Ways of Seeing both ‘Aura and Information’

As John Berger: art and property now is nearing the end of its time at the Inigo Rooms in Somerset House East Wing, I gladly took up one of the last opportunities to visit a unique exhibition that holds a variety of material around the renowned writer, critic and artist. Developed by King’s Cultural Institute in partnership with the British Library, it was born from Berger deciding to donate his archive to the British Library in 2009. His rationale behind this is an important thread in the exhibition and creates space amongst the sixty years’ worth of papers to open up Berger’s own views on the value and place of his archives and lifework.

John Berger by Jean MohrAs you descend down a narrow staircase to some lower level of Somerset House there is indeed something of the sequestered archive of the long corridor and the five rooms that make up the exhibition. Each take on a different period and/or theme of John Berger’s life, with connecting portraits of the man by Jean Mohr. The rooms display his art, broadcasting work and correspondences together with his words printed on the walls to bind them into coherent narratives – on anything from Berger in the 1940s to his reaction to winning the Booker prize. The artefacts engage with each other to represent something of Berger’s life, but the focus is also on his ideology, with one room blacked out entirely to play his voice recordings (Room 4 – evoking Berger’s 1999 collaboration with director Simon McBurney and Artangel, an eerie replication of their sound installation in an unused Underground Station).

One particular room caught my attention as it seemed to me the nub of what makes this such a fascinating exhibition. I first came across Berger as many have through his book Ways of Seeing, a small volume that accompanied the TV series of the same name in the 1970s. In it, he demanded a change in the viewer’s understanding of art, and Room 2 of John Berger: art and property now also pulls the visitor into a similar theoretical debate. The room displays clips of the programme with production notes and various letters, but also alongside them his essay ‘Art and Property Now’, that claims that art is a peculiar mix of sacred ‘aura’ and market value – its ‘information’. Interestingly, the exhibition formulates these into a direct meditation on the value of Berger’s archive and on the exhibition itself; they can both be seen as similar to art as objects of cultural power and value, and so the visitor is asked directly (and slightly disconcertingly): ‘what blend of aura and information made you decide to come and see it?’

The participation of the visitor then becomes an important component of the exhibition, emphasised in an array of interactive opportunities – the public programme of free events, for instance, or life-drawing along with a Berger tape in Room 3. This chimes with Berger’s own ideas on the importance of audience collaboration, but also with a comment he made upon donating the archive to the British Library, noting he felt that uncovering what others thought was the most interesting part of his archive. It is the blend of display and debate that makes this exhibition so worthwhile a visit, as it builds and re-builds its own structure and focus: part Berger, part his friends, but also partly entirely personal to whoever visits – his work still centring on and challenging what we see.

John Berger: art and property now
Exhibition running from 6th September -10th November 2012