“The Exhibitionary Complex” by Tony Bennett explores how nineteenth century institutions of exhibition, such as museums, arcades, and department stores, shared practices of representation that served as vehicles for the dissemination of knowledge and power. These institutions, through their ordering of objects, in turn, ordered the public and their gaze. Bennett further examines levels of “looking” that these institutions imposed, especially that of the relationship between the individual’s gaze onto the object, and the public’s gaze onto the individual. Bennett asserts that the exhbitionary complex, “perfected a self-monitoring system of looks in which the subject and object positions can be exchanged, in which the crowd comes to commune with and regulate itself through interiorizing the ideal and ordered view of itself as seen from the controlling vision of power – a site of sight accessible to all” (82). I found his analysis, of looking and simultaneously being looked at, the most intriguing because it is a big part of my museum-going experience, which largely involves me looking at others looking at objects. People watching really is one of my favorite things to do, watching how others interact with objects within an exhibitionary setting. It is quite a powerful experience watching these relationships play out.
In the vein of looking and being looked at, the best example of this relationship at play is perhaps the most meta; Marina Abramovic’s performance art piece “The Artist is Present.” In this piece, Abramovic sat still and silent for over 700 hours (over the course of three months) while spectators were invited to sit opposite of her and gaze into her eyes. She is at once an individual looking and an object being looked at. The object is finally imbued with a gaze. I highly recommend checking out this piece. You can watch a snippet of the performance in the link provided below. This particular moment that is documented is perhaps the most heartbreaking. Marina and her once creative (and romantic) partner, Ulay, are reunited after not having seen each other for over thirty years. Enjoy (with a box of tissues).