Laura Gascoigne: Desperately Loose Ends – July 2020

Laura Gascoigne
July/August 2020

You’re a curator working at the V&A, and the place shuts down. What do you do? You’re at a loose end. April comes around and you’re stuck at home with your furloughed partner watching your gerbils spin around on the rolly wheel of life when an idea strikes you. Why should your pets enjoy normality as if nothing has happened? Why not disrupt it with some challenging art?

Maybe I’m being unfair to Filippo Lorenzin. Maybe his experience of government-imposed confinement woke him up to the monotony of his pets’ lives and made him want to relieve it. Whatever the motive, he constructed a miniature white

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cube gallery, hung it with rodent versions of famous paintings such as Il Gerbilio con L’Orecchino di Perla and added an official notice cautioning DO NOT CHEW. “It was fun to play around with the white cube aesthetics and the raw energy of our gerbils,” he told The Art Newspaper – energy directed by Pandoro and Tiramisu, as by most young gallery-goers, into posting selfies of themselves admiring the art on Instagram.

With the arrival of Covid-19 this year’s silly season started early. In May it was the turn of art documentary maker Jared Schiller to adorn his chicken run in Kent with a Hyde Park railings-style hang of works by his friends. Unlike the gerbils, who took an active interest, Schiller’s hens looked unimpressed by the works of George Shaw, Goshka Macuga, Richard Wentworth et al., though they showed more appreciation for Girl’s Night Out in Peck-ham, an assemblage of bird seed with which they interacted to the point of destruction. Meanwhile across the pond in Kansas City’s Nelson-Atkins Museum, director Julián Zugazagoitia invited a family of Peruvian penguins from the locked-down local zoo to explore his museum’s equally deserted galleries, where he noted their preference for Caravaggio over Monet. 

Silly, yes, but more watchable than most online attempts by panicked museum directors to keep audiences on board. And they’re right to panic, because what if the months of lockdown show us that – like cheap flights, fast fashion and priapic office buildings – we can live without museums? So the show must go on and venerable institutions must compete with freelance Instagrammers for the public’s attention. In May the Met invited owners of the latest AR software to project a gurning zemí ancestor figure from its closed Caribbean Arte del Mar exhibition into their cars, backyards or shower stalls. “I like to see the energy redistributed in digital form so it can reach people in their lives today,” said the show’s curator James Doyle. A prize bit of blarney if ever I heard one. Share my shower with a zemí? Totally psycho.

Out of sight, out of mind is the worry for museums, but shifting audiences online could make matters worse. The Rijksmuseum’s bumper lockdown menu of “10 ways to visit… without leaving home” features a new online platform Rijksmuseum Masterpieces Up Close that “aims to recreate the experience of casually browsing a museum with a multimedia guide”. But why leave home ever if you can enjoy a similar, even enhanced experience from your sofa? That is, after all, the experience most gallery visitors today want. Let’s not pretend, however, that there’s anything casual about ‘browsing’ a museum with special software. It’s a mediated experience. What’s missing is the essential element of aimlessness and, with it, the possibility of an accidental discovery that you alone have made.

Smaller galleries without the digital resources of the Met or the Rijksmuseum have had to find other ways of keeping their heads above the waters of oblivion. The ICA moved fast and on day one of the lockdown launched ICA Daily, a selection of links recommended by director Stefan Kalmár to “cheer you up while self-isolating, social-distancing, working from home or 400 Bad Request working to keep essential services going.” Nice thought, Stefan, but can you really imagine an ICU nurse coming off a 12-hour shift and stripping off her PPA and surgical gloves to sample his inaugural programme of 11 years of ICA talks, Ojerime’s latest mix-tape B4/Breakdown – “a mix of dark, melancholic R&B with emotion-filled vocals” – or Dennis Cooper’s 10th novel Zac’s Haunted House, a “graphic tale of abject horror in a tightly wound work beyond words”? I thought not. (See page 43)

True, she wouldn’t have got much solace either from White Cube’s lockdown series of artists’ diaries featuring a confession on 3 April from Tracy Emin that she got out on the wrong side of her bed that morning and shouted at a complete stranger: “Get between the lines you fucking idiot!” What our essential worker might have welcomed on return to self-isolation with a leaky faucet was Newlyn Art Gallery’s Idle Women: Power Tools, a series of household DIY videos made by women for women. That’s more like it. ‘How to fix a dripping tap?’ Yes!  ‘Reseal a sink?’ Yes! ‘Drill into a brick wall?’ Yes, yes, yes! Smash a double-glazed window? Err possibly… Why? Not to steal a Cornish second-homeowner’s telly when yours has broken, as I wrongly assumed, but to get out when there’s a fire. Good sensible advice.

Given that ‘Hello, I’m still here’ is the basic message behind all this electronic signalling for attention, Kettle’s Yard went for the most basic option: a webcam (illustration). Trained on “a part of the house both shadowy and light-filled” featuring a window, a suspended 1960s Perspex disc by Gregorio Vardanegas and a shelf of straggly houseplants, it was designed to allow “virtual visitors to trace the light changes through the day” from 5.30am to 8.30pm. I tried it for a couple of minutes (I haven’t got all day) during which the only change was the occasional spasmodic jerk as the lagging webcam caught up with the reflection of a different bit of straggly houseplant in the Perspex disc. Only mind-expanding drugs would have made it watchable.

Still, Kettle’s Yard gets points for simplicity. The best online offerings give you a page of thumbnails to click on and let you get on with it. The BP Portrait Award, which has adopted this format, works perfectly well online since most of the paintings are photorealist and gain nothing from being seen in the flesh. And the online shopping model is a perfect fit for selling exhibitions: while the economy tanks, online art sales have been going up.

You know where you are with a selling exhibition; there’s no need to fanny about with digital innovation if you’re not pretending to perform a public service. The past weeks of lockdown have made me appreciate the honest directness of the old exhibition model where art is displayed for sale. I felt nostalgic recently listening to John Kasmin on the British Library Sounds website reminiscing about how David Hockney’s early exhibitions in his New Bond Street gallery were full of students chomping sandwiches on his Mies van der Rohe Barcelona chairs. That was a public service that paid for itself. Meanwhile the billionaire owner of the Evening Standard, Evgeny Lebedev, has been lamenting in his paper that “the arts risk a return to the hobby of

the elites rather than a democratic pursuit”. In the visual arts, at least, that would mean reverting to a model that produced all the masterpieces in the Rijksmuseum, and still appears to function best in a crisis.