Lewis Hyde in his book â€œThe Giftâ€ attempts to regain the position of art not as a commodity (as usually placed by institution of commercial art galleries or art fairs) but as a gift â€“ as a free act of creation by the artist and then free act of experience by the viewer. Art is a gift because in its purest form as a result of an act of creation, is offered without any financial returns. To be able to freely express oneself and then circulate the result of this expression (assuming that the result is meaningful and good â€“ however I leave the definition of these terms for some other occasion) among members of community can be probably more rewarding in the long term than creating an artwork and selling it to one art collector. The circulation of a free gift, according to Hyde, who brought in his book a numerous examples from various nations, customs and tribal habits, leads to increase in community connections, strength of the relationship, knowledge, mutual understanding and thus community empowerment.
Following Lewis Hydeâ€™s writing on the concept of the art as a gift, for a first time in my career as an artist I departed from the usual practice of exhibiting in the white cube of an art gallery or a museum and went on a quest to reach-out to the audience using a different type of the venue â€“ a public library. Strongly believing in social function of art that is bringing people together, I have been looking for a right content and an appropriate form of expression as well as the most suitable platform and place*.
Having a content and a form ready, I came across the Idea Store while searching the World Wide Web for the ideal place in Tower Hamlets â€“ suddenly remembering a tip given to me by a fellow artist Anita McKeown. Idea Store is a new conceptualized concept of the local library, which acts as a heart of community and is a hub of local knowledge and culture experience, inviting residents to not only borrow books, but to participate and contribute in many other educational events. A response that I have received from management of Idea Store has been amazingly enthusiastic and encouraging, affirming me that it was a good choice.
Art and art galleries are still considered by many as a luxury for rich and privileged â€“ however clichÃ© it sounds, sadly it is true. Not many residents of Whitechapel council estate would even dare to step inside the Whitechapel Art Gallery. The art gallery can be considered as a holly temple of art. Although in my opinion there is nothing wrong with that, that is obviously depending on the quality of work exhibited (to be debated elsewhere and at some other time), it can be intimidating and un-inviting. White walls, not disturbed by any unnecessary items, perfect lighting, the aura of the art gallery â€“ all that makes anything looks important and meaningfulâ€¦It is definitely great for an artwork to be in such a place, so that the experience of it is almost religious, not interrupted and absolutely immerse.
Through out my career during private views of various shows I never witness/experienced a â€œregularâ€ passer-by from the street to come and talk to the artist. The artist very often is quite unapproachable – not necessary because s/he wants to but because of a certain social conventions of how to behave during events like that. Very rarely it happened that people who look at the same artwork and were part of the same experience talked to each other and share their opinions. Unless one is with the group of acquaintances or friends, the experience of an artwork remains very anonymous. Personally as an artist I very often find it nerve-wracking â€“ never knowing what viewers really think about my work.
So finally, courtesy of Idea Store, Arts Council and Tower Hamlets I could experience exactly what I keep preaching about â€“ exhibit and reach out to communities outside the usual crowd attracted by art festivals, museums and commercial galleries.
The 12 unframed drawings created with charcoals, pastels and some acrylic paint were hanged on the one long wall of the â€œ dedicated exhibition spaceâ€ in the Idea Store Whitechapel. Surrounded by stands with DVDs, some tables and armchairs for reading and studying, illuminated with the general library light, that â€œexhibition areaâ€ is so different from the gallery space I am used to. The way my work was presented there made me question the quality of itâ€¦And it made me question the concept of artistic quality in general. Perhaps good art stands out and makes an impact despite the surrounding? Maybe it shouldnâ€™t need the clinical emptiness of the gallery to defend itself? Perhaps it should be strong, wherever it is?
I didnâ€™t know what to expect from the audience â€“ Idea Storeâ€™s goers. Invitations to all my mailing lists were sent and I expected some friends to come with support. The refreshments were organized and opening announced to generate attention of everyone who was in the 4-storey building. The posters announcing exhibition were distributed earlier.
While putting my work up during the evening before and the afternoon prior to the opening, many people of different ages, gender, and ethnicity have engaged in conversation with me. Absolutely everyone had a passionate opinion on my work and they all were very eager and willing to share it and discuss. More people joined for the refreshments and the opening. Everybody wanted to talk and in a way I felt that it was them absorbing me to the community, rather than me â€œreaching outâ€â€¦Some people who could hardly speak English felt like expressing their feelings. During all 3 hours of the opening I was engaged in few dozens conversations with local residents from Pakistani students to elderly Indian women on arts, philosophy and feelings. Not everyone liked my drawings but everyone was very opinionated and passionate. One person had tears in her eyes and confided in me that â€œPeregrinationsâ€ looked like the landscape she was used to in her childhood â€“ small fishing villages on Greek islands. It wasnâ€™t exactly what I had in mind while creating, but it was one of the most beautiful reactions I could wish forâ€¦
I left my drawings to be there for another 2 weeks. A bit anxious that my un-framed work can be damaged and vandalized I came back few days later. Everything was intact and I was welcomed like an old friend by few of the Idea Stores regularsâ€¦In the guest book which I left next to the â€œexhibition wallâ€ there were few more opinionated entriesâ€¦
It was a wonderful experience to see how art can affect people â€“ even those who wouldnâ€™t be normally expect/suspect to be the usual type of art lovers. I canâ€™t believe that I havenâ€™t done it earlier. It is sad that art students are not encourage to go outside the realm of the â€œusual art worldâ€â€¦It is really sad to observe that myself and many of my fellow artists (not all of them of course) are very hermetic and whether we want it or not â€“ very elitist.
The whole experience so far left me with mixed feelings. I still long to see my drawings exhibited in the â€œtempleâ€, so that they are properly illuminated and there is nothing else to break the purity of the experience. I love art and yes â€“ I do tend to bring up onto the pedestal. BUT â€“ I want to share it with everyone â€“ with the smallest particle of the universe and engage into the passionate discussion with grandmother from Nepal and Mandinka royalty. The reaction of Idea Store Whitechapel customers was fascinating and very rewarding. It make me once again think about the quote from Virginia Wolf:
â€œIt is a constant idea of mine, that behind a cotton wool (of daily reality) is a hidden pattern; that we â€“ I mean all human beings â€“ are connected with this; that the whole world is a work of art; that we are parts of work of art.â€ (Virginia Woolf, 1941)
Idea Store Whitechapel management decided to extend the exhibition for a week longer.