Madeleine Kennedy’s critically acclaimed exhibition 'The Enchanted Interior' is due to reopen at London’s Guildhall Art Gallery on 1st August, having previously closed just 5 days into its scheduled run at the start of the pandemic. The video shared here was filmed just before lockdown to offer a glimpse into the exhibition whilst it was closed. Now with the show’s unexpected reopening, Madeleine reflects on what she has learned from the project’s hiatus, its relationship to her DPhil research, and what it means for exhibitions like hers to re-emerge into a cultural landscape so changed from the one in which they were created.
Inspired by the Pre-Raphaelite masterpiece Laus Veneris in the Laing Art Gallery collection, The Enchanted Interior exhibition draws attention to an often unacknowledged theme in this and many other works of the Victorian period, in which sumptuous interiors act as a ‘gilded cage’ for their female inhabitants. In riposte to the continued fascination with this sinister motif, in 2015 I set about researching works by female artists which subvert or critique it, a practice exemplified by contemporary artists of Middle Eastern and North African descent who resist the racializing imagery of British Orientalist artists like John Frederick Lewis. The resultant exhibition embodies this dialogue: an array of beautiful but disturbing works by celebrated artists such as Burne-Jones, Holman Hunt and Whistler are confronted with powerful works by female artists such as Hayv Kahraman, Evelyn De Morgan, Martha Rosler, Zineb Sedira, Fiona Tan, and Francesca Woodman, who offer more nuanced visions of the interior and women’s place in it.
The exhibition’s first iteration took place at the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle last autumn, where it was selected as a Culture Highlight in the Guardian and reviewed in the i newspaper and The Spectator. Encouraging as this was, it made me more aware of a different kind of critical attention that often seems lacking in curating: a forum for in-depth constructive criticism from peers, addressing the ethics as well as the execution of a project. Having previously worked in an art school and now based in the Ruskin School of Art, I looked to the format of the ‘studio crit’ as a model, and developed a proposal for an equivalent event which took place inside the exhibition in January, supported by a Conversation Grant from the Heritage Seed Fund.
This event was designed with a dual purpose: exploring the exhibition’s relationship to theoretical questions in my DPhil research, and inviting feedback on the show itself from a panel of artists, curators, and academics. The insights gathered proved especially valuable as I collaborated with London’s Guildhall Art Gallery to adapt the exhibition for their spaces, a process which gave concrete reality to many abstract questions in my academic work. Before the pandemic, I had hoped to revisit these questions in a follow-up event inside The Enchanted Interior in London, but with its unexpected closure in March a new set of questions took centre stage; questions about what becomes of an exhibition when it cannot meet its public. Access to the exhibition was shared in whatever ways we could – a curator talk; a video tour; an extract of the catalogue – but in my opinion nothing compares to the real thing, and indeed global stats show that interest in digital offerings like virtual tours waned dramatically only a few days into lockdown after an initial peak.
For me, the unprecedented way in which so many exhibitions around the world became frozen in time – extant but unseen; simultaneously real and unreal – highlighted their duplicitous relationship to the present moment. In one sense, exhibitions belong exclusively to a brief window of time, with fixed opening- and end-dates (after which they are dismantled, usually never to be re-assembled); yet in another sense, they are always foreign to their moment of display, conceived years beforehand and emerging into a world entirely unforeseen at that time. As curator Bennett Simpson notes, ‘When times change, not all exhibitions keep up.’ This has been tested to the extreme over recent months, while the world changed irrevocably and its exhibitions lay dormant.
These changing fates have felt particularly uncanny in the case of The Enchanted Interior. The idea for the exhibition originated in 2015, the year that coercive control – the manipulative behaviour understood to be at the heart of domestic abuse – became recognised as a criminal offence in England. Noting the tendency for artworks ostensibly about enchantment to thinly veil various forms of coercion – think of the Lady of Shalott confined to her tower – the exhibition’s original aim was to look past the opulent veneer of such works to the signs of subjugation and cruelty that lie beneath. Two years into its planning, the Me Too movement exposed the magnitude of abuses still faced by women, meaning that when The Enchanted Interior’s first iteration opened in 2019, it emerged into a society more alive to the issues that it was seeking to address. In recent months, other themes central to the exhibition have acquired unexpected pertinence, including the psychological toll of being isolated to the home, and the urgent need to recognise the influence of insidious prejudice on ourselves and the spaces we inhabit.
During lockdown I have been involved in many conversations about the future of exhibitions after Covid, and how this question interacts with increasing awareness of how deeply embroiled our art institutions are with systemic racism and white privilege. These conversations are long overdue, and it is clear that how exhibitions are made must change significantly. Whilst there are many positives this could bring it seems inevitable that large-scale loan exhibitions will become more rare and there will be a sustained shift towards digital over in-gallery experiences. Nevertheless, I continue to believe in the exhibition format’s unique and inherent scope to amplify diverse voices, engender empathy, present rigorous research in an impactful public way, and interrogate how visual culture can prop up or expose injustices in society. In order to have any hope of fulfilling this potential, it is essential that exhibitions with such aims benefit from diverse perspectives and criticism, before, during, and after they go on display.
One of the richest opportunities for this kind of feedback is hearing what visitors think and seeing what kinds of conversations an exhibition might become a part of once it opens. This moment has been a long time coming in the case of The Enchanted Interior, but I am thrilled that it is finally here. I am mindful that for many people it will still not be possible to visit in person, but for those able to attend, social distancing and extra hygiene measures are in place in the gallery. It will be open on weekends only from 1st – 30th August, and full info and tickets can be found on the Guildhall Art Gallery website.
Madeleine Kennedyis a doctoral candidate in Contemporary Art History & Theory at the Ruskin School of Art, funded by the AHRC and Christ Church. She is also a professional curator with 6 years’ experience in public galleries, including Tate Britain and the Hatton Gallery. Her practice centres on using the exhibition as a medium to question unthinking norms in arts and culture, with an emphasis on feminist and experimental exhibition-making. Previous exhibitions have included 'Modern Visionaries: Van Dyck and the Artists’ Eye', curated in partnership with the National Portrait Gallery, which explored the abiding popularity of myths of artistic genius; and 'Exploding Collage', which originated from the question of how to exhibit what no longer exists, specifically, the important ephemeral works by avant-garde female artists which are now lost. Her DPhil research is interdisciplinary in nature, using her academic background in philosophy and her professional experience in curating to address blind spots in theoretical writing about exhibitions, currently focusing on the ontological implications of the spatial format and temporary duration of exhibitions.