As I reached for Gallery III’s catalog, on the shelf, I noticed it was also available in braille. More than any form of art at the Summer Exhibition of the Royal Academy of Arts, this discovery profoundly changed my perception. The idea that a visual impairment wouldn’t hinder the experience of an art gallery puts the non-visual dimension of the art in perspective.
Entering the exhibition felt like scuba-diving at a crowded beach, as I suddenly exited the busy vestibule to enter and explore a calmer and more contemplative world.
It is not entirely silent, though you may think so at first. As my senses adapted to this new dimension, I started to notice the whispers of other visitors trying to understand the most peculiar pieces of art. Their breathing slowed to almost a halt, in a quasi-meditative state, and the most shaken of them had sunk to the ground, sitting, mesmerized, facing the piece that reached into their soul.
If you’re looking for snobbishness at this exhibition, you will also find it. However, as the art ranges from depressing to cheerful, dark and gloomy to bright and colorful, or dull to mind-blowing, it is really up to you to define your experience.
As diverse as it may be, the art is exactly what you would expect from an art gallery. Some masterful pieces will take over your emotions, such as Tim Hall’s Tree in the Mist, giving you a soothing sense of belonging. Watching it, I almost felt the morning dew on my cheeks. Cheung Xiangming’s slightly unnerving Shanghai Girl II, depicting a very large geisha’s face, gave me that uncomfortable feeling of someone staring me in the eyes while standing too close to me.
Some paintings, however, kept me struggling to decide whether or not they deserve to be called art. Willard Boepple’s Blackburn reminded me of Swedish furniture – which actually isn’t that bad – but I learned from the catalog that Rose Wylie’s huge and childish painting, Lorry Art, is not for sale – which probably isn’t a bad idea; it should be a crime to decorate one’s living room with it.
But perhaps the center piece at the Summer Exhibition is the feeling of awe, experienced and shared by all visitors alike. Molly Bretton, 28, the Royal Academy’s Access Officer, describes being in the gallery as a tangible, communal experience.
Each room has a different atmosphere: a gentle breeze in the architecture-dedicated Gallery VI; slightly louder chatter in Gallery II; the humidity of the air in the Large Weston Room; children, sitting on the bench in the middle of the Small Weston Room. In the Lecture Room, the silence is so intense that one can hear his own footsteps, however gentle, echoing throughout the large hall.
The art is essential to the Royal Academy of Arts’ Summer Exhibition, but the individual pieces don’t matter as much as the shared feelings of the people roaming the galleries.