Fiji exhibition – what is art (continued)

Just when I thought that I had resolved the issue of “what is art” the Sainsbury Centre challenges me again. I visited the Fiji exhibition and some of the pieces made me think again “is this art?”, Why is it displayed in a visual art gallery rather than in an ethnographic museum. When entering the exhibition, you cannot miss the first object – a double hulled canoe!

Sea-going craft as art?

Later in the exhibition clubs, spears and even muskets were on display.  I had seen similar displays at the Tower of London, or other museums – but in an art gallery?  however, looking further into the exhibition and reading the detailed gallery notes made me think once again about what is art and possibly my own prejudices and viewpoint.

Firstly, the canoe was commissioned and produced specifically for the exhibition, which makes me think ” does the purpose for which an object is intended change how it is viewed?  if the canoe had been produced for fishermen in Fiji then I don’t think it could have been considered as art.  But does the act of commissioning it as the opening exhibit in a show on the art of Fiji instantly determine that it be regarded as a work of art?

The other exhibits to challenge my assumptions were the display of war clubs, spears and muskets as art. But reading the gallery notes here was enlightening “weapons were more than just military equipment, they were great ritual objects, often dedicated to God’s and kept in temples. Their exceptional carved decorations and elaborate binding are well beyond what is required for effective combat”.

Woodcarvings as decorations are usually considered works of art so why should not intricately carved weapons of battle be regarded in the same way?

After I had visited I read a review by Carl Wilkinson in the Financial Times which contains the following quotes from the curator of the exhibition Dr Steven Hooper “forget these things as ethnographic specimens”.  “Look at these things as if they were made by the heroes of the 20th century. These things could be in the National Gallery or the Tate. Forget artefacts, forget art, forget all those categories – it’s all rubbish”.

The visit and subsequent research of the reviews proved highly rewarding to my ongoing consideration of what is art? It has made me think much more deeply about the issue and widened my thoughts to areas that I would not previously have considered.

Read the FT Review