What would be the sign you would most expect to encounter upon entering a gallery space? For most of us the phrase that leaps to mind is ‘do not touch’ - the gallery setting is often one that encourages detachment, in a way that can come across as aloof and forbidding. Boundary Encounters, Modern Art Oxford’s summer presentation, does away with the stuffy restrictions of your typical gallery experience, in favour of a more tactile, communicative approach to the artworks populating its main gallery.
The exhibition’s title is borne from Étienne Wenger and Jean Lave’s methodology of ‘Communities of Practice’, which approaches learning as a discursive and social ritual. As such, the first pieces you encounter set the tone perfectly, all there to be acted upon rather than merely observed. For instance, Valerie Asiimwe Amani’s mixed media piece Mkutano // A Place For Us, features a giant book in its centre on which visitors are encouraged to write or draw. On a clear day, those that do so will have projected onto them a ‘schedule’ of affirmations screen printed onto a diaphanous curtain hanging in the window.
The words are taken from the journals and newsletters of the Organisation for Women of Asian and African Descent, and seeing those words take on a distinct physicality in their projection within the space encourages this sense of communion, as though you’re bathed in them. I must admit the incorporation of memes into the piece I found slightly difficult to parse with its overall objective, but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t leave an impression, and I imagine the effect will only be enhanced with Amani’s live performance within the space in September.
Dotted around the gallery are several smooth, undulating wood structures - these are the work of Julie Freeman, based on studies of her own body in motion. The kinetic quality of each sculpture kindles a childlike need to press yourself against it, mould your body to the contours of the wood - press an ear to it, though, and it takes on a greater depth. In the base of each is a sound system, through which can be heard a diverse array of sounds with significance to both Freeman and the gallery in which she features. In one can be heard previously commissioned audio works by Sarah Kenchington, Ann Liselgaard and Hannah Rickards, previously featured in MAO’s space; in another is a live field recording of Medley Bridge, where Freeman’s father’s ashes are scattered; and in the last, data collected from the gallery’s visitors generates undulating frequencies. Freeman establishes a heritage both local, artistic and communal that is carried within her as a living system, one which, in getting up close and personal with these sculptures, we actively take on.
That sense of tactility is also evident in Deborah Pill’s Table Talk: informed by her experience as an MAO facilitator in their creative space, the ‘canvas’ is a reappropriated table surface used during these sessions. On the table’s surface Pill has emblazoned observations made by attendees about their experience of the gallery; “a place to touch everything”: “not constantly asked to be an audience”; “immersive sounds and tactile things”. It is literally if these walls could talk, physically imbuing the surfaces that make up MAO’s everyday with the perspectives of the people that use and occupy them - a setting is nothing without people to use it.
The whole room is tied together by a colourful coup de grâce, a primary-coloured canopy of plastic strips that enfold a white round table. This is Harold Offeh’s Pavilion, a site-specific commission that is designed to facilitate communion. Both enclosed and inviting, Offeh channels Brazilian modernist architect Lina Bo Bardi in his desire for social connections within the piece to inform its purpose - during the first week of the exhibition Offeh will also be collaborating with young artists to explore the full potential of that space.
The exhibition’s second room takes on a more traditionally archival feel, a four wall tapestry of posters, photos and notes charting MAO’s humble beginnings in 1965 as the Museum of Modern Art Oxford (MOMA). The museum for the beginning was always intended to give space to the experimental, the participatory and the collaborative. There’s a punkish irreverence and DIY ingenuity in the homemade posters, want ads and Polaroids that line the walls, and in the centre MAO’s youth projects are given pride of place.
Particularly noteworthy is Bicester Courtyard Youth Facility (1988), in which MOMA supported young people in the area in designing, planning and building a community space in which they could relax and socialise, and the Wantage Puddle Club Skateboard Park Project, in which young Wantage residents collaborated with artists featured in the museum’s Art from South Africa exhibition, to paint the then newly-acquired skate park for the community. It’s a heartening testament to MAO’s committed focus on art as a force for public good, as well as a fascinating insight into society’s attitudes to ‘the youth’ (and vice versa) across the decades.
Its legacy can be seen in the community groups spotlighted on the walls of the communal performance space, a set of tiers lined with cushions, comfy and with easy lines of visibility (plus the tools for some interactive digital illustration if you’re feeling brave). The space looked a little sparse on my visit, of course, but over the coming weeks it will be filled with a diverse array of artists in residence to broaden our understanding of how a gallery space can be experienced.
Truest to the ethos of Boundary Encounters is this - you get out what you are willing to put in. These are works that demand to be touched, walked into, scribbled on; there’s room for quiet contemplation too, but the best approach for this is to go in with a spirit of adventure - after all, sometimes boundaries need to be pushed.