Wednesday 5 December 2012

essay | module 6

By Stefanie Tham
#6. More often than not, ambiguity—as seen in images, objects, or situations—prompt a certain lack. We tend to disregard its utility. Perhaps another way of thinking about the ambiguous are the potentials it may accommodate; to regard ambiguity not simply as something opposed to clarity, but to consider its indistinct form(s) as ways to locate a set of meanings within the work or exhibition. Explore the usefulness of ambiguity. (6 Modules)

The first time I read the module, I remembered how a friend once impassionedly exclaimed that he could not tolerate ambiguity. “It’s a waste of time and says nothing,” he said. I suppose by that he meant that because it yields no clear answers, he found it rather fruitless to even engage with ambiguity. Such a perspective towards the topic at hand is not surprising. Ambiguity eludes certainty; it is the ‘gray area’ that leads to frustration among those who prefer things to be less confusing and more conclusive. It means that the entity in question has more than one interpretation, or “a self-contradictory essence; or simultaneously being and not being a particular thing”.[1] And some people prefer to be given answers than to be stuck in the chaos of ambiguity.

But it appears to be good practice as curators to create exhibition sites that are open-ended to allow room for personal interpretations. Clementine Deliss, a curator, describes exhibitions as “ambivalent spaces” with the ability to “evoke passionate subjective responses” through its presentation.[2] Likewise, Robert Storr posits:

A good exhibition is never the last word on its subject. Instead it should be an intelligently conceived and scrupulously realised interpretation of the works selected, one which acknowledges by its organisation and installation that even the material on view—not to mention those things which might have been included but were not—may be seen from a variety of perspectives, and that this will sooner or later happen to the benefit of other possible understandings of the art in question.[3]

This support for more dynamic displays can be seen as part of the shift away from the outdated and problematic idea of a universal narrative that is taken as authoritative truth in this present postmodern culture.[4] In the zeitgeist of postmodernism, the grand narrative had gave way to plurality and opened new spaces of enquiry. As such, the idea of a museum holding normative power was conceptually challenged by the limitations of display “as the gap between material and interpretation widened during this century”.[5] Curators and audiences have grown more aware of didacticism in museums, which essentialised or imposed meanings onto its objects, and therefore can no longer be regarded as the neutral and objective space it was once perceived to be.[6] To use Iwona Blazwick’s words, “the exhibition space, be it museum or laboratory, can no longer be understood as neutral, natural, or universal but rather as thoroughly prescribed by the psychodynamics of politics, economics, geography, and subjectivity”.[7] Consequently, institutions began exploring the varied meanings in a work through new curatorial models that were often inherently self-conscious of its conceptual limits. The exhibitions of today are far more self-reflexive and ambiguous than in the past.[8]

Being ambiguous certainly has its usefulness. Ambiguity only “says nothing” if one does not accept the invitation to make sense of it. It is a space that allows different views to interact, and transforms what would otherwise be a presentation into a conversation. In an exhibition, it prompts the audience to explore, analyse and critique what is being shown, and therefore allows the show to become a “playful, episodic encounter with phenomena” that is nuanced and open to mystery.[9] Storr and Deliss’s statements reiterate this notion. They suggest that in the ambiguous space of an exhibition, new ideas and viewpoints can develop to enhance one’s understanding of the work in view. By inviting multiple interpretations, ambiguity forms a fertile ground for creativity and discussion. As such, ambiguity does not necessarily mean that something lacks clarity—perhaps one can find clarity in the process of refining their thoughts through the dialectic negotiation of ideas. And through this, the exhibition can be interrogated from new angles which could lead to insights that shed light on old narratives.

Ambiguity also sees a shift in the position of the viewer. The show is able to meet the viewer at his level and engage him in a two-way dialogue, creating an exchange where “the visitor has progressed to being at the centre of the intellectual construct that is the [exhibition]”.[10] As such, ambiguity makes room for the viewer to leave his own imprint in the exchange that occurs in between audience and object. The viewer is encouraged to grapple with the questions found in an exhibition, and by doing so is likely to form a deeper personal relationship with the work. In short, ambiguity is indeed useful because of “the potentials it may accommodate”—the potential for new ideas, and the possibly more intimate encounter the viewer could have with the object.

                   However, having the potential does not mean that it will be actualised. When does ambiguity cross the line from being useful to “a waste of time”? In the enthusiasm to explicate ambiguities, an exhibition can inadvertently end up confounding its audience instead. An exhibition can be ambiguous for ambiguity’s sake, dwelling contentedly on the fact that there can be many interpretations but fail to constructively engage and acquaint the audience with the objects on display. It is perhaps too easy to use ambiguity as an excuse for poor curating. That exhibitions run the risk of distorting reality to an extent where it is no longer relevant to its original intention also diminishes the usefulness of ambiguity.[11] Furthermore, ambiguity may not easily find its place in state museums that have an educating agenda; however “astute and insightful”, its narrative “often remains in the realm of the purely subjective and speculative”.[12] In such cases, ambiguity can end up frustrating the viewer instead of enriching his encounter with the work. In these circumstances, perhaps the claim that ambiguity prompts a certain lack does ring true.

As budding curators, we were often advised to ensure that our exhibitions were open-ended and without agenda; rather, the viewer should determine for himself his thoughts and views on the works, and curators were there to show the viewer around but refrain from telling him how he should see them. With this in view, in the process of brainstorming our exhibition, we had to keep checking ourselves to avoid pushing an agenda, however subconsciously so. But being painfully aware of needing the show to be open-ended, we often become confused about what can the curator say, if at all? Where is the curator’s voice and what are the boundaries of his authority? Does commenting on (and thus representing) the object necessarily mean it overwrites the potentiality for interpretation? There is something uncomfortable about simply displaying works of art without drawing upon a vision to undergird the exhibition.

Perhaps, then, since we should not seek to give answers, why not ask questions—to turn the space into a site for discourse, enquiry and encounter by setting the stage for meaning making. In other words, the curator has to be firm with what he is asking, and provide the cues for the audience to read and plug into the discussion. I am learning that this is when the curatorial strategies employed to negotiate the ambiguities in an exhibition is crucial, and this is also where the challenge lies. The exhibition narrative has to be crafted with great sensitivity, at once aware of itself, the works and the audience. There should be a sense of authority to why the curator chooses to display objects as such, but also ambiguity in how the audience can read them. Above all, the curator has to ensure that his audience can take delight in the ambiguous; too much ambiguity makes the show confusing, but over-instructing the audience on how to approach a work comes off as being didactic. Navigating between the two is the curator’s game.

In theory, the usefulness of ambiguity should be put to good effect in exhibitions; in practice, this requires exercising curatorial techniques and strategies to effectively invite the audience to engage in discourse. Ambiguity is a storehouse of potential. From a state of uncertainty springs forth endless possibilities and opportunities. Ambiguity does not constraint the viewer’s responses, but it is precisely the fact that it is a fluid and boundless space that makes it potentially confusing and unsatisfying. If not conveyed successfully, the audience can end up being stuck in the frustrating chaos of ambiguity, and leaving with a negative experience of a non-encounter.


Blazwick, Iwona. “Temple / White Cube / Laboratory.” In What Makes A Great Exhibition?, ed. Paula Marincola, pp. 118-133. Philadelphia: Philadelphia Exhibitions Initiative, 2006.

Deliss, Clementine. “Explore or Educate?” In Curating Subjects, ed. Paul O’Neill, pp. 86-91. London: Open Editions, 2011.

Peckham, George W. “The Existence of Ambiguity”, The Journal of Philosophy 23, no. 18 (2 September 1926): p. 477-500.

Schubert, Karsten. The Curator’s Egg. London: One-Off Press, 2000.

Storr, Robert. “Show and Tell.” In What Makes A Great Exhibition?, ed. Paula Marincola, pp. 14-31. Philadelphia: Philadelphia Exhibitions Initiative, 2006.

[1] George W. Peckham, “The Existence of Ambiguity”, The Journal of Philosophy 23, no. 18 (2 September 1926): p. 483.
[2] Clementine Deliss, “Explore or Educate?”, in Curating Subjects, ed. Paul O’Neill (London: Open Editions, 2011), p. 87.
[3] Robert Storr, “Show and Tell”, in What Makes A Great Exhibition?, ed. Paula Marincola (Philadelphia: Philadelphia Exhibitions Initiative, 2006), p. 14.
[4] Karsten Schubert, The Curator’s Egg (London: One-Off Press, 2000), p. 134.
[5] Ibid, p. 134.
[6] Ibid, p. 144.
[7] Iwona Blazwick, “Temple / White Cube / Laboratory”, in What Makes A Great Exhibition?, ed. Paula Marincola (Philadelphia: Philadelphia Exhibitions Initiative, 2006), p. 118.
[8] Schubert, pp. 144-145.
[9] Deliss, p. 87.
[10] Schubert, p. 144.
[11] Ibid, p. 144.
[12] Ibid, p. 136.

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