wanted to show and considering the subtlety of tonal variations and deep shadow in many of them, I ended up going for the tried and trusted, and much more expensive fine art method. 

Once the space was secured I started promoting the exhibition via Instagram and Twitter and received a number of tentative responses suggesting that people were interested and planning to attend. The private view was held on the evening of Tuesday 27th and I’m really happy to say that it was well-attended.

Visitors at the Private View on 27th November 2018

Visitors at the Private View on 27th November 2018

The show ran for two days, 11am to 6pm on both days, with the private view from 7 to 9pm on the first day. I would have ideally held the exhibition for longer, but the gallery only had two free days available and it was difficult enough getting time off work for this period as it was. All in all it worked well, allowing those who expressed an interest in attending to do so. I was really gratified that people travelled from outside of London to see the exhibition and the feedback was generally really positive, which validated the expense and effort that had gone into putting the show on. 

Overall, I’m really glad that I made the effort to arrange an exhibition. It was an incredibly valuable learning experience, both in practical and organisational terms, but also in terms of helping to better understand how to present work to attract and engage an audience, what considerations are important when planning what one hopes will be a successful show, as well as helping me to gain a better understanding of how different outputs can connect differently with audiences and thus how to more strategically present one’s work in order for it to have the maximum reach and impact. 

I will write more about my reflections in this regard in a subsequent post.