If the word ‘exhibit’ means ‘to show’, ‘to reveal’ or ‘to put on view’ and exhibiting art usually means just this; placing an object in a context in which people can encounter it, what would happen if art was exhibited in such a way as to purposely hide it? Axis artists Richard Higlett and Elaine Tribley have both produced art which, paradoxically, is concealed from view at the point of exhibition. PhD Student Anna Powell unpicks the artists' work and motivations to find out more about their unusual approach...
Stretching the limits of what it means to exhibit art, Richard Higlett and Elaine Tribley's work embodies a sort of ‘anti-display’. It raises numerous questions about the roles and functions of art and the institutions which display it, as well as the purpose and significance of the artistic encounter.
Richard Higlett Prop (2004AD), 2004 - 2006
Elaine Tribley Hidden Memories, 2005
Richard Higlett describes his artwork ‘Prop (2004AD)’ (2004) as ‘a hidden monument’. This mirrored sign depicting the date ‘2004AD’ was created as part of an exhibition entitled Cohabition (2004) in Coed Hills Sculpture Park near Cardiff. This artwork is obscured in a number of ways. Situated in a dense section of woodland away from pre-trodden paths, its reflective surfaces are infiltrated by the image of the surrounding forest, providing the ultimate camouflage. He explains that one of the questions underlying this clandestine artwork was how to go about making the visible invisible. ‘How non-visual can you make a piece of art?’ he asks. In some respects, Higlett considers ‘Prop’ to be completely hidden, because ‘it reflects everything back, other than what it is’.
Were a viewer able to discern ‘Prop’ from its hiding-place in the trees though; to recognise it as an alien object amidst nature, they could still never fully see it. Rather, they would see their own reflection and that of the environment around them: ‘You get to a point’, explains Higlett, ‘where you cannot get any closer to ‘Prop’. At the point where you are about to read it, the edges disappear and you are confronted with the image of yourself’. At this moment ‘Prop’ engulfs the viewer. Higlett explains, ‘This is one of the key non-visual elements of the artwork.
‘You get to a point... where you cannot get any closer to ‘Prop’. At the point where you are about to read it, the edges disappear and you are confronted with the image of yourself’ (Higlett)
At that moment of greatest potential encounter, the event flips back onto the viewer and they become the subject of the work. According to Higlett, ‘Prop’ is not only visually, but also ‘conceptually lost’. The title ‘Prop’, he says, implies something which ‘supports or sustains another object such as a buttress or scaffold or, in the sense of a theatre stage-prop, it can also be interpreted as a surrogate for another object’.
In both uses of the word, a prop can be considered a ‘non-object’; a substitute. He proposes that ‘Prop’, acts like ‘a prop’ in that it ‘doesn’t actually achieve anything that it aspires to be’: It is a piece of art put on display, but which resists the sort of relationship with its audience that would be expected in most exhibitions. It is visible yet can never really be looked at by a viewer. Woodland pun aside, it also alludes to that age-old philosophical riddle ‘if a tree falls in a forest…’. If an artwork is displayed in an exhibition but no-one is able to see it, does it ‘function’? Does it – at least for the purposes of the exhibition – even exist?
Elaine Tribley, Hidden Memories, 2005
‘Display is very much a part of my work. [It is about] stretching what ‘display’ means...The chance encounter allows different narratives to exist’ (Tribley)
Elaine Tribley’s artwork ‘Hidden Memories’ (2006), was part of an Amnesty International exhibition entitled Imagine a World (2005), based at Bargehouse, on London’s South Bank. Consisting of a series of emotive sentences cut from vinyl, many of Tribley’s furtive installations blended almost indecipherably into the rustic background. In addition to the work’s chameleon-like characteristics, ‘Hidden Memories’ was concealed by its situation.
Located ambiguously between the main exhibition spaces, sections of the text were placed behind other objects, far above or below where a person’s natural eye-line would fall or curving around corners. ‘Display’, explains Tribley ‘is very much a part of my work. [It is about] stretching what ‘display’ means’. Showing ‘Hidden Memories’ alongside such well-known artists as Stella Vine and Tracy Emin, Tribley’s potential anonymity in relation to this work was, understandably, something of a predicament. Acutely aware of the paradox that exhibiting such an artwork entailed, she admits the dilemma she faced when creating it. Tribley states, ‘The interesting thing is that as an artist you want to be seen. In order to be accepted as an artist and for something to come from your work, people need to know about it’. In spite of this, Tribley and Higlett both battled the conflicting issues of upholding their works’ ideologies whilst being a part of a public exhibition. To negotiate having to abide by certain required exhibition procedures, Tribley paid mere lip-service to what were her work’s modest, numerical catalogue entries, signage and labelling, which were almost as difficult to decipher as the work itself.
Both Higlett and Tribley recognise the hidden element in these works as being fundamental to their conceptual identity, yet both happily admit that to hide objects in a public exhibition seems to shroud them in contradiction. Art historian and writer Katy Siegel and critic Paul Mattick recognise that many contemporary artists, because of the nature of their work, must struggle to negotiate ‘the public exhibition of a private experience’ . Whether or not Tribley and Higlett would consider the making of their artworks to be private experiences, they certainly address the idea of the private encounter between viewer and artwork. Ironically for art which tries to refuse an encounter with a viewer, it is in fact the audience – if indeed it can be called this – which plays a key role in relation to it.
Elaine Tribley, Hidden Memories, 2005
Elaine Tribley, Hidden Memories, 2005
Both artists explain that it is not so much the removal of the audience from the equation that gives their art its meaning, but the ever-present potentiality of an audience encounter; the perpetual possibility that their art might or might not be seen. If an encounter does, or in fact can happen (Higlett’s thoughts on the reflective character of ‘Prop’ suggest this might not be possible), it would be a result of chance, something which, according to the artists, is vital in making the viewer’s experience of the artwork a private and exclusive one. ‘The chance encounter’, says Tribley, ‘allows different narratives to exist’. She explains that by creating a scenario where her work could be seen in part, in totality, in sequence, in random order or not at all, numerous and potentially infinite interactions with it were made possible. Tribley describes such encounters as, ‘that moment of realisation and response to something which isn't quite what it seems’. She goes on to explain that in the case of other types of art exhibit, ‘the audience has chosen to view it. When the art’s outside of this context it becomes a moment of surprise’.
Higlett similarly suggests that because of the uncertainty around whether ‘Prop’ will be seen, any encounter would be a unique, almost magical event, something he refers to as ‘an act of folly’. He further explains what he calls this instance of ‘incidental, accidental chance’, when he says that, ‘How we engage with the world is through the senses, through observation…I am interested in the times when we don’t see, but at the same time I want people to be celebrating the moments when they do observe’.
‘How we engage with the world is through the senses, through observation…I am interested in the times when we don’t see, but at the same time I want people to be celebrating the moments when they do observe’ (Higlett)
Higlett explains that ‘Prop’ continued to ‘work’ or ‘perform’ within the exhibition even if never viewed by anyone, due to the perpetual but latent possibility that it might be. He explains, ‘I would consider the work as having a performative quality, more so than a painting which needs direct experience for it to perform’. Visitors to the exhibitions in which ‘Prop’ and ‘Hidden Memories’ were shown became components in a game of hide-and-seek, whether or not they were aware of it. In this game the viewer – even as a mere potentiality – played a crucial role, simply by being an ever-imminent presence in relation to the artworks.
Both ‘Prop’ and ‘Hidden Memories’ demonstrate an inquisitive exploration of what it means to exhibit art and to be an audience. Higlett clarifies that whilst he does not work from an anti art gallery stance, the fact that gallery exhibitions dominate our ability to encounter art motivates him to consider alternative artistic scenarios. He states, ‘I think more needs to be done to attempt to get people to leave their preconceptions about art at the [gallery] door’. Both Higlett and Tribley have produced, in ‘Prop’ and ‘Hidden Memories’, works which make us consider how we encounter art and what part we play in relation to it. They ask us to look beyond the standard exhibition situation and to rethink our relationship with artworks, a relationship which, perhaps, we usually take for granted.
 Siegel, Katy and Mattick, Paul, (2004), Art works: Money, Thames and Hudson, London, P11
All quotations by Richard Higlett taken from an interview at Ikon Art Gallery, Birmingham, February 2008, or by email, February 2009.
All quotations by Elaine Tribley taken from an interview at St. Martin’s School of Art, Soho, February 2008.
Further information on Richard Higlett
Further information on Elaine Tribley
Coed Hills Sculpture Park
Amnesty International: Imagine a World Exhibition