The way into art

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Have you ever been to an art exhibition and didn’t know how to approach artworks? Have you ever looked at a colourful artwork and had trouble trying to understand its meaning?

People will tell you art is aesthetics and an expression. Art very well might be everything. But there are many who find understanding art tough, and that’s because understanding art is not always easy. Even artists and art connoisseurs often have difficulty extracting meaning from a piece of artwork.

At a time when Kathmandu’s art galleries are busy hosting back-to-back exhibitions and the city’s art scene is finally buzzing with life, the Post decided to talk to artists and art curators to understand the right way to approach art.

“People think it’s not cool to say I didn’t understand a work of art. So most people will nod their heads and pretend to understand art and leave exhibitions, possibly not being inspired by art,” says Rajan Sakya, the founder of the Museum of Nepali Art and Kathmandu Art House.

And that is the very thing one should avoid doing, say artists and curators the Post spoke to.

“When you come to an exhibition, your impulse should not be a compulsion to like everything. The way into art is to first be as open as you can to what you see,” says art curator Ujen Norbu Gurung, one of the people behind ‘Kholo 2⁵ 32 Cycles of Life’, a year-long exhibition that featured works of a large number of Nepali artists, at Van Gogh Gallery, Patan Dhoka.

Looking at art and interpreting the meaning embedded in its colours is not always a straightforward process. Understanding art can be confusing and challenging, and oftentimes, the experience can be muddled by the pressure of getting some meaning out of the artwork. But many people from the art community believe the best way to approach art is by instinct and by being comfortable viewing the art from one’s own lens.

“First is always to view an artwork from your point of reference. Our understanding can get deeper when we look at things subjectively rather than just objectively,” says Pratima Thakali, a visual artist and lecturer at Kathmandu University Art and Design, Hattiban. “One must remember that how we see things in art will not be subjected to right and wrong. Every viewing can be different, and it is okay to trust your intuition.”

When instructing her students on how to analyse and interpret artworks, Thakali likes to encourage her students to go beyond what meets the eye. “The simple rule of understanding art is to identify the relationship between what is in the artwork to the emotions that arise in you while viewing the work,” says Thakali. “Being informed of critical theories and current events also helps when critically analysing artworks. Understanding art is about learning to discuss art beyond its aesthetics.”

But the simplicity of understanding art also lies in questioning the existence of an artwork and letting the mind wander and wonder.

Thakali, Sakya, and Gurung all believe that curiosity helps one delve deeper into the experience of art. “You have got to question everything you see in the artwork and try to come up with meanings and answers,” says Gurung.

Trying to understand art also involves caring for details. That could be trying to analyse colours, shapes, perspectives, visual motifs, patterns, repetitions, and metaphors that artists use abundantly, say artists. “Sometimes it is also about interpreting meaning based on the background of the artwork. For example, what sort of environment has the artist created in the artwork and why?” says Thakali.

And more than often, these embedded meanings make a sketch, a painting or a visual installation a work of art. The attention that we give to a piece of art is what escalates the value of the artwork, explain artists.

“Looking at art also depends on the form of art we are looking at. With traditional works like thangkas, a person should look for the representation’s philosophy. They should try to analyse the iconography and visual elements in the image—which for a layperson will be difficult—and that is why artists must spend time with their audience,” says Gurung.

However, with contemporary art, the way into art is primarily our feelings, he says. But the onus of inspiring those feelings in the audience lies in the artists’ and curators’ efforts. “An artist should make it a point to make exploring artworks easier for viewers. An artist or a curator could do that by providing additional supporting information that the audience could use to enter the artwork. And that is why I make it a point for artists to spend time in the gallery and interact with the audience,” says Gurung.

But viewers shouldn’t also feel that they need to like every work of art and have to find the one meaning that artists have embedded in their works. That is the wrong way of interpreting art, say curators the Post spoke to.

“When it comes to abstract or conceptual works, I am not always thinking about why the artist made that work. I focus more on how I feel when viewing the works,” says Sakya. “If I buy an artwork, it won’t be because of the artist’s lived experiences and what he feels about something. It will be based on what I feel and see in that work for myself.”

Sakya also believes that it is not fair to leave it entirely to the audience to understand artworks at exhibitions. “Exhibitions have curators, and it is their responsibility to understand their audience and incorporate elements to guide the audience’s viewing experience and help them find their own meaning of art. I also think artworks need a second exhibit to let viewers imagine more about a piece of artwork,” he says.

At Sakya’s Kathmandu Art House, Thamel, he has hung trekking poles across a wall as props for artist Asha Dangol’s painting. The artwork features three massive figures of Dangol standing in front of the landscape of what is possibly Upper Mustang. Behind the figures are several parked jeeps that sort of blend into the region’s landscape.

“What can one make of this artwork if the painting is to stand alone? I bet it will be difficult for anyone who does not know Asha Dangol as an artist to understand why there are three similar-looking humans in the artwork,” says Sakya, attempting to explain his theory. “But because I have hung several poles with the artwork, I think it has made people stand a little longer in front of the work and analyse what Asha is trying to say in the painting—and it could possibly lead them to think about the human imprints in popular destinations,” adds Sakya.

The additional set-up as a support to the main artwork, says Sakya, is the second exhibit that artists and curators in the country rarely use to explain their works to viewers.

Thakali agrees with Sakya on the importance of providing the audience at exhibitions with information that can help them better understand the artworks.

“This is why I always tell my students to practise writing their ideas on paper. These writings can function as windows into the mind of the artist while making the artwork and will help the audience imagine and think,” says Thakali.

But of the many suggestions that artists and curators have given to understand art, the one suggestion to always abide by is staying open to art and not forcing oneself too much to understand artworks.

“You shouldn’t suck the joy out of experiencing art. If an artwork does not speak to you, it just doesn’t. A person should not feel it is pertinent to get every idea an artist brings. It’s okay to feel confused, and it’s okay not to like artwork,” says Sakya.

“Because not understanding a work of art does not mean one does not understand art at all. It just means you have not found the right art that speaks to you. Just don’t stop looking at art,” he says.

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