Mining the GAP

Made my first foray onto GAP, the Google Art Project thinking for sure it would be a new kind of borderland, but it ended up being more of a no man’s land.

I figured I would first “visit” a museum I knew so I picked the Freer Gallery of Art in DC.  The Whistlers looked small and unimpressive, so I thought, “well, that’s not fair, I’ll go to the Japanese galleries and look at those wonderful screens.”  A click on the arrow sent me whooshing in fits and starts round the gallery, through the wall (just like Hermione) out onto Independence Avenue, back into the gallery where I whooshed my way into the Japanese gallery where those glorious, gold-rich screens felt, well, remote.

“Not fair,” I thought, again giving the technology the benefit of the doubt.  I decided to check out a museum I have never visited, so that I could not possibly  be comparing the real experience to this ersatz visit.  So off I went to the Museo Thysen-Bornemisza in Madrid.  And that’s where the limitations of this technology really hit me: it isn’t so much that it fails to deliver an experience of artworks; it makes the whole endeavor of museums look vaguely odd and unappealing.  When you walk into a museum gallery, there is the come-hither of a particularly startling, intriguing, beautiful or puzzling work.  Works talk to each other through you.  A detail here sends you scurrying back to a detail there.  In Google Arts none of that can happen so you find yourself staring at a mausoleum of art.

Partly it is an issue of scale, partly it is a matter of remoteness– just think of the layers between your eyes and the work: there’s the computer screen on your desk, the browser window, the camera’s lens and then, finally, a wall with evenly spaced rectangular frames marching across its surface).   You have to move up close to get a sense of  the painting and fiddle with the controls to get the angle right (that part was actually kind of fun because I got to experience what it is like to be 8 feet tall looking down on a painting). Then when you get really close, the painting begins to dissolve into pixels rather than brushstrokes.  So, yes, you can move through walls and step over the security cordon, but what have you gained?

Still, maybe I am being unfair… I’ll try a sculpture gallery next time.

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