‘Art as a window on the world’

Some thoughts on the visit to the Sainsbury Centre

‘Art as a window on the world’ is the slogan that the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts in Norwich uses to capture the experiences that can take place within their diverse collection. We had an opportunity to look through this window when we visited the centre on the last day of the research week bringing all the discussions and presentations, which we had engaged in the past days, into a concrete museum context. Nichola Johnson introduced us to the impressive Norman Foster building and the art works, which were (and still are) collected and donated by Sir Robert and Lady Sainsbury.

The collection consists of over 1300 objects – all acquired from a purely aesthetic perspective, which is emphasized by the way it is exhibited. It includes sculpture, paintings, masks and objects form all over the world ranging from 2000 BC up till today. Each object on display is led to speak for itself, the sculptures are placed so they can be experienced from all sides and there is no obvious narrative to follow, except from the geographical arrangement. There are many things to be said about the lack of interpretative material and the demands it makes on the viewer to read own meaning into the object. Personally I was a bit disillusioned at first, not so much because of the actual exhibition, but because of the noise from the café, the missing overview of the exhibition space as well as the impressive height of the building, which meant that all objects seemed so tiny and pressed towards the ground. I wondered around a bit, restless, without being able to concentrate or focus. There were impressive art works, Giacometti, Picasso, Moore, but mixed with small ancient sculptures and masks. The more I looked, the more I became aware of myself, as a figure walking around among figures. It hit me that the collection was not diverse or at least not as randomly collected as Nicola had expressed – or at least that was not the impression that I had. The human figure in space or the human gazing out in space seemed to be a strong theme running through the objects. The stares from the African masks, a mummy portrait, John Davies’ lonely bucket man, a small fat fertility figurine or Moore’s Mother and child all seem to be occupied in with some kind of human condition or a way of existing in the world as a body. This strong narrative was for me not build up with a beginning, middle and an end, but forced itself upon me as I moved around the space, growing strong since I began consciously to focus on this particular aspect. I realize that this was a highly personal way of reading these objects and also that I did not really learn anything new about the objects. But still the experience I had, made me aware of myself, as a figure, as a body, and as a human being. The window for me was not so much towards the world, but more towards myself.


Ceri said…
Interesting review Mette. I must admit that when I visited the UEA I felt it resembled a massive supermarket, it was quite grey and dispiriting. I did not feel the collections were valued in any way or that their stories were important, as you say they are only there to be gazed at. Like window shopping.
Amy said…
Yes, thanks for this great review Mette. And interesting to hear both your thoughts on the Sainsbury Centre. I was privileged enough to do my undergraduate Art History degree at U.E.A. and we were based in the Sainsbury Centre. I loved it. Yes, the mode of display and the environment are, perhaps, a little dated, but it was fantastic to have the opportunity to really get to know all the objects, from seeing them almost everyday for three years. I always found the atmosphere peaceful and reflective, without being too pretentious and stuffy. I kind of liked hearing the noise of the cafe and restaurant in the background; made for a democratic and less uptight environment I felt. But yes, these objects are destined to 'speak for themselves'. There is (or at least was) minimal, if any, interpretation, but I believe that was a condition of the donation of the collection. Lord and Lady Sainsbury wanted people outside of London to have access to high quality works of art from around the world, but also wanted to try and maintain a sense of how the collection had originally been displayed in their home. I liked it, but I can understand why others my find it a little inaccessible.

Incidentally, Anna W very kindly took loads of great pictures from the Norwich trip, which are now available to view on The Attic's Flickr album - just follow the link by clicking on the Flickr box in the sidebar.
Mette said…
In my review I did not mean to defend or disagree with the lack of interpretation, what I wanted to find out was how it worked on me personally. There is definitely a condition laid down by the donors to how the material must be displayed, just as they also are in charge of the expansion of the collection. What I found interesting was the way a narrative forced itself on me and got me thinking about the way we as humans perceive the world though narrative and meaning making and also what the narrative that I read into the collection says about me and the way I approach art works.
Pippa said…
So to add my reflections on the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts. This time I’m going to do as Amy suggested, write it first and then copy, as last nights version again disappeared into the ether…..Also many apologies to Mette as we were to share this review and well, I’ve seemingly got sidetracked this week.
I confer with Amy in that I very much enjoyed the centre although I can quite understand the reflections by Mette and Ceri. I think to start I was a bit ‘at sea’ with the lack of interpretation, it is so often a crutch to lead into engagement. But then I opted to concentrate on the exhibited drawings and found myself totally engrossed with line and form and got quite spirited away by the drawings of Despiau, Giacometti, Modigliani and Picasso. I was also thinking about what a wonderful environment it would to encourage visitors to draw in themselves. As has been said, objects were displayed so as to be observed from multiple viewpoints and there was a lovely sense of space, light and tranquillity. There were also the aforementioned drawings to give some visual and ideas for those maybe not practised in drawing.
Just going back to interpretation, what I did welcome was an opportunity to sit and browse the accompanying books and find out a bit more about Giacometti in particular. As someone who often falters when this background information is provided digitally, it was so refreshing to sit in an ambient space, on a comfy chair.
My last point would be on the café, although I have to say I wasn’t conscious of any background noise whilst in the exhibition space. Anyway I’m quite fascinated by café culture as applied to museums and galleries (maybe something that should be further researched…) For anyone who’s interested there’s a thought provoking article ‘Café society’ in Museum Journal 106. I’m not sure how much subject debating we did as a group when we met up for lunch, but it was another ambient space sitting out on the terrace (and another opportunity to practice table arranging skills)

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