Choose your story, assign your meaning: a not so good guide for looking at art.

By Julia Niemczynowska

I love going to galleries and museums! There is nothing quite like looking at a painting and being able to see the brush strokes an artist used to create a portrait, or seeing the hint of a fingerprint left in a clay, or even bronze, piece. It tells me that there is a story behind the work. That the piece I am looking at is someone’s brainchild. It has a life story, a pulse, and a history.

In fact, I love galleries so much that I once spent a weekend in New York, trekking from the Moma to countless other museums and exhibits with full blown pneumonia, rather than miss out on any chance of seeing something cool.

This trip actually set the foundation for a full blown love affair with sculpture. It was Rodin, or rather, his depiction of an old woman that really captivated me. I remember walking into the gallery, the light had a yellow lightbulb tinge, and lined up ahead of me, along a wall, was a series of small bronze sculptures. It was like coming home. Looking at the old woman, I saw wisdom, personality, age. There was something else about that moment that struck me; there was no description card to go with the piece–just the title. This was a revelation! A deeply satisfying moment.

When I was at art school, I used to get into so many arguments about assigning meaning to a work of art. I believe that displaying the artist’s point of view, can at times, take away a poignant, touching, interpretation, or ‘coup de coeur’, that one might otherwise find for themselves when first being introduced to a piece. It also spoon feeds meaning, rather than forcing a person’s opinion to break down barriers to internal reflection.

The nature of my work is founded in making moody human figures out of clay. I often get asked what it means and I usually hold back from answering this question for as long as possible. Partly, because I struggle with this side of the practice; I find it a bit naked when I do so– soul baring, exhibitionist. Partly, I hold back because everyone I speak to sees something different, something which bares part of their own soul, and more often than not leads to a candid conversation about our respective views. These conversations reveal the depths of our respective histories, which have moulded our interpretive eye. I still find it incredible how a facial expression can be read differently by different viewers; one may read it as sad, another angry, and another introspective. What’s fun is finding out why a person sees a piece this way.

So I decided to create an exhibition where gallery visitors could assign their own meaning to art pieces. In April 2016, I am displaying my work in residence at Unit10 in Bristol, UK, where I will be opening the door to discussion. I am creating a sculpture space where there will be cards to read about each of the pieces on display, but they will be shut. Anyone coming in will be able to choose if they want to read someone else’s meaning, or make up their own and create a new card. The idea here is to allow everyone to create their own interpretation, and reflect on the diversity of distinct, but equally valid, meanings.

 Exhibition access times:
Wednesday 20th April to Sunday 1st May: 11AM – 6PM


Julia Niemczynowska is a Montreal-born, Bristol-based artist, who works primarily with clay. You can find more information on Julia’s art on her website and facebook page.

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