Tuesday, 14 October 2014




I must admit, Clare Twomey’s exhibition Piece by Piece at the Gardiner is not the kind of exhibit I usually get excited about. Personally, I find a lot of "modern" art too static. However, this piece (or pieces, really) might just change my mind.

Piece By Piece as you walk into the exhibition
Photo Credit: Meaghan Dalby
Piece by Piece is an interesting installation. When you walk in, you are immediately greeted by 2,000 porcelain figurines arranged some what haphazardly on the floor. They're all unpainted and have a white unfinished feel. It's overwhelming. At first glance it kind of looks like they were running around and froze in that spot à la Toy Story (no luck catching them yet…). There are three plinths housing the original figurines, from the Gardiners' collection, which were used to cast the moulds. They are raised up, above a comfortable eye line and are turned facing away from the visitor. Many people don't like this, but to me they are positioned purposely to shut us out. They are raised above us, living in a spot light, as the image of perfection looking down at all their carbon copies relegated to the floor. Full disclosure, it took me probably two days of staring at the exhibit to come to this conclusion. So I don't blame visitors who spend 20 minutes in here for not “getting it” or finding it somewhat inaccessible. 

Some broken pieces on display
Photo Credit: Meaghan Dalby
What is a really cool element, though, is the inclusion of the “maker.” Once a day, an artist will come in, sit at a desk positioned at the other end of the room and make more porcelain figures which are to be added to the floor. The “maker” is part of the exhibit, also has her back to the visitor, and is not allowed to interact with anyone. Again the visitor is shut out, like we're intruding on this weird, almost mad process of creating more and more “perfect” figurines. It's delightfully insane.

The "Maker's" Table
Photo Credit: Meaghan Dalby

I do like this installation. There is so much going on, you could talk about themes and meanings for days. What I like is that every person who comes in has a new take on it from how I've understood it. However, from a museological standpoint, it leaves something to be desired:

1. It's hella dark. The figurines are small, and it's very hard for visitors, especially elderly ones to see them. I know this is how the artist wanted it set up, which raises some questions about balancing the look and feel of an exhibition with accessibility for the visitors.  I'd love to hear your opinions on this below...

The "Maker's" table in the spotlight, the figures in shadows
Photo Credit: Meaghan Dalby
2. There's next to no explanation. There is one wall panel, but it’s written in a way that is hard to understand. Most visitors ask for clarification, so I suppose that having a gallery attendant is in lieu of panels… Though I don't think that was the museum's intent.

3. People don't understand why they are shut out by the “maker” and the objects on the plinths. If they don't talk to the Gallery Attendant, or stay long enough to sort it out, it can be a very uninviting exhibition.
Leita, one of the original figures on the plinths, with her back to us
Photo Credit: Meaghan Dalby
4. I wanted to walk between the figurines SO BADLY. That feeling makes me wish there was some kind of interactive element, even an opportunity to respond to the exhibit in some way. For the most part it feels like we've stumbled into a workshop behind the scenes that we weren't supposed to. But I think maybe that's the whole point (art…amirite??).

Overall, I really like this exhibit. I think there is so much to talk about, and some of the museological concerns I've outlined above can't be avoided. In fact, some of them lead to conversations - which I imaging is part of the artist's intent. 

Has anyone else seen it? What do you think? It's entirely possible that I've been staring at the installation for too long and have over-thought the whole thing. Let me know!!


  1. Meaghan, great analysis! I have not been yet but will try to zoom in on your suggestions while I am there and let you know how it went. I really like the idea of integrating an artist in the piece but without interpretation (any kind!) what is the visitor left to assume?

    1. Yes, it is tricky for the visitor to navigate. I'd be interested to hear what you think of it! That is the beauty (and challenge) of more modern art - is that the interpretation is left up to the visitor. But, if they're not prepped for that, it's not always a pleasant experience for them.

  2. Very interesting to hear your take on this exhibition, Meaghan. While I also have not yet seen this exhibition, it looks totally different from the last several temporary exhibitions at the Gardiner (not to mention the setup of the permanent collection). However, I have been very impressed with these last few exhibitions at the Gardiner, and the museum's consistent (and perhaps increasing?) willingness to challenge their existing visitors and put their exhibits on an as-yet unexplored plane for this museum. I'm looking forward to seeing this one!