It has been the special genius of our century to investigate things in relation to thier context, to come to see the context as formative on the thing, and finally, to see the context as a thing itself. …First published as a series of three articles in Artforum in 1976, Brian O’Doherty discusses this turn toward context in twentieth century art. He investigates, perhaps for the first time, what highly controlled context of the modernist gallery does to the art object, what it does to the viewing subject, and, in a crucial moment for modernism, how the context devours the object, becoming it.
In the first three sections, O’Doherty describes the modern gallery space as “constructed along laws as rigorous as those for the building of a medieval church.” The basic principle behind these laws, he notes, is that “The outside world must not come in, so windows are usually sealed off. Walls are painted white. The celing becomes the source of light…The art is free, as the saying used to go, ‘to take on its own life.’” The purpose of such a setting is not unlike the purpose of religous buildings - the art works, like relious verities, are to appear “untouched by time, or beyond time and its vicissitudes.” Th e condition of appearing out of time, or beyond time, implies a claim that the work already belongs to posterity - that is, the presentness of life, which after all, unfolds itself in time.” Art exists in a kind of eternal display, and though there is lots of ‘period’ (late modern) there is no time. This eternity gives the gallery a limbolike status; one has to have dies already to be there.”
In searching for the significance of this mode of exhibition one must look to other classes of chambers that have been constructed on similar priciples. The roots of the chamber of eternal display are to be found not in the history of art so much as the history of religion, where they are in fact even more ancient than the medeival church. Egyptian tomb chambers, for example, provide an astonishingly close paralell. They too were designed to eliminate awareness of the outside world. They too were chambers where an illusion of eternal presence was to be protected from the flow of time. They too held paintings and sculptures that were regarded as magically contiguous with eternity and thus able to provide access to it or contact with it. Before the Egyptian tomb, functionally comparable spaces were the Paleolithic painted caves of the Magdalenian and Aurignacian ages in France and Spain. There, too, paintings and sculptures were found in a setting deliberately set off from the outside world and difficult to access - most of the famous cave galleries are nowhere near the entrances, and some of them require exacting climbing and spelunking to get to them.
Such ritual spaces are symbolic reestablishments of the ancient umbilicus which, in myths worldwide, once connected heaven and earth. This connection is renewed symbolically for the purpose of the tribe or, more specifically, of that caste or party in the tribe whose access tohigher metaphysical realms is made to seem available, it must be sheltered from the appearance of change and time. This specially segregated space is a kind of non-space, ultra-space, or ideal space where the surrounding matrix of space-time is symbolically annulled.