2020 is the year of the Rat in the Chinese zodiac, the first animal sign in a new cycle of renewal, a year in which so far, we have learned to face a very severe new beginnings.
Discussions have been dominated by the pandemic, the ensuing lockdown and more recently of the anticipated stages of post-lockdown period; we are still coming to terms with the post coronavirus and the possible economic and societal ramifications. We are now discussing the cultural messaging of a ‘new normal’ (if there was ever a ‘normal’ or just standardised-accepted abnormalities) and the increasingly used term ‘pivoting’. Like many others I have been overwhelmed by the deluge of on-line content and I sometimes feel anesthetised against absorbing more information and images via pod-casts, emails, YouTube, Instagram and so on. Yet as a gallerist, I have that fear of missing out if I don’t participate in posting and reading and being there, not just for my own sake but also for the artists I work with.
Within the field of culture, and specifically the world of art, we have been quickly forced to quickly consider how to construct new valid narratives within this new reality, to challenge the psychological effects of isolation and to target the future and health of our global cultural centres. It is a reality now compounded and accelerated by the reignition of worldwide claims for equality and re-awakening to the insufficiency of our old normality, triggered by Black-Lives-Matter in the wake of the tragic murder of George Floyd.
Of the many crises that currently confront the world, including climate change and pollution, political tensions, economic woes, is the current pandemic and now the focus on racial inequality that rightly dominates. Racism, which has been systemic in all western societies for many centuries of history, and has been quashed as an issue, whenever it has been raised.
In 1963, Martin Luther King’s March on Washington initiated a strong federal civil rights bill in the US Congress 57 years ago, which impacted on the world, or at least countries with Anglo-Teutonic colonial histories. Unfortunately since then, discrimination and violence against black American people has continued; the 1992 Los Angeles riots, fuelled by the acquittal of four police officers following the brutal beating of Rodney King. Countless others examples could be cited- both in the US and elsewhere. In 2019, American citizens shot by US police officers numbered 1004. The rate of fatalpolice shootings among Black Americans was much higher than that for any other ethnicity, standing at 30 fatal shootings per million of the population as of June 2020.
The US is not alone in having such shocking figures and even when people of colour out number the previously white colonists, in places like South Africa, or Fiji the statistics were not dissimilar. In Australia, the Royal Commission into deaths in Custody, 25 years ago, has seen only a handful of the 300 recommendations adopted. Police officers around the world are rarely convicted for their crimes against people of colour, ethnic races or minorities. The big yellow lettering, lending its name to the road leading to the White House in the US — BLACK LIVES MATTER — is an immediate and authoritive statement, which gives hope for change around the world. Yet we must be clear that this is not public artwork, but a necessary sociopolitical declaration.
This is not to say that there is not a role to be played by artists and cultural agents. On the contrary, in Australia at least, I can’t help wondering if the terms of the discourse – need to be radically shifted in recognition and celebration of difference – through the voices of artists that help us to think about what the ‘other’ – or simply difference – is and how this is a building block of what makes us human.
NIRIN, the 2020 Sydney Biennale has given focus to many names of hitherto unknown artists of which we had not heard before, cultural agents, which for a major event, act themselves as their own representative, without the filters from a Westernised agenda representing them. Some of the art public might already understand the sophistication and richness of this presentation – the individual merits of its artists, but also its collective ability to reveal the richness or indeed, the limitations of the ‘mainstream’ art world. On one hand these major events may feel out-date. On the other there is still work to be done in larger sectors of societies, in the recognition of the other, i.e. different from what I individually am and as important, making us all more complete.
After any crisis, there is an expectation that diverse cultural and artistic works could be created for people in the future to contextualise and analyse where we were, which would reference or take inspiration from the current events. We know today how a century ago the aesthetic predicaments in the visual arts were abruptly confronted by the avant-garde and since then until now progressed incrementally by technology.
In late March, and thanks to technology and social media, I invited several artists around the world, from the confines of my home, to put in motion a Not-For-Profit project — LOVE IN THE TIME OF COVID 19’ —(paraphrasing the title of Gabriel García Márquez’s novel Love in the time of Cholera (1985), It was an initiative intended purely to offer our solidarity with families during the worldwide measures of quarantine. Over 130 artists from 20 countries provided images- reproduced as inexpensive prints- available for purchase and received in the post. Since April hundreds of works have been sent all over the world. This is one narrative that I considered valid and important, but also, I must admit that it is a huge task to include everyone and to reach everybody from the position we have now, nothing but the happiness and sense of belonging and embracing of the community, as reward is enough.This effort was intended to go beyond each artists’ particular images in order to crystalize a moment in time which forced a collective sense of “we are all in this together”, a form of communal identification formed out of the fragility against an unknown force.
Representation is still the main crux of aesthetic and sociopolitical struggles today. This is evident through the advent of social media and its high democratisation of information transmission. However, this is a double-edged sword. It has allowed the dissatisfaction of unheard voices to be finally visible but also the anxiety for attention and recognition without other interests than the self to take place. With so much noise, in order to get the message across, easily digested forms and content seems to continue to insist and repeat (for good and for worse).
Historically, pandemics impacted the world of art— representations of death, pestilence, and disaster, crop up at the same time as the Black Death, and the Bubonic Plague. One of the most prevalent visual allegories that emerged at the time was the Danse Macabre, or the Dance of Death. The Spanish Flu (with an estimated death toll of 20 million) came at the end of the First World War, in which a comparable number of people died. While the art world concentrated on the war rather than the pandemic, many movements were inspired by the chaos and seeming mindlessness and absurdity of it all. Let us remember the phrase “Death is a thoroughly Dadaist affair” by the poet Richard Hülsenbeck. Pandemics also inspired Albert Camus’s La Peste(1947); in the later part of the book Camus examines the moral consequences of the plague.
In hearing the cries of celebration that rose from the town – this is after the plague has disappeared and I imagine if the plague does disappear for us we’re going to have a similar sort of triumphal experience of return and excitement. Anyway, in hearing the cries of celebration that rose from the town, Rieux remembered that the celebration was always menaced. Because he knew what this joyful crowd ignored, that the plague bacillus neither dies nor ever disappears, that it can stay sleeping for decades, in the furniture, in the laundry. That it patiently waits in the rooms, the cellars, the cases, the handkerchiefs and the paperwork and that perhaps the day will come when, for the misfortune and edification of humans, the plague will reawaken its rats and send them to die in a happy city. Albert Camus, La Peste (1947)
It seems that Camus’ rats have reawaken.
Twenty years after Camus’ publication the 1969 Stonewall riots confronted another irrational fear, this time the hatred and fear of homosexuals, which demonised people and gave rise to the LGBT movement. In the 1980’s the AIDS crisis, while not classified as a pandemic, solicited a strong response from artists, because yet again the issue of inequality and discrimination was raised. Documentation of the effects, symptoms and the mortality of sufferers from HIV and AIDS became a political act in itself and clearly some great artworks were created addressing the issues of the period, Basquiat, Haring, Gonzalez -Torres, and Louise Bourgeois come readily to mind, but we should also remember the courage of Australian artists like David McDiarmid, Juan Davila, William Yang among others.
Yet I wonder whether the community activities done at the time and later presented as art works, such as the exemplary AIDS quilts, as much as they were significant objects of catharsis for those involved, can be discussed within the ethos of art itself, or should instead be respected as historical artifacts of specific actions that liberated the space and the people for a more profound engagement with art to take place once more.
In 1984 and 1985 I was living in South America and stood up in demonstrations in Santiago de Chile against the Pinochet’s dictatorship and later in Colombia where AIDS campaigns relied heavily on artists to support their campaigns — my task then was to join the group of artists making posters and banners, as there was practically no institutional support.
Yet this much needed profound engagement with art seems ever elusive, with the public eye responding to superficial and generally enlarged, versions of the problems of the other represented by those with power and without owning fully the right for such representation; we might need to resort to the gods to forgive us for our snap reactions and excesses. I find no better example for this excess of liberties than Ai Weiwei’s photo imitating a drowned child refugee or the huge inflatable raft of refugees that does little to address the issues that led to these crises but only leave us golden idols of appropriated tragedies under branded names.
How will our institutions and Museums, from this ‘pivotal’ moment onward, reflect and contribute to the psychological health and intellectual nourishment needed by society at large where visitors enter a stage for the possible re-imagining of relationships of self through externally imposed narratives without an institutionalization of the experience into easy consumables, or a didactic dumbing down? Perhaps our current pandemic may assist in bringing new light and answers to these issues that matter to us all. We have a collective responsibility to stand in solidarity, be proactive and supportive of creative activities and act with moral fortitude.
Paul Greenaway OAM, Adelaide, June 2020.