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Art in time of Isolation
I don’t think that there have been comparable times to the world we find ourselves in today. During this time of lockdown in the UK, like over half the world population in self isolation, every art exhibition, art class, art fair and art event has been inevitably cancelled or postponed. Months or even years of planning has just vanished overnight, many people are without a job and wondering what to do next. While these activities are not vital to our survival, they were part of the fabric of our lives and it is still too early to say what effect their loss will have on our wellbeing and mental health.
Not since the Bubonic plagues that raged through Europe in the 14th - 17th century have we faced such challenging times of isolation. The village of Eyam in Derbyshire comes to mind. They cut themselves off from the outside world in 1665 in a desperate and brave bid to halt the spread of the bubonic plague. Their isolation lasted about 14 months and helped prevent the spread of the disease. It is not clear how the villagers coped during this terrible time, but a lot of their energy was undoubtedly spent on making food, keeping clean and surviving. In her fictional account of the event in her book “Year of Wonders” Geraldine Brook imagines the communal and mutual care of some of the villagers amid the suspicion and fear among others. During the Spanish Flu pandemic in 1918 the county of Gonnison in Colorado cut themselves off from surrounding counties and succeeded in dodging the infection Strangely though, there is no account of how people coped during their isolation.
These days communication is excellent and we are fully informed of what is going on around us, which can help dispel fear and the myths of divine retribution that produced such dominant religious imagery around the time of the plague. Through the portals of the internet we can take a virtual tour around a gallery, be in direct communication with our favourite artist, or view countless images online. We can attend classes and meetings through the wonder of ZOOM. It can be a bit overwhelming to be glued to our phones for much longer than normal only viewing, not doing.
It is a well known fact that in times of crisis artists rise to the challenge and produce some of their best work. Even when art materials are scarce, the need to “create” will find a way to overcome difficulties. I am thinking of the CoBrA movement, who in the time following WWII used household paints and old doors to create paintings. Somehow though it makes it worse that we are expected to be more creative during times of adversity. Whilst cartoonists are adept of responding very quickly to political changes, others may find change dissembling. Artists are as varied as the rest of us. With some used to working in isolation, it might not seem so different now, whereas others, who thrive in a group studio environment, might be really struggling. It may be question of accepting fear and uncertainty before we are better equipped to handle the situation.
At present artists are considered non essential and must remain at home. Our world has shrunk inwards and perhaps this will be the artistic legacy; noticing the small things, interior images, still lifes, flowers and bugs. Or perhaps we will see more artists, in the coming months, expressing of the emptiness of towns and cities, their abandonned thoroughfares, or the silence of the M5! If there is to be one artistic outcome from COVID-19, I hope that the heartfelt emotional appreciation we all feel for our healthcare workers will be celebrated and commemorated in the years to come. Their courage in fighting this awful disease while we remain in self isolation.
When it is all over and we can resume our cultural activities, we will appreciate it all the more. When all the normal things we took for granted a few weeks ago; private views, studio visits, trips to exhibitions and everyday human contact is restored, it is to be hoped, we might have a greater understanding of our fellow humans and of nature.
Illustrated: “Forest Road Thaw” by Betty Harrison
Referenced: “The Year of Wonders” by Geralding Brook