Robert Mapplethorpe is one of those names that makes your ears prick up. If you’re told there’s an exhibition of his work, you probably have certain expectations. Mapplethorpe has a reputation. Despite his mastery of the photographic portrait, his ability to gently draw out the vulnerable side of famous hard-nosed celebrities, he’s known for his more provocative artwork; work that explores masculinity, homosexuality and the limits of human consent.
Artists like Mapplethorpe who have challenged their audiences in this way can create stumbling blocks for curators. Working on this exhibition has made me think about how galleries decide to display explicit imagery.
I work as Exhibitions Assistant at Aberystwyth Arts Centre. Half of my day is spent assisting the Curator and helping to realise her vision of the final exhibition. The other half I spend invigilating in the gallery, where I chat to visitors and witness their responses first hand. It makes me aware of the significance of all the decisions that have to be made in the process of curating a show.
The Arts Centre is the town’s central hub for all kinds of art practices, which means our audience spans all age groups and backgrounds. When I first heard we’d be showing a Mapplethorpe exhibition, I wondered how much the work’s potential to offend people would affect what was selected and how it would be displayed.
It would be misleading to avoid challenging artwork altogether, I thought, but you can imagine the inevitabilities if a group of youngsters come to the gallery and find a secluded area with a sign that says ‘YOU ARE NOT ALLOWED IN HERE’. Whilst the role of exhibitions these days surely is to generate discussion, a gallery also has a responsibility to protect its younger visitors from what could be deemed inappropriate.
There are some more explicit works in the ARTIST ROOMS collection, which we considered in the original selection, with the idea of setting up an area for adults only. But after reflection and discussion we eventually took the decision to leave some of these aside, because they seemed visually incongruous with the other photographs we wanted to display. Every gallery draws the line differently, but I think if there’s one rule, it has to be to keep the artwork in context. Without context, artistic merit can be completely subverted by sensationalism.
Mapplethorpe is one of the key artists in prompting us to question our own definitions of art. Why do contemporary nudes seem more inappropriate than ancient nudes? And why is photography classed as more explicit than sculpture? Although some of his works are more challenging than others, he consistently addresses these issues by examining the classicism of the human form with skillful lighting and composition. The decision to display a diverse and representative range of his photographs helped us to avoid drawing attention to the work for the wrong reasons and instead portray ‘Mapplethorpe the artist’ and not ‘Mapplethorpe the provocateur’. I’ve enjoyed seeing people engage with the artistry and not the sensationalism throughout the exhibition’s run.
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