Reading Wall Labels from Runway Experimental Art on Vimeo.

I am a glutton for curated experiences and public spectacle. Blessed with the opportunity to travel to the Skulptur Projekte Münster, Documenta (Kassel and Athens) and the Venice Biennale on the Maddocks Art Prize, I felt heady by the prospect of gorging on a once a decade art buffet. Finally, I could join the FIFO Art-world, burning through megatons of carbon in a contemporary version of the Grand Tour.

Armed with new pants and overestimated stamina, I embarked on this journey of preposterous scheduling. But, within a few hours at Documenta Kassel, I was completely overwhelmed and realised that I couldn’t possibly see all of the art. Facing the prospect of having to actually pace myself and take time to absorb what I saw, I still couldn’t let go of my ArtFomo. Again and again I found myself mindlessly taking sneaky photos of artworks and their associated wall labels as I rushed between venues.

Feeling self-conscious, I began to notice how other people were also engaging with wall labels. Most people repetitively walked up to a wall label, skimmed over it, took a covert photograph all before encountering the actual artwork. Often people were spending more time searching around the installations for the wall labels rather than looking at the work itself. Previously, I would have judged this ritualised process, but in this vulnerable state of exhausted art apathy, I felt profound empathy and solidarity with my fellow art comrades. They could only process the scale of these spectacles through curatorial texts and ultimately, the photographic deferral of these. Despite their physical and mental exhaustion, these viewers still kept pace, staying valiant but not very vigilant, because, despite everything, even this most cosmetic consumption of art demanded a whole level commitment and discipline.

reading wall labels in confined spaces wall labels documenta venice
Congestion at the entrance to a video installation in the Arsenale, Venice Biennale. Photo: James Nguyen, 2017

I quickly realised that I needed to stick to a process when photographing wall labels. Firstly, I had to decide whether to take a photo of the label first, preceding the photo of the artwork, or vice versa. The most important thing was to religiously stick to whichever decision I started with. Secondly there wasn’t just wall labels to contend with, but also a bunch of ancillary exhibition texts, instructions, curatorial statements, actual text art works etc., that could disrupt and unravel the sequence of my camera roll.

Beyond this internal dialogue with my phone, I began to encounter the many and fraught real world considerations for the wall label. Like my camera roll, the actual installation of these wall labels had to be systematic and clearly articulated to the viewer from the very beginning. The contract of uniformity; in the font, layout, language, and proximity to the artwork demands precision and predictability… any aberration, and chaos ensues. One of the most frustrating things I saw in Venice was the decision to attach labels to the actual entrance of video installations in the Arsenale. Not only were these labels obscured by curtains, but who ever wanted to read them would block everyone who was trying to get in and out of these closed spaces. Adding to the congestion of an already crowded space, the wall label added to an already exhausting space.

Beyond the artworks that they individually describe, the ubiquity of wall labels become indicative of the level of care and custodianship an institution has for patrons. Are these labels readable, is the language clear and accessible? Can severely short-sighted people like me physically see the text? I often found myself straining from a distance or stooping so close to a label and blocking everyone else. In this instance, taking a sneaky photo and moving away enabled me to zoom into the label on my phone without being in everyone’s way.

In comparison to Venice and Documenta Kassel, Documenta Athens took a refreshing and generous approach to labelling. Where the space was available, the labels were rolled out on the floor, weighed down with the artist’s name engraved on a piece of marble. A trip hazard that would have cost a small fortune, the large format of these texts was a physiological as well as a visual relief; being on the floor and not assaulting your line of sight.

When done well, the labelling of artworks is not only appreciated, but is an indication of how much an organisation is seriously committed to the duty of care of an exhausted and travel weary audience. At the very least, the wall label serves as a basic courtesy to help audiences navigate artworks without having to be distracted by the actual wall label itself. 

James Nguyen

James Nguyen is a Sydney-based practitioner working across drawing, installation, video, and performance. 


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