An Open Letter to the National Gallery : Regarding Soundscapes

Subject: An Open Letter to the National Gallery : Regarding Soundscapes
From: Kate Edmunds
Date: 19 Aug 2015

Dear Nic,

(Gabriele - I’m not going to lay this at your door, seeing as you’ve only just arrived.)

I would like to extend to you my congratulations. This is the first time in my 33 years that I can say an art exhibition has left me feeling genuinely angry.

The moment that I sat down to watch the utterly patronising 20 minute documentary that "explains" your Soundscapes exhibition, my heart sank. My mood did not improve when I quickly realised that I was probably going to be spat out at the other end well within the subsequent 20 minutes.

I feel a burning need to point out what should have been blindingly obvious to everyone involved in creating this exhibition - that the very premise of Soundscapes was completely flawed from its outset. I am finding it incomprehensible to understand how it even got past the proposal stage."
Let’s take a small, dark room (I expect the designers were aiming for "intimacy") and fill it with a large group of paying visitors, all vying to view the single painting contained within.

Instead of being "transported" by a multi-sensory experience, I found myself firstly preoccupied with maneuvering into a position where someone else wasn’t blocking my view, and then getting out of the way for the next poor sod, patiently head-bobbing like a demented pigeon behind me. This horrendous cattle-herding experience is one that I’ve successfully (and studiously) managed to avoid in art institutions ever since unwittingly wandering into a room containing the Mona Lisa, aged 11.

Let’s just say that this experience was about as equally underwhelming as viewing said da Vinci from a distance of 8 meters, cocooned in bullet-proof glass. I got a more intimate feel for the artworks from watching your introductory video about what I was supposedly "meant" to experience. Perhaps that’s why you felt the need to produce it, and then shepherd your visitors in as soon as they arrive – in case we missed your point completely.

Traipsing into the next room through a pitch-black fabric tunnel, I found that the exhibition designers had not only screwed it up spatially, but audibly as well. A room-full of live humans is not a quiet thing. Add into the mix of sneezing and considered mumbling the sound of hard leather shoes stumbling onto a polished wooden floor (yes, that was me). Cue a scowl from the attending art-guardian. Why the hell would you not carpet a room in which the only sound is supposed to be that of a single violin string (and some breathing, apparently)? Alternatively, why not ask us to take our shoes off at the door so that we can polish said floor with our socks and thereby add another couple of dimensions to the sensory experience?

I felt immensely sorry for the staff policing the exhibit, who also had to take on the secondary role of enthusiastic child-minders for us, the ignorant public. “Can you find the items missing in the diorama? Listen out for the sounds you can hear – it’s a CLUE!”. I salute their enthusiasm and dedication, but their inane pronouncements had about them the ring of a sideshow and you could practically smell the stench of desperation behind this orchestrated, hall of mirrors sham.

Which brings me back to my feeling angry - I felt duped, and slightly stupid for not reading the (cringeworthy) reviews beforehand. I NEVER read exhibition reviews, but if public galleries are going to start playing dirty I think I may have to screen my visits beforehand. I was fooled into expecting an intelligent discussion and some ground-breaking experimentation in the interrelation of sound and the visual arts – curated by an institution that is supposed to be the proud guardian of one of the world’s greatest public collections of art.

But the main cause of my fury? Your exhibition (if one can actually call it that) is comprised of only six paintings.

Charging £10 to see six paintings, which would otherwise have been on display for free (seeing as we, your ignorant public, own them) baring the "added value" opportunity to listen to a trite soundtrack whilst elbowing our fellow citizens in a blackout, is simply not cricket. That’s £1.66 (reoccurring) a pop.

Whilst I’m sure your musical genii needed to be paid handsomely for their efforts in an their attempts to educate us (and perhaps that’s why you could only afford to commission six of them), I can’t help but feel that we would all have been better off buying six new singles on iTunes and taking a contemplative (solo) stroll around the rest of the gallery.

Needless to say, I would like a refund.

Yours sincerely,

Kate Edmunds