You Can Look, But Don’t Touch

Dr Victoria Powell
8 min readNov 16, 2023

The ‘thingness’ of art, and finding meaning in materiality

Sarah Lucas, Chicken Knickers (1997).

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I suppose I shouldn’t really admit this, but sometimes I find looking at art in big galleries not terribly enjoyable. There’s something formulaic about the presentation of art in most of these traditional museum settings that can send me straight into a zombie-like daze: it’s the overwhelming number of artworks to look at in room after room of white walls and high ceilings, and the blurb on the walls that you know you should read but as soon as you try to a yawn starts to come and your eyes glaze over. Engaging art can get lost in the endlessness of it all.

I’ve been thinking this week about some of the exhibitions I’ve seen recently. Which artworks have stopped me in my tracks, and why? Of course what has impact or resonance or meaning is personal to each of us based on our own individual histories, experiences, and ways of looking at the world.

But I want to reflect a bit on how important the setting is to our understanding and experience of artworks. It’s nothing new to say this, but it’s worth repeating anyway: how we perceive and respond to an artwork depends on the context in which we view it. The way art is curated affects how we feel about it. The atmosphere of the space in which we encounter the art, the levels of light, how much room it is given, what’s put directly next to it, all these factors can make an artwork seem really powerful. Or it can reduce our capacity to see the richness of meaning that might emerge if it was experienced in another context.

A case in point. Last week I went to see the Sarah Lucas retrospective at Tate Britain in London. Lucas made her name back in the 1990s when she was part of the group of artists known as the YBAs (Young British Artists). Like a lot of artists who came from this scene including Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin, Lucas works across a variety of media, including sculpture, installation and…

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Dr Victoria Powell

I write about art, history, politics & culture, without the confusing art speak. Crazy about dogs. Victorian historian. 19th-century gentleman in a former life.