Coronavirus and art; Art Basel online viewing rooms; Julian Opie (virtually) at the Museu Colecção Berardo

Art in strange times

It’s strange to write about art in this dark moment. To write and think about the global threat of a pandemic that has suddenly put millions of lives and the health of us all at risk.

I must say that, for better or worse, one of the most fascinating charms of art is its ability to be useless. Its inoperativeness stems from its wonderful inability to subjugate to the present – to reality. Art has never stopped bullets; there is no record of them being able to prevent atrocities or injustices; and they will be powerless in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. But, for that same reason, art has always been the place of resistance. It has been so since cave times: it is sunk, but attentive; far from the world, on the surface, but full of the energy that moves it. And this movement has been repeated so many times. The artists, who are sheltered in their studios, between wars, so or even more concerned with colours and shapes, or all those who represent and collaborate in the struggles against the violence enforced by societies, regimes, discrimination.

The “uselessness” of art is an expression of its freedom. Only in this way can it turn factual reality upside down, question it, and fantasize about other possibilities. Art cannot faithfully represent a dominant force, whatever its nature and orientation. If it does, it will kneel before the present – which is too brief. Art has always been – and I hope will continue to be – a marginal place shaped by those who walk side by side with their time, but who are incapable of submitting themselves to it, or finding an answer to its worries.

The openings have been cancelled, the galleries and museums are closed, face-to-face sales are suspended. But art is immune to all this. Artists are driven by a vital need, which will ensure the existence of new works as long as there is a world. Institutions, curators, critics, etc. have the strenuous mission of continuing to think and project a near, indefinite and different future. The world, which for decades had been running at breakneck speed, has stopped. And we will not be able to ignore the marks of that massive braking motion, because the consequences for art, economy and environment will reveal themselves in the coming years.


#stayathome: Art Basel “online viewing rooms”

For several years, online commerce and services have grown in all sectors. Art was one of the few that showed some resistance. Its presence on digital platforms was weak. It almost always had the objective of spreading and promoting the institutions, their programming or the artists. It seemed incapable of structurally shaking the artistic environment. However, within a few days, the coronavirus outbreak caused this to change radically. Galleries and museums closed, fairs and events were cancelled. It was necessary to adopt improvised and unexpected solutions, but not so innovative.

In 2017, David Zwirner, a believer in the inevitable virtualization of the system, inaugurated the “viewing rooms” project, an online exhibition space with regular programming, where it is possible to see, buy and learn more about the works of the artists represented. The model has now been replicated together with Art Basel, after the cancellation of the Hong Kong edition, giving rise to the “online viewing rooms”, the first large-scale fair made only on the internet. Given the circumstances and the experimental side, all previously approved galleries to take part in Hong Kong were invited, free of charge.

Those who want to enter, without paying, from anywhere in the world, with an email account and password, will do so. There are more than two hundred rooms (tabs) that we can visit (open). There are immediate positive aspects: we do, in an organized and effective way, what we would intuitively in a fair of this dimension; we look around and, if we don’t care, we quickly move on to the next one; with greater speed and without physical fatigue, because one or two clicks are enough. The amount of information within reach of the cursor (or the finger) is impressive. More than just a fair, the “online viewing rooms” look like a database, a library overflowing with portfolios and projects, individual and collective, of many of the artists who have defined the art market in recent years.

The first gallery on the list is Matthew Marks. I opened it with curiosity, seeing the names of R. Nagle, K. Price and T. Winters. First, there’s an introductory text for each. Then, the works, in a standardized stand corner simulation, with data sheet and price, are clearly visible. In fact, in the first work, Two Men (2019) by Katherina Fritsch, I don’t know what stands out after the blue of the figures, but I would say the price: $1.000.000. That’s fine. After all, we are really at an art fair.

Harold Ancart’s project (born in 1980, Belgium), of the gallery C L E A R I N G, is an example of the possibilities and limitations of online viewing rooms. By opening the painting (Untitled, 2020, $400.000), we can see it in three ways: the canvas, the detail and the canvas with a person next to it to discern the scale. In any of these, it is possible to zoom in. Looking at the detail, we can notice the unpainted areas, the colours and textures with great accuracy. As I know the work of H. Ancart, I do not give much importance to it, and I’m convinced that I “understand” this painting, that I’m able to imagine what it will be like in person. However, three sculptures in painted cement are then presented. I don’t know them. I see each from the four perspectives. But, in the absence of a physical reference, I still don’t understand whether one of them has a hole or a black painted circle. And the question will remain. The illustrations aren’t enough.

David Zwirner and Art Basel may well be right. The coronavirus forced the art world, at least the market, to finally dive into this dematerialized format, which is practical and convenient to do business with. That’s right. But it’s also incapable of replacing the experience of seeing a painting, a sculpture, an installation, whatever. The online exhibitions will most probably be the near future of the art business, a kind of art à la carte, which will allow purchasing from anywhere in the world. But it is very unlikely that anyone will truly know an artist or a work through a screen, no matter how large it may be, no matter how defined it may be.

The biggest novelty of “online exhibition rooms” is the format – albeit not revolutionary either, it has just been adjusted – because the system, its dynamics and the objectives remain the same, or even reinforced, in relation to previous fairs. Due to a lack of planning time or lack of will, the effort seems short for some structural change in art and institutions to emerge. For now, we pretend that everything remains the same.


Julian Opie at the MCB, for now only on screen

In Portugal, some institutions have followed the trend to make available, on their websites and social networks, images and videos of exhibitions cancelled days before their scheduled opening. The Museu Colecção Berardo, a few days in advance, prepared the inauguration of Julian Opie’s exhibition, only in live streaming format and in the presence of the artist. At the scheduled time, the video of the guided tour made by Rita Lougares (artistic director of the MCB) and Opie became available – it had been recorded the day before, due to the imminent closing of borders in Portugal.

Opie, in recent years, has built a universe armoured by a vectorial aesthetic repeated to the point of exhaustion, interested in exploring the different means of image recording. And, to the artists, the definition of values that are barely changeable fuels more dangers and difficulties. On the one hand, with a greater diversity of means and techniques, artists tend to approach the same ideas or questions; we have the brilliant and distinct examples of Brice Marden or Alberto Giacometti, who transformed the minimal variation of their exercise into the central point of the works. On the other hand, the repetition of a formula capable of guaranteeing certain aesthetic and commercial results. These are two antagonistic paths, but indistinguishable by words, a reflection only of the sincerest motivation behind the works. Opie is an artist who works on this tenuous frontier. He has created a dictionary, stylized images that are stimulated by small technical and formal oscillations.

The exhibition is (unpredictably) drenched in irony, taking into account the current context. Two of the rooms have small crowds. The everyday city life where people are mirages, figures agglomerated as pieces of a collective mechanism. In the first room, we see an interplay of scales. Giant figures, painted on the wall, dialogue with others that were made on a real scale, that emerge from the side faces of the two cubes placed on the floor, and which force us to circulate (the camera in this case). The artist warns – and fortunately, otherwise we wouldn’t realize – that they are made of painted aluminium. In one of them, the drawings emerge, in the other, they sink. Further on, the animated digital paintings, groups of moving figures, the background colours are different.

The room where the object of representation is the animals is also prominent. In the centre, we have coloured sculptures, also made of aluminium, which stage the possible display of a natural history museum, but with common animals. Following the same paradoxical logic, the frieze in the upper part of the room combines the historical and architectural imaginary with the represented theme: the pigeons. The piece proves Opie’s interest in the possibilities of technology in the materialization of images. The LED panel with drawings that copy the exact movement of the recording of a flock of pigeons outside his studio.

In the last room, another work designed specifically for this event is presented. A set of bell towers, covered in large-sized cloths, once again evoke the architectural and body dimensions, inviting us to move between the different images. At the same time, a bell is ringing constantly.

The situation is unusual, the solution is the conceivable one. But, above all, it’s an exhibition that explores variations of scale and medium. A visit in person afterwards is essential. However, for those who are interested, it is better to see this through the screen than to see nothing at all.

Francisco Correia (b. 1996) lives and works in Lisbon. He studied Painting at Faculdade de Belas-Artes at Universidade de Lisboa and finished the post-graduation on Art Curatorship at Faculdade de Ciências Sociais e Humanas at Universidade Nova de Lisboa. He has been writing for and about exhibitions, while simultaneously developing his artistic project.

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