Not With a Bang, But With a Dry Cough: Art in Isolation

‘Perhaps, to misquote TS Eliot, this is the way the arts world ends. Not with a bang but with a dry cough.’ - Richard Morrison

It is now Easter. While a few weeks ago there were whispers isolation could be over by the time chocolate eggs started appearing in backyards it seems more and more likely that keeping the country in lockdown will continue for many more weeks.

Just like any other sector, the art world is facing a crisis - every organisation is facing the same existential threat. Any kind of business model and many sources of funding has ceased, which makes it near impossible to plan for a recovery period when there is no certainty as to when humans will be able to join together for cultural consumption again. Major British institutes such as the London Philharmonic Orchestra and the Barbican arts centre are facing a loss of at least a million pounds a month, while many freelance artists and small artist run spaces will most likely not survive through to the other side of this.

Despite this doom and gloom some culture makers have taken up the task of getting work out into the world quicker than others. While some spaces have had to prioritise looking after large numbers of staff members and coming up with contingency plans for lost incomes others have jumped online and are doing what they can to keep the public engaged. The London Symphony Orchestra is releasing archival recordings twice a week for Thursday and Sunday evenings and Art Basel Hong Kong provided viewers with a virtual exhibition.

Screengrab of Fergus McCaffrey’s online viewing room at Art Basel Hong, March 2020. Courtesy Art Basel Hong Kong

Experienced by Susan Moore mid-March she noted many niggles with her online viewing of Art Basel Hong Kong. Moore lamented the time it took her to navigate the virtual gallery and realise that clicking into the works rendered high-resolution images for magnified viewing, indeed as isolation continues technology as an art tool will have to be refined. However, just as the appeal of online shopping before the crisis was the ability to complete tasks in one’s pyjamas, major international art institutes are now working harder than ever to provide global access with a click of a button. As Moore notes, ‘the experience was not so very different from my recent online grocery shopping - but at least at [Art Basel] Viewing Rooms you do not find yourself, as I did, 22,576th in a virtual queue.’

Embracing the need to ‘museum from home’, New York’s Museum of Modern Art has curated it’s first ever online exhibition, Virtual View: Home Movies. Launched with a curator’s live Q&A this exhibition is still available to view and provides us with much needed nostalgic comfort. Now, more than ever, perhaps is the time for a resurgence of home movies - a form of memory-making carrying greater weight than a casual isoselfie.

Screengrabs of Father & Kid NYC (c. 1940s). April 2020. MoMA VIRTUAL VIEWS.

On home soil Arts Council England has stepped up with a £160 million Emergency Response Package to support people and organisations suffering. Individual artists are finding innovative ways to get their work out there and now could be the time for more exploration of our own creativity. While comparisons are being drawn between the current pandemic and strict measures taken during wartime - we are now living in a world connected even when isolating, there is unlimited artistic content to explore and now we have the boundaries in which to prioritise this. Adopting the style of WWII propaganda posters, Vietnamese artist Le Duc Hiep took his dismay at people flouting his nation’s quarantine guidelines and is generating patriotic imagery to help the fight of the latest invisible threat. In a war, we draw. As out-dated as this view may be, times of crisis do often squeeze out creative production of valuable social commentary. It is inevitable that we are living through a time that will be discussed by artists and historians alike for decades to come.

Le Duc Hiep’s ‘To stay at home is to love your country’ 2020. Photo: The Guardian.

As the world adapts here at the Norman Rea Gallery we are also adapting with strategies moving forward to continue bringing the art goodness to campus and the wider art community in York. Just before lockdown we had voted in a new committee, now without having had an official in-person meeting we are drafting new ways to run a gallery space remotely. Our own Head of Blog, Emily has already written a post about bringing digital art into our everyday lives here, meanwhile Co-Directors Faith and Senah are sourcing feedback (please check your emails) and we are all working together to build a new plan for the NRG’s future.

Focussing on the positive in the world, Nicholas Kenyon, head of the Barbican arts centre has stated, “If there is an upside to all this, it’s seeing how the crisis has brought together so many people in the arts, and how ingenious they are being at finding ways to get through it.” The NRG committee is taking a determined spirit to not only survive through the uncertainty, but to thrive. New parameters have been set and have given us the opportunity to expand creatively beyond the physical space we hold, we will be pushing this far and beyond. Keep an eye out (or simply your notifications switched on) for more updates. There will be online exhibitions, fresh virtual content, and new posts coming through the blog as ever just to give you a taste of what's to come.

Written by Nicole Fairey

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