The global art world was responding to the COVID-19

The global art world was responding to the COVID-19


The conditions of isolation in the first few months of the Covid-19 pandemic have been linked to a surge of creativity, both for practicing artists and individuals with little previous engagement with the arts. This article traces some early artistic responses to Covid-19, and offers preliminary insights into recurring themes suggested by these creative engagements, including the affective experience of isolation, the symbolic and material meanings of home, and the importance of connection with digital technologies. Whilst the mask emerges as a key symbol of the crisis, artists are also preoccupied with visualising the virus itself, and tackling social issues such as the upsurge of racism and domestic abuse. These artistic expressions play a central role in making sense of what has been termed ‘the new normal’ of social distancing, in navigating waves of information about deaths and infections worldwide, and, perhaps most importantly, in imagining the future.

The UK arts sector has been quick to respond to the Covid-19 crisis. From individual artists, performers and makers to independent galleries, museums and other state-funded institutions, numerous initiatives such as bursaries and virtual tours have emerged (Arts Council England has compiled a list of available support, for example) (Smith, 2020)[i]. Artists such as Lawrence Abu Hamdan, one of the 2019 Turner Prize winners, have shifted to online exhibitions;[ii] and new podcasts debating the role of creativity in the current climate are being released every day.[iii] As of 6th May 2020, Instagram recorded 16,000 uses of the hashtag #artinisolation, while Google offers nearly 83,500 search results. Despite these efforts, the pandemic will affect many artists negatively unless the sector gets additional governmental support.

An important theme in many artistic outputs is the experience of isolation and loneliness. The series ‘Anxious Red Drawings’ by American artist Rashid Johnson for instance expresses the emotional impact of isolation through what Oliver Basciano describes as ‘pissed-off washes of deep red paint’.[v] ‘Europe-Quarantine’, a drawing by the New York-based artist Jackie Ferrentino, features a girl looking out of a stark window, loosened of all context, expressing a sense of unreality. Ferrentino explains: ‘Disconnected from friends, family and the outside world, I feel like I’m nowhere even when I’m right here in my apartment, looking out my window’.[vi] With over half of the population on the planet living under lockdown conditions for weeks, isolation and its effects have been both a highly personal and widely shared experience.

Within the context of lockdown, artists whose practices mainly evolve in public spaces have found that the home offers opportunities for reflection. Gareth Fuller, a map artist who found himself confined in an apartment in Beijing early in the Covid-19 outbreak, drew daily maps of his living quarters as a way to express the frustrations of household internment. Street artist Banksy has created a range of new works – including locked-down rats wreaking havoc in a bathroom – which tackle ideas of contamination, confinement, and domesticity. At the same time, web-based platforms have become central in maintaining social relations. In ‘Hostage’, Sara Gironi Carnevale, an artist from Naples, captures the contrast between the isolation of a container-like indoors space and the openness of online connectivity represented by a computer shining like a beacon of hope. Mumbai-based illustrator Tara Anand started to draw friends and family members each time she connected with them online. She explains: “This is an attempt to record what will be my only point of contact with people outside of my house for a while, and to see how our interactions evolve and adapt to the situation.

These works both represent and actively shape shared experiences of novel inter-relational spaces found across countries and lifestyles. The home has become a space of containment, constraining life to fit a smaller scale, but also encouraging creativity in order to foster new ways of coping with lockdown restrictions.

A fascination with the virus itself is a recurring feature of contemporary art. British artist Luke Jerram’s beautiful glass sculpture depicting the Covid-19 virus as one million times larger than it actually is, reaching a diameter of 23cm (Image 2), was created in tribute to the global scientific and medical effort to combat the pandemic. It can also be seen as an acknowledgment of the beauty of the virus itself, despite the havoc it wreaks. The work of Argentinian artist Tomás Saraceno Particular Matter(s) Jam Session renders imaginable the movement of the virus through the use of a light beam as it shows millions of small particles floating in the air. He says: ‘We hope we can become conscious about our actions, about how the air it moves today, and how much our movement can influence [that]’[viii]. After all, the urge to visualise the internal world is a very human trait: object play, spatialisation and the creative arts are often used in a therapeutic context. The artist Louise Bourgeois wrote: ‘I try to translate my problem into stone’[ix], while psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas saw the ‘aesthetic moment’ as something that could explicate and transform the self [x]. In this case, artistic representations of the coronavirus could be understood as a way to both concretise and to defuse the fear that it evokes.

Facemasks are another recurring symbol in emerging artwork, evoking the new boundaries between people. In many countries murals and posters depicting facemasks have been used to promote behavioural change and encourage people to stay home. For example, in Vietnam, artists such as Luu Yen The and Le Duc Hiep have designed propaganda-style posters to help enforce new national rules. In Wuhan, the artist Duyi Han created a piece in a church, inspired by traditional frescos, which depicts medical workers wearing suits, masks and gloves, instead of saints and biblical figures.[xi] In a similar vein, Amsterdam-based street artist Fake has stencilled a nurse wearing a Superman-imprinted mask, ‘an ode to healthcare workers around the world’, expressing the gratitude and renewed admiration felt by many for those at the frontline of the crisis (Image 3).[xii]

Masks are a central motif of the exhibition ‘Covid Uncovered’. Having had to cancel a series of planned life drawing sessions, Italian artist Emiliano Ponzi, together with illustrator Spazio Fuori Luogo, a Milan creative cultural centre, and OPEN, a young independent online magazine, decided to move the sessions online. They asked life-drawing models to wear masks, and called on a group of Italian artists to interpret classic life drawing at the time of coronavirus. ‘Art has always been […] a way to reflect upon historic events and exorcise the troubles of life’, writes Ponzi. This work helps us consider the lockdown not just in its subject matter, but also through the emerging conditions of artistic production.

Apart from themes of home, isolation, boundaries and masks, artists have been preoccupied with key socio-political issues that relate to new lived realities around the world. Drawing attention to the destructive nature of the pandemic but also the fragility of social, political and economic systems, Hula (the creative name of Sean Yoro) depicts the coronavirus cell on the end of a wrecking ball at a demolition site. Highjack Art in Los Angeles sign a piece that shows two soldiers trying to ward off the virus armed with a feather duster, hand sanitizer, a vacuum cleaner and a bagful of toilet paper, hinting at both hoarding behaviours and shortages of basic items in the fight against Covid-19.[xiii] This work is in dialogue with ongoing references in the media and governmental discourse to the pandemic as a ‘war’ or ‘battle’, in which ‘heroism’ appears to compensate for the lack of protective equipment or pay. Artistic representations draw attention to the urge to valorise these roles, hinting at the implicit tensions currently playing out across the global healthcare labour market.

Artists have also highlighted the rise of racism and social inequalities during the Covid-19 crisis. The Italian street artist Laika depicted Sonia, the owner of the Hang Zhou restaurant in the Esquilino district, best known as the Chinatown of Rome, with a speech bubble reading ‘There’s an epidemic of ignorance going around… we must protect ourselves!’, in order to raise awareness about increased xenophobia. As the pandemic unfolded, Chinese artist Matsuyama Miyabi started a series entitled ‘Wandering Ghost’ in response to the extreme nationalism and discrimination that she witnessed. In this work she encapsulates the feeling of being a ‘metaphysically displaced wanderer’[xiv]. Jon Stitch’s illustration ‘The Stockpile Virus’ depicts a person carrying a large pack of toilet rolls passing by a homeless tent encampment, potentially for migrants – contrasting lived realities of the pandemic. From our project ‘ART/DATA/HEALTH: data as creative material for health and wellbeing’ (AH/S004564/1 2019-2021)[xv], the bioartist Anna Dumitriu explores the impact of self-isolation and quarantine on women facing domestic abuse, and the paradoxical meaning of home as shelter. This commission is particularly important in the current context where numbers of domestic violence cases have been rising globally, while under-resourced civil society organisations struggle to remain accessible to those who need them most.[xvi] [xvii]

Finally, it is vital to highlight hope as a crucial recurring theme in artistic expressions during the pandemic – for example, David Hockney’s iPad drawing of daffodils in a field, ‘Do remember they can’t cancel the spring’. Fun and creativity have also been endorsed as ways to cope with the uncertainty of the times, and have been democratised through numerous video workshops. In that spirit, the viral success of the Getty Museum (which invited followers to ‘recreate artworks using three things lying around their houses’) encapsulates how global communities are collectively using art to cope with an exceptional and highly distressing situation.

To conclude, artistic activity during the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic offers a snapshot of some of the central issues arising from the crisis, including the personal experience of isolation brought about by lockdowns and the renewed importance of the home and virtual spaces; emerging symbols such as the shape of the virus or the surgical mask; the sense of destruction and the eerie war-like feeling; the rise of xenophobia; and a focus on hope and fun as a response to darkness and despair. Beyond representation, the arts have played a central role in navigating the crisis, and in conceptualising how individuals and societies will re-emerge from the pandemic. Nick Ewbank, writing about the crisis for Arts Professional, suggests that ‘everyday creativity [must be] at the heart of a resilient, sustainable, caring society that supports, protects and nurtures the health and wellbeing of all its citizens’.[xix] As the pandemic unfolds further or eases down, the arts sector’s emphasis on collectivity and adaptation will continue to form a central part of the response – even and especially in isolation

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