The COVID-19 crisis has represented a steep learning curve for all of us in how to go about our daily lives and the art world has not been immune.
While it is easy to feel gloomy about the axed international art fairs, the exhibitions that never opened their doors and the museum objects sitting silently in wait in the darkened halls of locked down museums, there is also a lot of pandemic-borne creativity and innovation to celebrate.
According to a recent feature in The Sunday Times (3 May 2020), the current, confined times have represented an opportunity for museums and galleries to showcase their efforts to digitise the experience of viewing their art. One such effort is the launch of robot tours of Hastings Contemporary, the fruit of a collaboration between the gallery and the Bristol Robotics Laboratory.
Originally designed to provide access to the collection for less-abled users, anyone can now take a robot tour through the galleries from the comfort of their homes and view artworks through the lens of a remote-controlled iPad on wheels. Of course, you will need to book as, not surprisingly, the gallery has been inundated with requests. Priority is being given to those who are most vulnerable and at risk due to isolation.
Another gallery seizing the opportunity to road-test new technology is Hauser & Wirth. You can enjoy a visit to ‘Beside Itself’, an exhibition in virtual reality set in Hauser & Wirth’s future Menorca branch, which opens in 2021 on the Isla del Rey. Featuring Luchita Hurtado, Louise Bourgeois and Jenny Holzer, you tour the show on a desktop, mobile, or VR headset such as Google Cardboard.
Also available online is ‘Dwelling is the Light’, an all-female art show curated by Katy Hessel, creator of the ‘Great Women Artists’ podcast. The first in a series of group and solo online exhibitions from the Timothy Taylor gallery planned for this spring, it explores the relationship between the great outdoors and inside through the works of artists including Antonia Showering, Diane Arbus and Fiona Rae.
While the explosion in online art is very much a sign of the times, it is hoped that new forms of art appreciation like video essays, virtual reality or online curator lectures will influence and enrich our relationship with art into the future.
For one thing, we are seeing the efflorescence of video art. Former video curator at MoMA, Barbara London, says pandemic life has elevated its status and made it the most essential and accessible art form. ICA curator of artists’ film and moving image, Steven Cairns, believes video art’s attraction lies in its short running time, which is cat nip for the smartphone generation. ‘Video art is great for people who are dipping in to lots of bits and pieces, once they get bored of Netflix’, Cairns elaborates.
One of the jollier projects available to enjoy is Meriem Bennani and Orian Barki’s ‘2 Lizards’ videos. The artists voice their responses to the COVID-19 crisis via two animated lizards.
Senior Director and Curator at Pace Gallery, Andrea Hickey, is hopeful the way we are viewing art online now will encourage a “slower looking” at art in an era when smartphone addiction has shortened our attention spans. Similarly optimistic, Senior Curator at Tate Modern, Catherine Wood, wonders whether the crisis will lead to a renewed focus on and appreciation of local art when international biennales have dominated the art scene’s attention for so long.
On the other hand, some fear the virtualisation of the art world is not all good news. It has been suggested that the relocation of many major galleries online might lead to a homogenisation of culture, in the same way chain stores and luxury retailers have crowded out independents in London’s Mayfair or New York’s Soho.
One online art pioneer, Postmasters Gallery owner, Magda Sawon, is sceptical about the booming online art landscape. Sawon has long championed artists who began their careers working exclusively online and use the internet as a medium for their art. She believes that galleries clamouring for online territory are motivated by marketing, not by a genuine interest in legitimising screen-based art. “The volume of ‘new’ online features is so overwhelming it borders on abusive”, Sawon says.
At the very least, The Sunday Times suggests the current crisis has highlighted the importance of the role of curators. Confined to our sitting rooms, we are reliant on curators to hone our point of view and handpick works that we can all enjoy and challenge ourselves with.