Art, in Isolation

The school where I lead a seminar full of creative and artistic minds has recently shifted its entire instructional and learning facility to an online platform, like almost every other school. Given the current situation, I knew such preventive measure was just a matter of time. Apart from watching people distancing carts of toilet tissues from nearby grocery stores, what struck me by surprise most is when the words relating to hapless isolations of art from all over the world started appearing on my newsfeed.

A major portion of my graduate research involved reception studies, or more elaboratively how the dynamic relationship among an audience, a piece of artwork, its artist, its physical space, and all of their temporal existence determine the ultimate reception. I somehow managed to make use of this knowledge later into a show that I curated last year. Seeing my professor shivering uncontrollably during its exhibition made me realize such affective response would not probably incur if it was a different space.

I always wondered what it would be like to share the same physical space with a masterpiece. A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to almost drool over the work of Van Gogh. I stood still, not knowing what to do except for unleashing my neurons aimlessly. I could easily see the depths of each stroke; depths which I could not fathom, but only experience. The distinctive color scheme transitioned me suddenly to a phase of depression. I may have encountered this masterpiece countless times on screen or books, but never have I ever had the same experience. Perhaps some of us may not want art in our physical space, but art needs us physically, be it for ourselves or itself.

Then there’s the question, how close can you get to art physically? Let me rephrase the question quickly, how much are you allowed to? Unfortunately, audiences can be powerless when it comes to sharing the same physical space with art. Sometimes, estranging inscriptions like “do not touch” or colourful tapes marking the territory of an art piece are not enough. I remember the time I first visited one of the biggest galleries in Vancouver. My movement was constantly monitored when I was inhabiting the same space with the creation of one of the province’s most influential artists. Realizing what I overlooked in the reception study, I let my imagination hibernate that day.

I understand such distancing is effective in terms of building up and protecting the value of art. But we also need to be aware of the possible impact of extended isolation in the local arts community. With the dropping numbers of gallery visitors and the cancelling of art events, few, if not many, part-time workers may appear as superfluous to the management. Last week, when I was talking to my friend who works at a gallery in North Vancouver, I sensed some forms of unsureness in her voice. She doesn’t know what will happen next. I know she was not only referring to her health but also the wages that she needs.

As of now, the Louvre Museum, a global hub of arts community from all around the world, has closed its doors amid the recent global pandemic. It is highly likely that others may be heading in the same direction. It is obviously not art but the staff and the visitor that these institutes are trying shield. The energy flickering from Eugène Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People will perhaps remain untarnished for centuries in the empty hall. But these energies need to be led by the very people whom both Delacroix and Liberty believed in. However, I am not urging people to leave their isolation and endanger their lives in this crucial moment. Neither I am advocating for the isolation of art because I know how both art and people are entangled.

Echoing what I said before, art needs people for itself and ourselves, more than we know. Written from an isolated space, my words remain inconclusive but hopeful for a safe future.


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