Photo by Shaoyu Zhang 

More Than a Label


By Ciaran Short


When I walk into a gallery, museum, or any other traditional white box that encourages quiet, contemplative looking, my skin crawls with anxiety and discomfort. I’ve never taken an art history course, I certainly don’t have an MFA, and if you asked me to draw a picture, I'd likely use the classic (but often frowned-upon) stick figure method. Despite my overwhelming disdain for the “fine” art world, I somehow stumbled into working in the arts and, thus, find myself in these spaces often. As I awkwardly move through either an entirely empty cave or a narrow shoe box packed to the gills on the night of an opening reception, my biggest struggle always stems from one question: how long do I look?

In theory, an exhibition should be the one place you can go to assure no one will be looking at you, considering all eyes should be on the art. However, in reality, most people are sizing each other up and the biggest flex is the “deep looker.” You know, the type that scratches their chin, cocks their head from one side to the other, squints, crouches, stands on their tippy toes, all while quietly grunting and muttering to themselves. For them, being a voyeur is a performance and, at any moment, they're ready to spew nonsensical interpretations and weave narratives about a single color or brushstroke with unmatched confidence to any willing pair of ears. I just see what I see and move on. If I have questions or greater interest, I can turn to my favorite part of any piece, what I consider to be the great contextualizer: the art label.

Art labels are often overlooked or even ignored altogether. Rather than hiding the label, the group exhibition labels? labels! tbd at :iidrr Gallery (162 Allen Street, New York, NY, 10002) puts the function and form of a label front and center, subverting any semblance of genre by featuring a collection of eclectic art labels as the artwork itself.

Photo by Shaoyu Zhang

The label is simultaneously utilitarian and hierarchical. The label gives the novice viewer an access point to learn more about who created the artwork, when they made it, and the context surrounding it. Yet the label also gives art value on an arbitrary scale of recognition. Without context, any artwork could be regarded as trash—if you walk around in New York City on an evening before a large trash collection, you’ll see just as many gems as in any gallery in the Lower East Side or Chelsea. The only difference between a sidewalk treasure and a white-wall masterpiece is lighting, location, and a label. Considering the power of such a small textual excerpt, perhaps the confines of a label imbue art with value.

Every label exhibited in the show is for a perpetually in-progress work, a state achingly familiar for most artists. In labels? labels! tbd, the artworks-as-labels convey a feeling of wistful longing for finished pieces that could have been. Julia Margaret Lu exhibits graphic promotional material for an unrealized solo exhibition titled I’m Not in Love with You, Julia conceived to be exhibited at her grandfather’s former Upper East Side laundromat that was sitting empty for the first time in 45 years—but the space was taken over before the exhibit could take place. Eden Chinn displays Love Story #1, a frame that suspends nothing but a description for a photo series meant to explore alternate paths that could have been taken in a romantic relationship. Xinyi Li’s digital print Unformed Praxis is a seemingly crumpled, sculptural label, warping the form of the label itself. The exhibition’s subject matter underscores the imaginary and ritualistic elements of both art making and consumption. While there is certainly a satirical feeling permeating the exhibition, there is no distinction between a label and a traditional artwork. This collapse of expectation relieves the pressure from the viewer to “get it” because there’s nothing to understand beyond the label itself. Everything that you need to see is right in front of you.

Walking through :iidrr’s labels? labels! tbd group exhibition, I felt unburdened from the routine motions of aimless staring and empty posturing. The warmth and playfulness of the exhibition strips the gallery viewing experience of its typical sterility, giving me a greater sense of belonging. Through this anxiety-free “art looking,” I didn’t grasp at straws for meaning—I just looked, and that was enough. 

labels? labels! tbd is on view at :iidrr Gallery (162 Allen Street, New York, NY, 10002) from February 29 - March 10, 2024.

Exhibiting artists include: Eden Chinn, Hyoju Chen, Huiqi He, Jeong Hur, Petros Lales, Xinyi Li, Yshao Lin, Julia Margaret Lu, Coraline (Jingyan) Weng, Ke Ding & Yu Zheng, and zzyw. The exhibition is curated by Tong Wu, shuang cai, and Shuwan.

Photo by Shaoyu Zhang