Ross Coulter

Audience (2013-2016)
National Gallery of Victoria (International), Melbourne

Ross Coulter’s Audience is a work that takes a number of forms. Although I hesitate to simply describe it as ‘a work’. Perhaps a better way of thinking of it is as a project, which produces a range of different works, or bodies of work. At the National Gallery of Victoria, Audience was presented as an exhibition, an explicitly photographic exhibition. It was certainly that, with some 445 black and white photographs included. The exhibition was also programmed and marketed as part of a Festival of Photography that included exhibitions by Bill Henson, Zoë Croggon, Patrick Pound and contemporary photographic works from the National Gallery of Victoria’s (NGV’s) collection. Audience is also an artists’ book, in two volumes, with images organised into what appears to be a chronological sequence—the first volume covering 2013-2015, the second, 2015-2016. But what underpins the body of images is what I think we should think of as a series of individual performances, in which an audience is gathered in a gallery space and some photographs are taken.

Scanning the images quickly, a degree of uniformity emerges. There is not only a similarity in the general look and feel of the images—each showing a group of people who appear to be looking at some object or event within an otherwise empty gallery space—but also a certain sameness in the spaces themselves. Here we have presented to us an audience standing within the ubiquitous ‘white cube’—some pristine spaces, others a little rough around the edges. It is such a familiar frame, so much so that these images might have been taken in any moderately sized city at almost any time in the past few decades.

Each individual image appears almost as if it might fit into a sequence of photographs that document either a performance or an installation, where adjacent images might show what it is that the audience is in fact looking at. There is an overall mood of casual engagement, but the subject of the gaze is never revealed, all we see are people caught watching something. Although in many images there is also a feeling that the people in the photographs are aware that they are being photographed, that as viewers they are also being scrutinised. Again, this is a type of image we are familiar with, the image that provides the evidence that the audience was present, along with the artist and the art. Read together there is a sense that these images sit at that edge between something that is carefully staged, and the captured moment.

One of the great successes of Coulter’s photographs is that they do not appear forced and the people who appear in them appear comfortable in their surrounds. Perhaps this is not surprising given the way that the project gathered its subjects. Each image is linked to a particular gallery space, and those who appear as ‘the audience’ each have some association with the space, they may be directors, staff, represented artists, or just part of the regular crowd. In all there were some ninety-five distinct photo-shoots, across almost the same number of gallery spaces. This means that a lot of different people appear in the images, although some do appear in multiple images, either in the same gallery space, or across different galleries.

As a result of the approach taken—Coulter sought to stage a photo-shoot in as many Melbourne galleries as he could—the work also functions as a kind of sociological or historical document (although like almost any listing of galleries, there are gaps). That said, this primarily sociological documentation does not appear to be the primary objective of the project. Rather, the inspiration seems to have come from a consideration of the aesthetics of incidental images of the audience in performance and exhibition documentation. However, these incidental views of the audience do sometimes end up as a resource in historical accounts of art scenes, and in the future it is possible that Audience could be understood as much as an historical document as an aesthetic project. The fact that Coulter has carefully documented the location and people at each photo-shoot certainly facilitates this possibility.

Pausing to watch the interaction of viewers of the exhibition at the NGV it became clear that the project not only depicted an audience, but also generated very particular subject positions for engaging with the project. In a way there were two audiences looking at the images in the exhibition, those who simply saw depictions of anonymous groups or individuals in unidentified neutral gallery spaces, and those who recognised themselves or their peers and colleagues in spaces that were quite specific, the identity of the location given away by the clues of minor architectural details: a particular set of windows, the floor tiles, a fireplace or timber door frame. Here the viewer’s appreciation of the work draws on what we might think of as the field knowledge of the insider, a kind of extra-aesthetic knowledge of the network of spaces and people that make up the art scene at a particular moment.

Importantly, the project also makes it clear that while the white cube remains a ubiquitous frame for art, art audiences may well be constituted by other means. This is particularly clear in the contrast between the demand for an intimate presence in the case of the performative element of the project (that moment of intimate presence that is perhaps the true subject of these images), the diverse and floating audience for the NGV exhibition, and then the individualised audience created by the form of the artist’s book. In this latter context the sense that this project is a recording of something fleeting is most apparent. For all the solidity of the gallery spaces in which an audience might gather there remains something temporary in the arrangements. Yes, the camera captures this moment, but as it does so the page is turned, and everything slips into the past. Thus, while Audience seems to document the Melbourne scene now, each image already suggests that all this is already history. But what seems most resonant here is not a kind of false nostalgia, but something more melancholy, as if the very purpose of most art is to disappear, to leave only faint and fragile trace in the mind of the audience.

Ross Coulter, Audience, 2013–16. Details. Silver gelatin print, 20.0 x 25.0 cm. Collection of the artist. © The artist.

Ross Coulter, Audience, 2013–16. Details. Silver gelatin print, 20.0 x 25.0 cm. Collection of the artist. © The artist.