The Plinth in the Age of Digital Reproduction

‘The Plinth in the Age of Digital Reproduction’  Keynote address at Localities conference at Northumbria University, UK (2003)

… that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art.

Walter Benjamin ‘The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction’, in Illuminations (trans. H. Zohn) London: Fontana, 1973 (orig. 1936), p. 223

to lift clay into the heavens is against nature

Plotinus The Enneads (trans. Stephen McKenna) New York: Pantheon, 1969 (orig. 270), p. 86

For those concerned with putting objects into public view, the plinth is a familiar device. Its clean flat surface creates a separate neutral space on which we can gaze upon the object from all angles and appreciate it in its own right as a thing of beauty. The plinth makes art.

So it was. Today, a new device has come along and stolen the privileged role of the plinth. It is the screen that viewers look to now—a mirror world where the world appears as spectacle. The plinth by contrast now looks like a lump of MDF, taking up space and harbouring clutter.

So where today does the object go to find recognition as a thing-in-itself? Does the screen offer a way of realising the beauty of objects as receptacles of the here and now? These are questions for this paper.

I will present two examples of curatorial practice that have found a place for the object in the screen world. They both challenge the simple tale of technological progress, which sees the screen as a successor to the plinth. Both examples converge on the new development in Melbourne known as Federation Square.

In his classic essay, Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Walter Benjamin developed an opposition between the priestly aura of the cult object and the mass enjoyment of cinema. While evoking the poetic charge of the singular object, Benjamin embraced the increased engagement of the senses in modern life. By contrast with a contemplative art form such as painting, which absorbs the viewer in internal reveries, cinema mechanically directs attention on particular paths.

In the twentieth century, the aura of the cult object was to a degree sustained in art galleries. The white cube provided a relief from the cascade of images flooding the world outside. Walls and plinths secured our gaze.

But the barbarians are at the gates. As we become more used to screens, with their changing views from afar, the object becomes increasingly dumb by contrast. Nothing seems to happen on the plinth. It’s dead space. Our inherited ability to gain rich pleasure from appreciating the complexity of craftsmanship is being superseded by more speculative ways of seeing.

And now new architectural practices are introducing the cinematic process into the art gallery itself. As a case study, I wish to present a newly opened development in the hub of Melbourne known as Federation Square.

At first glance, this new design seems to signal the demise of craft as a source of aesthetic experience in the art gallery. Cinema flattens the world onto the screen in order to jump through space and time.

Progress is often imagined as the increasing pace of this transformation, though with a caveat. In Spielberg’s film Minority Report the hero investigator operates a device that enables him to physically manipulate the screen world through a dizzying process of hand-sorting. The moving image has become so pervasive that even cereal packets sport animations. But as with most futuristic plots, the film contains a kernel of the real that defies the distracted world outside. The hero visits his ex-wife’s rural retreat, filled with old-fashioned darkroom photographs. The still world provides an emotional anchor for subsequent engagement with the dizzying world of screens beyond. We journey through the mirror in the hope we can recover a lost object from the real world.

A number of design ethics converge on Federation Square. I will follow two: the National Gallery of Victoria and the Australian Centre for the Moving Image. Like Spielberg’s film, Federation Square beckons a web-like visuality of interconnected images, but leads eventually to a rediscovery of the thing-in-itself. Along the way, we find that conventional modes of presenting craft are radically challenged.

Federation Square

Federation Square opened in late 2002 as a series of buildings opposite Melbourne’s central railway station. It contains the Australian wing of the National Gallery of Victoria, the newly forged art institution titled the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, the major ethnic broadcasting service and many bars, cafes and restaurants.

Federation Square is based on the designs of two young architects, Peter Davidson and Don Bates, known collectively as Lab Architects. In this their first commission, Lab have departed radically from the conventional modernist white cube. Galleries are designed with multiple visual planes. On entry, visitors are granted views not only of the work in their immediate space, but also of art from neighbouring rooms exposed through niches and orthogonal walls. Screens at the entry of galleries provide dissolving menus of art currently on display. On entry into one space I counted up to thirteen different visual planes. This is not a conventional gallery experience. What is going on?

My reflection on the architect’s intentions was gleaned from an interview with Peter Davidson. According to Davidson, NGV: Australia is about providing visitors with an experience of how artists see the world. In his words, their design was about ‘giving air to visuality’ and providing visitors an opportunity to ‘get inside the look’ of the artist. The parallel with film-making seems relevant, as Davidson explains:

‘Just as the cinema profoundly affected the way that we dream and imagine, I think that creating space as an architect that can contribute to the same thing is also what our responsibility is.’

In this scheme, space is not a neutral container for art, it is rather the structure that gives it meaning.

While seeming to offer exciting possibilities for viewing works of art, there is one disturbing feature of Federation Square for those who work in the crafts—their rarity. Apart from one or two works stored in niches, NGV: Australia shows none of its rich collection of decorative arts. According to management, this is a purely logistical issue. The money ran out before specially designed cabinets could be constructed. While this is no doubt a contributing factor, it does speak for a lower priority assigned to objects. I would argue further, though, that Federation Square is philosophically antipathetic to craft.

The gallery design reflects a license to manipulate space that is partly a product of the digital age. Screen technologies have given a new mobility to the visual plane; images are readily captured, processed and transmitted. This is particularly the case with contemporary architecture, where CAD technology makes it possible to design with vectors that arrange space dynamically.

As a product of this facility, Federation Square has an almost kaleidoscopic complexity. This is not a space conducive to what Robert Hughes claims as the ritual of art devotion—the ‘long look’. Instead, it is a space for the restless contemporary eye, seeking constantly changing views and connections.

Conventional plinths would be out of place in this kaleidoscope. Their presence would rupture the dynamic visual flow of the space. The plinth’s invitation to view the object ‘in the round’ would create a kind of whirlpool in the visitation experience, disrupting the designed trajectories. It would be the awkward crease in the seamless ‘fly-through’ constructed for gallery visitors.

When I put these thoughts to Peter Davidson, he claimed that there is nothing antithetical to objects in Lab’s design: it was a curatorial issue, rather than an architectural feature. He described plans for new cabinets that would be more easily altered and defended the bifocal structure of the existing niches.

Indeed, I hope that craft is a challenge that NGV: Australia eventually confronts. Lab Architects appear not to be fundamentalist in their commitment to visuality. But at this stage, we must deal with the evidence before our eyes.

And here, if we look long enough, we do find a place where the journey comes to a dead end and the object finally reappears, albeit without the plinth.

One of the works to be displayed in the initial hang was a sculpture by a visual artist Ricky Swallow. Swallow’s surreal mechanical assemblages are heralded as much for their craftsmanship as their imagination. This head of Darth Vader is menacing in its reference, but undercut by its exaggerated construction. To orchestrate this piece, Lab architects built a black room in the middle of the gallery—a kind of blind spot in the kaleidoscope. For a reason unbeknownst to the architects, the artist objected to this space and the black box was left to other artists’ works.

While not used as intended, the black box suggests that a kaleidoscope is not sufficient to itself. At some point, there needs to be an intensive experience that grounds the trajectory back in the physical being of the visitor. Here, perhaps, is where craft might creep back into the gallery as cinema.

Susan Cohn: Black Intentions

The idea of the black box was eventually realised in a profile of the Melbourne jeweller Susan Cohn. Cohn has made a mark not just for her ability to translate urban sociology into ornament, but also her innovation in exhibition designs, eschewing readymade options in favour of bespoke display solutions. Plinths are rarities in Cohn shows. Her Black Intentions explored the netherworld of jewellery as a binding device that embodies the culture of nocturnal Melbourne. To exhibit this work inside NGV: Australia, Cohn recreated her own black box. Walls were painted black and the works were isolated by theatrical lighting. Rather than plinths, Cohn placed her objects on a series of cylinders, reflecting a modernist discipline for function. Visitors engaged with a subtle play on bodily encirclement, including spare tires, bondage and rings that bore the trace of their wearer. Any sentimentality was rigorously avoided using an industrial aesthetic that evoked the engine rooms of modern buildings.

So what are we to make of this? The destiny of craft in the screen age appears to be as the grand exception. Robbed of its plinth, the object has sought refuge elsewhere. The white cube has become the black box.

Freed from the institutionalised plinth, Cohn developed a materialist form of display, with metal on metal, clay on clay, glass on glass and fibre on fibre. Here craft exists in the digital netherworld as its material shadow. It can be seen to feed on the hunger created by a world increasingly removed from the here and now.

So here is the first alternative for craft beyond the plinth. The object may survive within an installation that screens off competing visual stimuli. In doing so, craft provides a kernel of the real that sustains the cinematic experience outside.

Australian Centre for the Moving Image

Meanwhile, in the actual netherworld of Federation Square, a very different place for the object has been found, this time in a more direct partnership with the digital. The guiding artistic mission of the Australian Centre for the Moving Image comes largely out of Sydney, from a group of ‘poetic modernists’ engaged with replacing institutional display structures and releasing opportunities for reflection.

The Museum of Sydney team included Ross Gibson, ACMI’s founding creative director, Peter Emmett, previously director of the Crafts Council of New South Wales, and designer Gary Warner. The architect was Richard Johnson (Denton Corker Marshall).

The Museum of Sydney was built on the original site of government house. It had no collection, and was dependent on the archaeology of its own premises for display. Artists and designers were recruited to participate in presenting the objects in a way that gave a sense of their aura. For designer Peter Emmett, the abiding mission of the museum was to give a sense of the history of uses for objects.

For Peter Emmett, exhibition display was a matter of ‘taking the guts out’ of the museum. Rather than the standard ziggurat, objects were suspended in mid air and screens were embedded in walls. Removing boxes made the space for the physicality of the object to come forward. The result was a kind of digital elementalism, where the fleeting mystery of moving image returned an enduring aura to the object.

Like NGV: Australia, the museum had its own kernel experience. Ross Gibson and Gary Warner worked on a series of story-tellings that evoked the life experience of ordinary people of the time. These stories were presented in a room called the Bond Store, using a method called Pepper’s Ghost, where the image is projected from the screen onto glass, giving the impression of a floating figure. Theatrical lighting highlighted props from the colonial era, such as barrels and heavy iron chains hanging from the ceiling. The screen here returned to its elemental role, which in the words of Gary Warner is ‘a light flickering in the hearth’.

This methodology involved releasing both image and object from their respective boxes—the plinth and the screen. Image and object could now come into contact without one transcending the other. The objects anchored the ethereality of the image and the image amplified the tactile experience of the objects.

Like many experiments with digital media in the 1990s, the Museum of Sydney has itself reverted back to a more conventional museum. But its spirit has re-surfaced in Federation Square.

Lynette Wallworth: Hold Vessel

This poetic modernism is reborn in the Screen Gallery, located in the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, in the basement of Federation Square. The business here is to take the moving image out of the cinema and project it onto gallery walls. The result engages the viewer’s body in the process of display, as visitors walk through the gallery to take films into their stride.

The unique aesthetic experience of this space was evident in the first exhibition, Deep Space, curated by current director Victoria Lynn. One work in particular stood out. Visitors to Hold Vessel #1 by Lynette Wallworth, enter a darkened room with video projected down from the ceiling to floor. Cradling a glass bowl, visitors can catch the moving image by placing their object under its rays. The experience is quite mesmerising. The video of fantastic sea life appears to be swimming inside the bowl. What’s critical in this illusion is the responsibility of holding the bowl. If the bowl was on a plinth, the effect would be severely reduced. Cradling the bowl brings into play an implicit haptic knowledge about holding liquids in vessels. It seems the image itself is a fluid that requires containment.

In its search for life outside the plinth, Lynette Wallworth’s work shows an alternative place for the object—on the body of the viewer.

Naturally, there are immediate problems with such a method. The bowls used were quite generic with little sign of craft. But this can develop. What’s important is that Wallworth and these designers have initiated a relationship between the dominant medium of our time and the art form it appeared to replace.


Federation Square provides a curious twist in the tale of aura in the modern world. Above ground, architects have turned a gallery into a cinema, while below ground the cinema has been transformed into a gallery. It would seem that in this process the moving image is liberated from its role as mirror to the world. Instead, we see potential for film to become an accessory to reality, its flickering shadow, an ornament to the real. The challenge now is similar to one faced by Peter Pan—how to stitch the shadow back onto material form.

For those reluctant to deprive gallery visitors of contact with objects, there do seem to be ways forward. Beyond the homogenising context of the white cube, craft is freer to embrace its own materiality. This physical encounter provides a dialectical counterpoint to cinema and thus tempers its more escapist tendencies. Alternatively, craft can engage directly with the moving image, realising its expression in the physical presence of the viewer. The alchemical challenge of combining screen and object provides opportunity for future creative endeavour. Aura and mechanical production may not prove to be mutually exclusive.

Paper delivered at conference Locate and Classify: Curating the Crafts at Northumbria University 26-27 September 2003.