During the last couple of weeks, I have often found myself at the café of the Museum of Goa near Saligao, staring at the adjacent forest, reading, drinking coffee and admiring the installations of my friend and artist Subodh Kerkar. The museum receives a steady flow of visitors all day – masked, socially distant, and decidedly heterogenous. Families, honeymooners, friends, art lovers – all kinds of people converge every day. Some look bemusedly at the art. Others try to read the text that accompanies each work. And almost everyone takes photographs.
There are a variety of ways of seeing and responding to art – each visitor brings her unique perspective. This is what makes a museum a vibrant space, its objective realised via the collaborative participation of the visitor. At the Museum of Goa, I found visitors not only photographing the art but also taking their photographs with the art – selfies, group photos, inventive family portraits. I watched them for long, like it was a performance, and thought about their need to photograph themselves with the art. Is it purely for social media? To announce a holiday in Goa? To expose their date with art? A social statement? A document of time spent? What could it be? This opened up multiple questions and possibilities.
I was reminded of the concluding lines from a poem by Margaret Atwood, This Is a Photograph of Me, where she says, “but if you look long enough, /eventually/ you will be able to see me.” Perhaps people photograph to see and understand themselves better. The photo offers access to an inner life – it is an enabler, so to speak. Maybe it constitutes a personal archive for the individual, who is both the photographer and the archivist of her story and memory. Or the photograph could be a mnemonic device. But the then question is: in the type of photographs taken at the museum, who or what is more important? Is it the individual or the artwork? In the hours I have spent observing the visitors, I have often found them treat the art as a filler or prop to enhance the visual aesthetics of their photos. The art is like ambient music – the focus of the photos remains the individual. Such is the inventiveness of the individual’s myriad poses that even the creator of the artwork could not have imagined that her work could be seen or captured from so many angles.
At a recent event at the museum, actor Nafisa Ali took a selfie by placing her face next to a newly completed sculpture of a woman’s face. The photo thus captured two women – one living, another created. But Ali’s photograph also made the artwork participative.
Like the sculpture, all art objects at a museum await the participation of its visitors. Photographing oneself with a work may be a form of engagement or the beginning of such a process. One looks closely and tries to understand the work. Some try to smell it, I was told at the museum. Some try to imitate it. And, though discouraged to touch the art, some invariably want to feel its texture. Perhaps the photograph of a visitor with an artwork could be imagined as the result of a collaboration between the visitor and the work. Maybe the photograph in itself is a new work of art.
While visitors to the museum, most of whom are perhaps uninitiated into the arts, were posing for photographs, I witnessed their abundant joy. For them, the museum is no better than a monument or a public garden. Maybe they subjected the art at the museum to a similar behaviour. I think there’s nothing contemptuous here. In many ways, this indicates a new aesthetic of photographing an arts space, infusing it with a more democratic and inclusive vocabulary.
Often while writing or thinking about art, we tend to focus on big and serious discourses – is art changing the world? How is it reflective of the world? But we forget to think about smaller acts that are otherwise deemed minor or unimportant. We have learnt to frown upon pleasure and leisure. During my last couple of weeks at the museum, I have realised that a visit to the museum for other than artistic reasons is imbued with pleasure and leisure. In the photographs that emerge from such an encounter, the visitor perhaps attempts to build her own museum – a museum created through free will, imagination and the camera.
The writer is a culture critic. He teaches literary and cultural studies at FLAME University, Pune.