Should we be uncomfortable with furniture in art galleries?

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Most contemporary art galleries have little in common with our houses. The artworks on display may deal with everyday themes, but exhibitions don’t typically look like home settings. Its white walls, harsh overhead lighting and tranquil atmosphere all point to its obvious purpose: to encourage the viewer to give their full attention to the art on display, to let it completely dominate their perception. In the white-walled “Non-Domestic” gallery there is only you and the artwork. Such communion between the exhibition and the viewer seems to require a total abstraction from the debris of everyday life. But what happens when the gap between home and gallery is crossed? At first, I was concerned about seeing exhibits that contained furnishings; They seemed to dilute the distilled experience I described above, placing artworks alongside products and turning galleries into luxury goods stores. But this concern is misguided. Furniture is a false flag that does not reliably signal commercialism. In fact, a space that feels like home can allow for an embodied way of engaging with art that the sparse art galleries we’re used to don’t offer.

Orlando is the name of a character created by Virginia Woolf, a writer and esthete who never ages. Last year Pi Artworks held a group exhibition in London entitled An ode to Orlando who imagined what their home might look like if they lived today. Orlando is also the name of a loveseat by Ada Interiors, a luxury interior design brand, whose furniture was featured at the show. Being used to sparsely furnished non-residential galleries, it felt jarring to see the trappings of middle-class family life seeping into this exhibition. It reminded me that the paintings and sculptures on display were not just there to please me as a viewer; they were also products for sale. Like the chairs and tables they shared space with, they were objects on the way through a journey that would end in a transaction.

Installation view from An ode to Orlando at Pi Artworks in London (Photo by Alperen Ergin, courtesy of Ada Interiors)

Galleries don’t just show furniture Next Art; sometimes furniture is art. David Zwirner’s website, for example, lists Franz West divans, clothes racks and plastic chairs for sale, starting at $12,000. Museums are in too: a while ago I overheard the Barbican’s blockbuster Noguchi retrospective, dubbed the ‘Ikea ​​exhibition’ – presumably because of the many paper lampshades on display, which are now mass-produced by the Swedish furniture giant. As in An ode to OrlandoBlurring the line between art and furniture seems tantamount to blurring the line between a gallery and a shop. It transforms a place of art enjoyment into a place of art shopping. It appears that the purpose of the non-private gallery is for viewers to engage with the works on display, while the gallery-with-furnishings showroom serves customers to make purchases.

But furniture in the gallery is a false target. While it makes me think of a cynical and commercial approach to exhibition programming, it doesn’t portray it. The gallery, which looks more like a home, isn’t necessarily more guilty of commodifying the art it displays . The retailer who sniffs at including furniture in an exhibition is probably thinking of artworks – or, more worryingly, artists – as well as products. In addition, I’m sure that if the right collector offers the right sum for any of the works on display, they’ll be ushered into a back room to be seated at a mid-century mahogany table in a design classic chair and write a check.

I think we should resist artworks being treated and traded like products, but understand that furniture in the gallery is largely value neutral. In fact, it can even be a good thing. For as long as they have existed, people have resisted galleries that try to transcend real life. In his book In the white cube: The ideology of the gallery space (2000) Brian O’Doherty describes the non-domestic gallery as a place where “that strange piece of furniture, your own body, seems superfluous, an intrusion”. He makes a good point: in order to achieve the kind of communion I described earlier, one is expected to somehow transcend one’s existence as a physical body, an expectation that seems unrealistic and deeply problematic.

At HOME, an aptly named multi-purpose space in North London, that expectation is completely dropped. In addition to an exhibition program, it offers a shared desk for working, a small library with books and magazines for reading, and armchairs for sitting and reading. Music is often played and there is a kitchen in the corner where everyone is welcome to make a cup of tea or use the microwave. Here I feel welcome to lounge, read, listen, eat, drink and enjoy the art on display. The body is not a superfluous intruder here, but a central part of my exhibition experience. Spaces like this reassure me that we shouldn’t worry about the presence of home furniture in galleries. We have seen that it is not a reliable marker of a commercial attitude towards art. When we understand the transcendent, abstracted experience that non-home galleries seem to offer as an unrealistic ideal, the home that finds its way into the gallery becomes an opportunity to embrace a more concrete and embodied mode of art experience.

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