Featured Image: Dan Giannopolous, ‘Glove Collage’, The Guardian Newspaper 8/04/2020
“The gloves had gathered in gutters, protruded from bushes and bins, were strewn on doorsteps and forced through wire fences. I couldn’t walk more than a few metres without finding one.” Confronted with the constraints of the coronavirus lockdown in Western Europe, photographer Dan Giannopoulos finds creative inspiration in the new features of our landscape. Recent artworks, such as his disposable glove collage, provide a provocative commentary on what we now call ‘unprecedented times’.
Deserted streets, social distancing practices, and redundant pieces of Personal Protective Equipment discarded across our roads have created an unnervingly dystopian environment in our communities. Giannopoulos’s collage challenges us to reflect on not only the fearful conditions in which we are living, but also the irony of protecting ourselves with garments that simultaneously pollute our own natural environment.
As major events in recent Western history demonstrate, it’s not uncommon for crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic to prompt creative responses. But we can already sense that the artistic response to this crisis will be different. Whether furloughed, working from home, or just without social events to attend, the very nature of this pandemic means that many people have more time. While in World War Two, the UK government championed its own set of chosen ‘war artists’, the approach to a pandemic is much less structured. Galleries, newspapers and artists are calling on all citizens to document their state-enforced time creatively. We are being recognised as producers as well as consumers: the conditions of coronavirus are allowing for a gradual democratisation of the art world.
Emerging initiatives such as the TV series ‘Grayson’s Art Club’, set up by contemporary artist, Grayson Perry, indicate some of the innovative ways in which this democratisation is manifesting itself. Perry’s series encourages people to “battle their boredom” and represent their lockdown experience in order to chronicle Britain’s emergent response to this period. Hosted from his studio and centred on a new theme each week, viewers watch professional creatives, celebrities and members of the general public virtually discuss with Perry recent artworks that they have created under lockdown. Interspersed between these conversations, viewers see footage of the artist developing his own pieces, affording an apparently authentic insight into Perry’s own domestic environment. It is hard not to envy how content he seems at home, doodling, creating, and companionably co-existing with his wife and cat, in the midst of reviewing public submissions. Admittedly, seeing into an artist’s studio space through photographic media is nothing new, but Perry is sharing his workspace on a uniquely intimate level. Consistent with this approach, he prioritises public engagement with the arts, even promising some amateur artists the prize of participating in his own public ‘Art Club’ exhibition.
Other virtual initiatives also demonstrate innovative ways in which we are all being urged to capitalise on our free time. The trending hashtag #isolationartschool on Instagram connects artists of all abilities across the UK, putting them in touch with online art classes and channelling their individual activities into a supportive collective endeavour. Knowing people will be unable to physically visit their heritage sites, Historic England’s recent lockdown photography competition #PicturingLockdown has taken a similarly wide-reaching approach, requesting submissions to be displayed in a catalogue alongside images by professionals. Artistic institutions have also become involved. Tate Modern‘s online challenges for the general public offer an engaging antidote to the boredom and loneliness of excess time: the gallery is encouraging people to get creative with what they have, sharing videos and stories of artists such as Irina Nakhova, who adapted her creative processes whilst under state-enforced isolation during Soviet Rule.
This encouragement of playful self-expression sits uncomfortably with graver parallels being drawn between the current pandemic and Britain’s experiences of World War Two. The comparisons are ubiquitous, especially with VE Day commemorations falling in the midst of lockdown. Politicians have been accused of adopting Churchillian rhetoric to galvanise the population in its response: the country is supposed to respond to the virus as we did to Luftwaffe bombers, staying resilient and rallying ’round the flag. These parallels seem hollow, the more cynical amongst us noting the approval ratings bump that wartime leaders enjoy. But arguably there is an important comparison to be made between the war in Britain’s skies and in its hospitals: not in the success of our leadership, but in the visual creations sparked by these crises.
Perhaps the greatest point of difference between today’s artistic climate, and the climate of the war years, is the accessibility of the battlefield. The majority of artists today are detached from the front lines, unable to witness first-hand the experience in care homes, laboratories, and hospitals. Creatives like Grayson Perry are working from the confines of a domestic environment, documenting their own experiences rather than the action at the forefront of the crisis. Using Instagram to overcome this physical dislocation, Oxford-based artist Thomas Croft relies on images of subjects submitted by the public instead of studio sessions. After lockdown made him question which figures should be immortalised today, he began the free series ‘Portraits for NHS Heroes’ to commemorate key workers. A comparison of Croft’s portraits with Alfred Thomson’s ‘A Saline Bath, RAF Hospital’ from 1943 shows how war artists of WWII also prompted us to recognise these unsung heroes in their own time. What is perhaps most striking in Thomson’s work is his sensitivity to the intimate relationship between patient and nurse: it still has poignancy today given both the medical and familial role that hospital workers are having to play in 2020. It seems unlikely that contemporary artists like Croft will be able to create such immersive works, given that they themselves are socially distanced from the epicentres of the crisis. Not only will coronavirus push the producer of art to change, but the content too.
Fig 2. Tom Croft, Second Portrait of Harriet, Tom Croft Website, 2020
Fig 3. Alfred Thomson, ‘A Saline Bath, Royal Air Force Hospital, 1943
The creative response to Terror Attacks of 9/11 provide a more obvious parallel with WWII art; unlike today, 9/11 artists were able to access the immediate scenes of trauma. Some were themselves first-hand witnesses to the attacks and their works address the direct impact of the atrocities. American artist Michael Mulhern even altered one of his pieces, Ash Road 14-45th, 2002-2003, to incorporate ashes from Ground Zero after dust and smoke entered his apartment. We often attribute the potency of artistic responses to 9/11 and WWII to artists’ presence at the scene of crisis and this is less possible today. Art is not only becoming a public endeavour, but also a distanced one.
We may see fewer artists addressing the immediate medical crisis, but this does not mean that creative responses to COVID-19 will be less emotive. When we look back almost a century, we gain a greater understanding of how pandemics are documented creatively. The 1918 Spanish Influenza was the closest global health crisis to today: a battle in which over 50 million lives were lost. The overt artistic response to this pandemic was minimal: it is remembered largely for being forgotten. In her book ‘Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How it Changed the World’, Laura Spinney writes: “[there] is no cenotaph, no monument in London, Moscow, or Washington, DC. The Spanish Flu is remembered personally, not collectively”, and though minimal, the artworks that have come to represent 1918 express this solitary reflection.
Fig 4. Michael Mulhern, Ash Road 14-45th, 2002-2003
Drawings by the Austrian artist Egon Schiele, who lived through the Spanish Flu, reveal a man deeply disturbed by the decay of those he knows best. His depiction of fellow artist Gustav Klimt days before dying of the disease is unapologetic in its lack of remove. It is raw, real, and personal, addressing the ugliest side of physical degeneration. His art shows trauma brought about by the crisis in a domestic environment. Given the restrictive nature of lockdown, it seems likely that art of the coronavirus will follow in this personal and reflective vein.
Fig 5. Egon Schiele, ‘Gustav Klimt on his death bed’, 1918.
Crises can also provoke a much broader existential evaluation from artists. The Spanish Flu inspired Italian artist De Chirico to consider the new environmental aesthetic borne out of a pandemic. His depictions of empty piazzas and buildings capture the effect of the epidemic in scenery he was familiar with. They resonate with today’s eerie photographs of deserted global landmarks, highlighting a similar interest in changes taking place in our landscape. De Chirico seems fascinated by the changes rather than disturbed by them: he presents the landscapes as serene and tranquil rather than unsettling or dystopian. Perhaps something can be said for the way that De Chirico finds beauty in the new scenery, and the fact that our natural environment is benefitting from the pandemic of today. It has not gone unnoticed that during the current public health crisis, there are silver linings for a world simultaneously facing climate crisis.
However, these silver linings are an all too easy distraction from the uglier repercussions of the pandemic. Whether it is banging saucepans at 8pm on Thursday or children drawing rainbows, we understandably find solace in small acts of positivity. At a time of isolation, there is particular comfort in the promise of ‘shared experience’ or being ‘in it together’. Whilst the UK government recognises of the political value of ‘national unity’ and stresses that this virus is a ‘leveller’, in reality it appears the illness affects people unevenly. As the pandemic unfolds, society is becoming increasingly aware of social and economic inequalities amplified by the crisis. The coronavirus experience is, in many ways, not a collective one, but an individual one.
So how will that individual experience affect the long-term artistic legacy of coronavirus?
Although we are all finding ways to process the strangeness of the times, to be truly reflective of this crisis, art needs to reflect the variability of the experience . We can be hopeful that by democratising the producers of art, their creative output will be more representative. Grayson Perry, a long-time advocate of making the art world more accessible, sees the creative potential that this crisis could bring, stating: “I’m not really talking to the art world, I’m more interested in the average Joe on the sofa.” With enough average Joes participating in this artistic moment, we will be able to gain a messier, but truer, understanding of the coronavirus and its effects. ■
Words by Claudia Warren. Art from Dan Giannopolous, ‘Glove Collage’, The Guardian Newspaper 8/04/2020