I recently read Olivia Laing’s newest book, Funny Weather: Art in an Emergency. The ‘funny weather’ the title refers to is the political climate, amalgamating Laing’s column pieces and essays dating from 2015, concerning art as relief when the world feels like it is falling apart. As art lovers, the current Covid-19 crisis has exemplified this need for relief, as we have been unable to access places we would normally visit to make sense of feelings and events. As she wrote her book, published in April of this year, Laing would have not known how relevant her work would become.
Deprived of art in person for so many months now, art lovers are flocking to galleries as they begin to open again during August. Art post-emergency, or during, is proving itself necessary.
I decided to make my first gallery visit post-lockdown to the Tate Modern in London. The Tate is currently employing a slot booking system, free of charge, which allows entrance to the building for three hours. The general exhibitions are free, along with two paid exhibits, displaying the work of Steve McQueen (until 6 September) and Andy Warhol (until 15 November). We booked the 12:30 slot, and began walking around for our allotted three hours.
Our arrival was a somewhat surreal experience, given that much of the outside looked closed off, almost abandoned. At the usual entrance, there were three clearly marked and separate lines, the first for general exhibitions, the others for the McQueen and Warhol.
Upon initial entry into the building, and subsequently each exhibit, hand sanitiser was provided and often mandatory to use. The toilets also had sanitiser upon entering, to minimise infection there. The whole building seemed cleaner than I had previously noticed. Masks were mandatory throughout the building, along with current social distancing guidelines.
There were employees scanning tickets into each exhibit, and in many rooms, keeping an eye on distancing. In the case of video exhibits, held in their own rooms, a ‘one in one out’ system was in operation, so that a small group could enjoy the piece whilst observing distancing.
Overall, the visit felt incredibly safe. Considering the amount of people present, it was never too busy or overwhelming, but clearly staggered with a focus on minimising risk. Water fountains were off limits, however the staff at the café on the third floor were happy to fill up bottles, so it was easy to hydrate in the summer heat. The sunshine and the presence of art was a soothing experience that I would recommend to all, provided you feel safe and take precautions.
In Laing’s book, she discusses the work of Agnes Martin, which we saw displayed in the Tate. Martin lived a fascinating life, living for a while in the desert. She also experienced mental health problems, due to schizophrenia. Despite her difficult experiences, her art took on a consistent appearance; lines on canvas, often of a pale pastel hue, conjuring images of faded seaside deck chairs and soft, whipped ice cream. It seemed to remind us that, no matter what we have experienced, art both within its creation and its observation has a consistent presence. Art does not waver in the face of extreme circumstance or change; art created pre-pandemic will remain the same, physically, post-pandemic.
I was reminded when viewing Martin’s work that things may look the same, but feel abundantly different, after certain events. It is an experience which, provided you are safe and pack your mask, arrive in time, and do not rush around, will no doubt soothe the difficult withdrawal many of us have felt from art this year.
Enjoy the art we have all been missing. It might just look different, now, during and after an emergency.
Image Credits: Acabashi via Wikipedia Commons, edited by George Tuli