Visitors to the exhibition enter a large warehouse where photographs, newspaper cuttings, letters, images and films are laid out for examination, revealing the last traces of lost works by over forty artists across the twentieth century, including such figures as Marcel Duchamp, Joan Miró, Willem De Kooning, Rachel Whiteread and Tracey Emin. The challenge was to come up with a way of showcasing these artworks and telling their stories, when, in many cases, poor quality images are all we have left of them (and in two instances used in the exhibition there were none).

Glasgow-based digital design agency ISO created an immersive and dramatic setting for the project. With its warehouse proportions and concrete floor, the backdrop of the Gallery of Lost Art echoed aspects of contemporary art settings but suggested, too, something awry or mysterious through its play of light and shadow and unnatural, jarring soundscape. The setting was static but the presentation ¬– notably the regular addition of new content and the images of real people in the space – created the illusion of change and movement. One blogger noted: ‘The site is not just a database, it’s an actual experience. It’s eerie.’

The Gallery of Lost Art was launched in July 2012, and will last for one year. Twenty lost works were presented at the opening of the exhibition, with another case study added each week over the next six months. Details of the latest updates were communicated through press and social media in order to maximise reach and to engage a returning audience.

The project underlined the extent to which loss is an accepted, if little acknowledged and curiously ignored, part of art’s history. It suggested that loss was endemic to the history of art and had silently framed, even skewed, our view of the past. It urged a greater awareness of the gaps in the historical record. And it showed how loss has become a creative theme, stratagem, and even precondition of art-making in some quarters in the later twentieth century.

Ultimately, the project suggested that artworks – whether extant or missing – needed to be seen in terms of a broad ecology of ideas, influences, and connections, in which the material existence of the artworks was only one, and not necessarily crucial, element and where the artists were not main arbiters of meaning. Artworks, it showed, could remain a potent force even when no longer extant (Duchamp’s Fountain (1917), a world-famous icon of modern art that disappeared almost as soon as it was first shown to anyone, is a case in point).

With its unusual theme of art that is missing or no longer extant, the Gallery of Lost Art does not challenge the nostrum that museums exist to show people real objects in real spaces and that there is something unique and special (and worth making a special trip) about seeing artworks in the flesh that the digital realm simply cannot offer. However, the experience of seeing art in a museum is one thing and seeing it online another, and it must be acknowledged that the latter has certain distinct advantages, not least in terms of numbers and outreach. Are there visually rich and idea-led exhibitions of extant art that could only be made digitally, or would attract a bigger audience if they were? It seems to us obvious that this must be the case. Creativity, aesthetic sensitivity, scholarship, and intellectual authority can flourish in the online sphere, and it would seem that nowadays the door is wide open for museums to enter this new territory with the same conviction and passion that currently frame in-gallery exhibitions.

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