Kaija Kaitavuori, PhD, art historian and researcher on contemporary art
Also published in Saara Hacklin, Kati Kivinen and Satu Oksanen (eds.), The Many Forms of Contemporary Art. The Kiasma Collection Book. A Museum of Contemporary Art Publication 175 / 2022. Helsinki: Finnish National Gallery / Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma, 2022
In the late 1990s, art exhibitions began to include works that required active participation from the viewer. It was no longer enough just to look at the works: they invited or even demanded that the visitor do something. This feature has changed the traditional exhibition experience. It has also posed new challenges for museum collection and exhibition practices.
The viewer engages in dialogue
In 1996, the Museum of Contemporary Art held an exhibition that deliberately opened up space for the visitor’s contribution. Curated by the Chief Curator Maaretta Jaukkuri, the exhibition was called ‘Dialogues’. The artists presented the opening lines and then handed over to the viewers, who added their own responses to the discussion. Together, these tentative, suggestive and experimental contributions formed the actual work of art.
One of the works in the exhibition was a sculpture by Tiina Ketara: a human-sized figure, resembling the artist, lying on the floor. As the viewer approached, they heard a gentle plea: ‘Help me. Hey, you there, come closer!’ The work asked the viewer to help her sit up and eventually stand. When the viewer complied, the doll chatted some more, said that things were not going well, and finally sang a song. Confronted with the work, the viewer had to make decisions about his or her own attitude and actions. Should I accept the invitation, step up to the work, touch it? In making the decision to participate, the viewer entered the territory of the work, became part of it and at the same time was exposed to the gaze of others in the space. The visitor was no longer a spectator among others, but part of the work: a participant. The very title of the work, You and I (1996), addresses the viewer. Here we are: I, the work, lying here, and you, next to me, watching, listening, perhaps touching. Or maybe ‘I’ is the spectator, and ‘you’ the work, in front of me, talking to me, making a request. Or is ‘you’ the other spectator, with whom we negotiate, perhaps without words, the modus operandi. Will you go, shall I join you, do we dare to approach?
 The foreword of the exhibition catalogue quotes David Bohm, who defines dialogue in a broad way as ‘a stream of meaning flowing among and through us, and between us’. Maaretta Jaukkuri (ed.). Dialogues. A Museum of Contemporary Art Publication 36/1996. Helsinki: Finnish National Gallery / Museum of Contemporary Art, 1996, 6–7.
Featured image: Johanna Lecklin, Story Café, 2004–10, videotape, video projection, neon sign and live art, photographed at the ‘It’s a Set-up’ collection exhibition at Kiasma, 2010.
Finnish National Gallery / Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma
Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Pirje Mykkänen
Read more — Download ‘Dialogues, Complaints, Coffee, and Dough. When the Viewer Participates’, by Kaija Kaitavuori, as a PDF