Individual art works may communicate multi-layered meanings but exhibition display can also operate as an encoded form of visual representation. Through much of the 20th century the modernist gallery has been projected as a place separate from the external world, a depoliticised, neutral ‘white cube’ with contextual and other distractions removed to afford a disinterested viewing. Over the last 30 years, this position has been deconstructed to reveal that exhibition spaces and presentation methods can reveal larger cultural orthodoxies and value systems. Display paradigms involve the construction of visual cues which direct viewers to understand groupings of works in certain ways. They can also play a crucial role in cross-cultural representations, reinforcing notions of difference and/or assimilating culturally specific works within Eurocentric modes of representation. This paper examines how interpretative structures were formed through display strategies and visual cues at a major retrospective of work by acclaimed Aboriginal artist Emily Kngwarreye. A dilemma faced by curators was how to acknowledge differences between Kngwarreye’s status as a contemporary Australian artist and her situation as an Anmatyerre elder living in a community grounded in cultural traditions which influenced her practice. Could signifying conventions be employed to address these seemingly incommensurable positions: to convey Kngwarreye as an outstanding contemporary artist within a Western art historical tradition and to somehow allow viewers to enter her world, thus incorporating indigenous cultural values and contemporary art tropes? Crosscultural exhibitions raise important questions of agency and ‘translation’ and can function as sites in which cultural knowledge can be brought to the fore. By considering a visual literacy of display practices this paper considers how such exhibitions can be employed to convey multi-layered meanings across cultures.
Exploring Visual Literacy Inside, Outside and Through the Frame / Aundreta Conner Farris, Frieda Pattenden (eds): pp.145-155