A perspective on new possibilities for viewing art.
Have you ever heard that charming saying; “take me to a gallery and kiss me between the paintings”? That is the dream for us art lovers. But what if now your partner, friend or Tinder date can’t kiss you between a Michelangelo and a Raphael, an Andy Warhol and a Basquiat, or a van Gogh and another van Gogh? What if you can’t hold hands as you observe ancient Chinese calligraphy because you have to keep a two metre distance or because your hands are uncomfortably sticky after using sanitiser? What if, on a more extreme note, you can’t visit a gallery at all because its doors are closed for the foreseeable?
However, several cultural institutions in European cities which were hard hit by the pandemic have in fact cautiously reopened already. Among these are the National Gallery, Tate, and Royal Academy in London, the Louvre in Paris, the Leopold Museum in Vienna and Galleria Borghese in Rome. In Scotland we have the National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh and the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow. Some now operate under shorter opening hours with fewer staff and a reduced number of visitors, while others have one-way routes through the buildings, mandatory mask wearing and regular sanitisation points. Some additionally require a pre-booked and timed ticket.
Having worked at the second Riga International Biennial of Contemporary Art (RIBOCA) in Latvia from July until September, this seems a bit surreal. Curated by Rebecca Lamarche-Vadel and described as “a pre-Covid wonderland” by Artforum, the Biennial was intended to be open for 5 months. This had to be reimagined and transformed into a 3 week exhibition and film set, due to Covid-19, its unofficial co-curator. It invited visitors to listen to novel voices which meant to teach us alternative ways of living and being with the world as much as in the world. This concept was proposed before the pandemic, though is prophetically very fitting under our current circumstances. Some works could not be transported and were presented as “ghost works”, and some performances could not take place. To present these alternative works, some adjustments were therefore required from both staff and visitors.
During the past few months, Latvia has had comparatively fewer cases than the rest of Europe. The only visitor requirement at the Biennial, as well as at any other exhibition taking place there, has been distancing and handwashing, both of which are essential in this new epoch. The good news is that despite all the unpredictability and uncertainty, our desire to experience art is there with us; and as I have fortunately observed, we don’t appear to be losing it on the way.
Of course, some art world plans can no longer go ahead. Among these include the opening of the world’s largest museum, dedicated to Picasso and his second wife Jacqueline Roque, V&A East Museum curated by The Victoria and Albert Museum and the Smithsonian Institution. Other casualties are a number of art fairs, such as Art Basel in Hong Kong and Art Basel in Basel, Switzerland which were to take place this year.
Sabine Haag, director of the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, stated: “Visiting museums not only digitally but also in person will solve a lot of problems that people might suffer from at the moment. It helps you get out of isolation, it teaches you, it inspires you, it gives you joy, and brings you together with other people in a safe way.” I believe that to be true. Art is inseparable from life and we turn to it either when we need an escape from reality or when we need to be reminded of the reality we inhabit, like a blossoming experience – as the title for RIBOCA, and suddenly it all blossoms, suggested.
Will our overall experience of a gallery or museum be affected by such changes? When considering the impact of social distancing and reduced capacity, I think it’s easier to keep a two metre distance from one another than to completely distance ourselves from art. Essentially, as Sabine Haag asserted, visiting a gallery will still be a collective experience, a safe collective experience, with safety measures regulated by staff and followed by visitors. It will be an experience we might have been lacking these past few months and can now return to, even if it’s for a maximum of two hours rather than six (half of which is spent taking photos and posting them on Instagram).
This new world calls both gallery staff and visitors to be not only brave, but also flexible and patient; to adjust to the new rules introduced in the world and, specifically in this context, the art world. We probably won’t be able to kiss between the paintings for a while yet, but at least we’ll be able to see them in the flesh once more.