Essay Series

Unwitting Actors – Jeanne Quinn

This essay was written by Jeanne Quinn, artist and Associate Professor of Studio Art at the University of Colorado.

My first museum exhibition was in Denmark in 2001, at the Grimmerhus Museum. I floated porcelain balloons, suspended from real helium balloons, throughout the gallery space. The weight of the porcelain balloons kept many of the pieces from going right up to the ceiling, and instead, held them in a kind of spatial limbo, neither up nor down, floating on the drafts that came and went as people entered and exited the room. During the opening, the museum’s accountant saw that some of the balloons were trying to leave the building through the front door and float away—she leapt in alarm to wrestle them back into their exhibition space. I found this incredibly funny.

I make installations. In my work, the meaning resides in the relationships between objects, and their relationship to space, as much as in the objects themselves. With the Grimmerhus piece, Balloons [Soft Things Made Hard series], the porcelain balloons relied on the helium balloons in a practical sense, to stay aloft, to occupy their space. But they also relied on them for their meaning. I hoped to point to the material as metaphor, as a reminder that everything is ephemeral. A balloon is meant to pass in and out of your life quickly. The balloon of porcelain is absurd, rendering this thing of the moment as something precious and materially permanent. By hanging porcelain balloons from real balloons, I made the permanent rely on the ephemeral, the outcome of which was inevitable. The accountant had a conversation with me, saying, “you know we can’t insure this work.” “Yes!” I laughed.

The Grimmerhus is a ceramic museum, a museum full of pedestals. Historically, one of the roles of the museum is to preserve things. The Grimmerhus’ many rooms, filled with static, historical objects, helped my lazily floating porcelain balloons seem as though they were visitors to the space, breathing and moving. I intend to promote the museum as a space where things are alive and constantly in flux.

I think of my installations as analogous to theater sets; the museum is the theater. With no separation between stage and seating, the viewers enter the gallery and, guilelessly, become actors. They have entered the stage. Floating porcelain balloons become an amusing Greek chorus, responding to the movements of the performers.

I attempt to stretch out the amount of time that the viewer/actor is present with the work, a commitment to narrative that, no matter how brief or condensed, again recalls theater. In Everything Is Not As It Seems (2009), when one entered the room, it appeared to be a cacophony of objects.

There were groupings of white porcelain arms and swags of beads that alluded to the radial symmetry of chandeliers, but with pieces missing and misplaced, disrupting the pattern.

However, as one spent time in the room, the symmetry of the architecture itself went to work, and people seemed to gravitate towards the center, eventually realizing that the piece did have an underlying logic, that of bilateral symmetry. Each seemingly haphazard grouping of lights and suspended objects was mirrored on the other side of the room, creating an unexpected perfection. It was magical to watch people realize this. They suddenly looked as though they were watching a tennis match, looking left, looking right, looking left, looking right. The protagonist had made a realization, and the pieces snapped into place. Climax, resolution, dénouement.

In Everything Is Not As It Seems, the gallery space itself is once again instrumental to creating meaning. Originally a parlor, the space had a beautiful high ceiling, a fireplace, and alcoves that created symmetry in the room. It was a natural habitat for a chandelier.

At the opening of A Thousand Tiny Deaths at the Kemper Museum in 2011, people waited. Everyone entered the museum, circled around, and returned to the room where several hundred black vases were suspended by balloons inflated inside the vases; each balloon was then hung from the ceiling with string. They wanted to witness a falling, a death.

I installed the piece next to a large window that faced the street. Strangers emailed me, unsolicited. People who passed this window every day wanted to update me on what had fallen that day, what they had witnessed.

Detail of A Thousand Tiny Deaths. Photo: Bruce Matthews

The piece was able to stretch out time by creating a long, pregnant waiting. Again, the outcome was inevitable, but the interest was in how the story would unfold. By standing and anticipating, and in some cases, by coming back again and again, viewers gave these little deaths significance through their waiting and their attention.

Amanda Game, in her essay on this site, upholds Neil McGregor’s assertion that “it is not knowledge, in the first instance that is required to appreciate a work of visual art; rather, it is time, and then the willingness to bring to the work your own experience.” Museums give artists the gift of an exhibition, which is essentially a gift of time to occupy space. But it is a particular space, a rarified space, a place where people come to have an experience. I agree with McGregor that what we ask of viewers is simply to give us their time and a certain quality of attention, and in my case, to stretch out that time to the length of a story, even a simple story, in which they themselves become actors.

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 2014.

Images (from top)

[1-3] Everything Is Not As It Seems
as installed at Jane Hartsook Gallery, Greenwich House, New York City, 2009
porcelain, wire, paint, electrical hardware

24’W x 17’D x 17’H

Photographs by Cathy Carver

[4-6] A Thousand Tiny Deaths
as installed at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, Kansas City, 2011
black porcelain, balloons, string

129″ x 72″ x 144″

Photographs by Bruce Mathews