Throughout lockdown, through the porthole of zoom, I have peered into the once private and unseen spaces of friends, colleagues, and total strangers. From make-shift offices on sofas, to virtual meetings in bedrooms and gardens (and that one time in a caravan), lockdown has opened up a new kind of access into people’s lives. Through a screen I look into your world and you into mine. But as I gaze into the homes of strangers, it often feels like a threshold has been crossed or transgressed. Like the skin of a body, walls of a building, or in this instance, a computer screen, a threshold comes into contact with what lies on both sides of it; linking two environments through the act of separating them.
It is this permeability which forms the subject of curator Aidan Moesby’s online exhibition Thresholds. Moesby, currently Associate Curator at MIMA in partnership with DASH, is interested in our relationships to home and how they have been redefined by recent periods of enforced isolation. In July 2020 Moesby commissioned three artists – Sonia Boué, Lindsay Duncanson and Catriona Gallagher – to create new work in response to their own experiences of the unprecedented, transitional time during the coronavirus pandemic and the easing of restrictions. Each artist engaged in extended online curatorial conversations with Moesby to develop their commissions and discuss the impact of lockdown on their practice.
Sonia Boué is fascinated with objects. Her work has joyously punctuated my Twitter feed throughout the monotony of isolation. She has shared photographs of makeshift noses made from bizarre objects pressed against her face. In a similar vein, Boué has playfully drawn together and photographed a mixture of personal objects in her commission Safe as Houses. The photographic series captures her recent relocation to a new studio space at the time of lockdown-easing, documenting her ‘personal props’, as they are moved into her new studio. Items include childhood books, a Prairie King rocking horse and hand-held vanity mirror. These objects hold potent memories for Boué and accompany her to each new home and studio.
A pair of pyjamas particularly holds my attention. These quintessential striped pyjamas, reminiscent of those worn by the child in The Snowman, were tailored by Ann Tutt. Sleepwear has become a firm fixture of lockdown as we navigate new unwritten dress codes of performing to camera while working from home. However, I learn these pyjamas hold a much deeper, more profound meaning for Boué, whose grandparents were survivors of concentration camps. Home, losing homes and exile are prominent themes in Boué’s work. Through delving into the past, she understands the present.
Pyjamas also appear in Lindsay Duncanson’s split-screen black and white video Brief Loss. Filmed during the coronavirus pandemic in her Newcastle flat, it features herself, partner and son reading, working and drinking tea respectively. The vignettes are set against the gentle sound of a ticking clock. These are known, comforting scenes. Yet in the background, there are strange flickering projections of pond skaters, water ripples and reflections that create a dream-like quality to the scenes. While Duncanson often creates work with, and about, her home and family life, previous pieces have typically been set against vast rural landscapes and not her own living room. Here, there is an interesting tension between ‘inner’ and ‘outer’. By bringing flashes of projections of nature inside the home, Duncanson appears to be seeking to bridge her pre- and post-coronavirus practices.
While Duncanson’s work communicates a certain stillness, safety and belonging that home can provide (albeit with a slightly claustrophobic atmosphere), Catriona Gallagher’s work speaks of a lost liminal space. Gallagher, who splits her time living in Northumberland, UK and Athens, Greece, was left stranded in the South East of England by 2020’s travel restrictions and spent much of the summer trying to return to Greece.
Her commissioned film, titled ‘Video Villanelle (for distance)’, conveys a sense of being caught between places. Like many of us who were separated from loved ones during enforced isolation, Gallagher experienced a ‘heightened awareness’ of her mobile phone as a lifeline in communicating with her partner, friends and family long-distance. Drawing on this, she made her film using only existing footage from the personal archive on her phone. She repurposed video clips shot for social media or private messages – a gesture akin to turning out one’s pockets or emptying a rucksack. Significantly, this footage was never intended to be used as art, further muddying the waters between private and public roles and communications.
This disparate footage is edited together using the arrangement of the highly structured villanelle poem or musical form. Mimicking the villanelle’s arrangement – an a-b-a rhyme structure – the film repeats fragments of footage as if reciting lines of a verse. It moves back and forth between the UK and Greece, featuring sweeping rural landscapes, contrasting urban architectures and intimate moments with friends. Gallagher’s use of the villanelle structure creates a visual rhyme that enables her to make sense of this incidental footage, and also of this unsettled and fragmented period of her life.
All three artists’ exploration of thresholds are interconnected by their expression of felt distortions of time. During quarantine, weeks and months seemed to pass surprisingly quickly, yet simultaneously, hours and days dragged. In ‘Brief Time’, for example, as the clock sounds the passage of time, Duncanson flips through books without really reading or gazes deep in thought. She seems to feel the pressure of the ‘gift of time’. She is contemplative, restive, bored even, contrasting with her partner and son, who, either side of her, continue with their quiet activities, oblivious to her restlessness.
Boué’s work acts as a more direct record of time: each object was photographed as she moved it into her new studio. Moreover, the objects themselves act as markers of time through the childhood memories they invoke. Lockdown’s blurring of identical days leads us to create fewer new memories which is crucial to our perception of time. In Boué’s words, ‘under stress, the psyche seeks the familiar’. Memories, like those depicted in her series, are one of the ways that we judge how much time has passed bringing a certain comfort. Boué’s work is not just about the moving between the thresholds of studio spaces, but also how we are moving through these times.
Gallagher’s reassembling of old footage using the villanelle structure reframes and reorders time, moments and memories. The distance referred to in Gallagher’s film title ‘Video Villanelle (for distance)’ appears to reference both being geographically distant and also taking a necessary temporal distance from the past two years of her life in order to process and make meaning.
Lockdown has disrupted our homes and the way we experience time in them. As revealed by these artworks, it has also radically reshaped our personal relationships, forcing us to rethink how we live, work and socialise together. Moesby’s curatorial approach to Thresholds has sought to examine these negotiations alongside embracing the heightened digital realm we have now found ourselves in, questioning how institutions, curators, artists and writers might work together in isolation to make sense of these difficult times.
This essay was co-commissioned with MIMA as part of Thresholds, an online exhibition curated by Aidan Moesby Associate Curator at MIMA as part of the Curatorial Commissions Programme, in collaboration with DASH. This programme supports Disabled curators to develop their practices and careers through working with MIMA, Midlands Arts Centre (MAC), Birmingham and Wysing Arts Centre, Cambridge.
Aidan Moesby is a curator who explores civic and personal wellbeing through a practice rooted in research, response and conversation. He works in the spaces where art, technology and wellbeing intersect, across mainstream and disability contexts. He passionately promotes diversity and equality within the visual arts.
Jade French is based in Liverpool, UK. She is a museum professional and academic whose work examines access and participation within visual arts and museology with a focus on the support facilitation of learning disabled artists and curators. French is a currently a Visiting Research Fellow in the School of Fine Art, History of Art and Culture Studies at the University of Leeds where she teaches and has recently published the monograph ‘Inclusive Curating in Contemporary Art’.