Covid-19 has had varying degrees of impact on the livelihoods and creative practices of artists and curators. As the co-manager of a new curatorial project, my experience is no exception. In this time of uncertainty, I continue to learn the ropes and adapt.
Towards the end of 2019, I set up a curatorial initiative called Art Matters Now alongside fellow curator and co-manager Rory Williams. This initiative aims to create professional development opportunities for emerging artists in the North East of England, while addressing world topics in contemporary society. When the virus hit we were getting ready to open our first exhibition, Our Fragile Coexistence, revolving around ecological themes and humanity’s current relationship with the environment, which meant that it closed before it even opened.
As a response to the circumstances we found ourselves in, we turned things around by digitising the physical exhibition, stitching together a 360° interactive virtual tour on our website that received encouraging feedback from viewers. The experience and new knowledge we gained from doing this led to us receiving invitations to collaborate from other local cultural organisations, opening up new and unexpected opportunities.
The decision to embrace technology and digital platforms was almost instinctive, and somewhat inevitable after social distancing rules were enforced. This was made easier by the fact that my co-curator and I have had a bit of prior know-how. Like many emerging artists and exhibition makers at this time, we knew it was important to maintain a certain level of online connection with our communities. Disconnection means fewer voices being heard and fewer perspectives being seen. To me, digitisation offers a viable answer to maintaining a basic level of such connectedness and preserving culture in isolation. While aware of the inherent limitations of non-physical exhibitions, we now see the potential of virtual exhibitions for audience engagement and documentation for posterity.
This experience with my own project has made me curious about the newly-emerged creative practices and coping strategies of other artists. According to the findings of a-n’s recent Covid-19 Impact Survey, 93% of respondents reported that they or their practice/career has been affected by the outbreak. Diminished income, suspended fundings, cancelled exhibitions, unemployment—these are the unfortunate realities faced by many individuals working in the visual arts. As the country awaits the passing of the pandemic storm, some creatives are trying their best to dance in the rain.
Recently, I had the privilege to speak with two early-career artists who gave accounts of their experiences in navigating the new norms. I invited them to compare their practices before and during the lockdown, and share their post-pandemic plans.
Rebecca Grant is a Scottish artist who is currently part of The Collective Studio at The Newbridge Project in Gateshead. Earlier in March, she exhibited new works in Scramble, a group exhibition that opened at Pineapple Black in Middlesbrough. The exhibition closed early due to Covid-19.
Looking at ways of measuring the human lifespan, Grant draws upon her own experience of loss to explore the way we approach death and grief, and how we communicate that to each other. Lately, it has been about counting the number of days and illustrating the passing of time, focusing on how each day is different and contributes to the building of life.
Grant tells me that the pandemic’s impact on her has been multifold, as someone whose creative practice is informed and driven by constantly sharing and interacting with others. She reflects on how social restrictions affect her emotionally and creatively: ‘Emotions have been running high and relationships have been put through a lot, and adjustments and compromises have been made’. She has struggled under lockdown, admitting that she underestimated how much she depended on human interactions: ‘I live by myself and I feel as if I have been left with my own thoughts’.
Grant’s recent artworks manifest a labour-intensive and almost ritualistic mark-making process. Her process involves dyeing paper with watercolour, letting it dry and then using a hole punch to produce circular chads: ‘All the circles I punch get used to ensure there is no waste’. Each paper circle is different in colour and pattern, and represents a full day. Grant meticulously adheres each circle to graph paper, visualising the repetitive yet unique quality of life over the last few months. Although Grant feels it hasn’t been easy to find momentum and a desire to create in these uncertain times, she has become more ambitious with her creations: ‘My process has not necessarily changed, but it is perhaps more ambitious and by having a lot of time I have had the opportunity to experiment that I might not otherwise have had.’
She further acknowledges that she has felt more supported by the online artist community. Using the #ArtistSupportPledge as an example, Grant expresses her appreciation for the artist-led movement that encourages artists around the world to support each other through buying and selling work. While she did not personally take part, instead using this time to make and experiment, she knows many artists who have benefited from their participation in the pledge. She also remarks on how much she has enjoyed seeing the work that has been produced during lockdown.
The pandemic may not have presented immediate opportunities for Grant, but during this time her audience has expanded and her opinion of social media has changed. Initially skeptical of posting on social networks, she has grown to enjoy sharing updates of her work on virtual platforms, now that it is one of the only ways to showcase current projects.
As a committee member for Aberdeen Artists Society, Grant has also been involved in preparing for an upcoming exhibition called Coming Home and moving it online, which she found exciting. Looking towards the near future, Grant intends to continue developing the work she has produced during lockdown and reflect on things that she enjoyed about the process.
Based in Sunderland, Natsumi Jones is a Japanese artist who works predominantly with glass to explore time, cultural customs and memories.
Jones has a special interest in kiln-formed glass, and the lockdown has affected her practice fundamentally by depriving her access to a kiln. Furloughed from the part-time job that has been supporting her art practice, she has since prioritised living expenses over art materials. However, these obstacles have not deterred her from making, and she has since ventured into the realm of paper cutting, whilst experimenting with stained glass. Jones has taken a more playful and improvisational approach, using readily available and leftover materials to make new works.
In addition to making new work, Jones has been selected for a couple of online exhibition opportunities during lockdown. She was also invited by Sunderland Culture to lead a live artist workshop on Zoom, during which she introduced papercutting art (cutting by hand rather than laser) to a group of young participants. Like many artists, Covid-19 has meant not being able to display her work or engage with the public in a conventional way. Along with Dale Hardy, Jo Howell, Abiodun Ogunfowora and Rachel Jefferson, Jones’ work was featured in Our Fragile Coexistence, but due to its physical closure her mixed-media installation ‘May Your Wish Come True’ now sits behind closed doors.
According to Jones, in Japan leaves are believed to connect the physical and spiritual world by being a carrier of a person’s wishes or prayers. Her installation exists as a part of a continuing participatory project in which she collects written wishes. These words are carved into discarded leaves, some of which are further transformed into powder-printed glass leaves and hung together. Because of Covid-19, the participatory element of Jones’ work took place on social media, interacting with workshop participants and sharing demo videos of her carving their wishes on leaves by hand.
In terms of the digitised display of ‘May Your Wish Come True’, she feels positive:
A lot of people were able to see my work online anywhere in the world, even my friends in Japan. For my participatory project, it reached many people who might not have been able or willing to engage with a workshop set in the gallery. Of course, digital images can’t express every aspect of my installation, but hopefully they can get more people interested in seeing my work physically after viewing it online.
When asked about her plans going forward, Jones spoke about her intentions to further explore her recently developed techniques and incorporate them into her glasswork. She is hopeful that the new connections built during the lockdown will lead to further opportunities.
Where do we go from here?
As of the time of writing, the Covid-19 lockdown rules are still in place in England, albeit gradually lifting. The pandemic has seen various responses from creative professionals, depending on personal circumstances and working styles. It’s been a steep learning curve for many, especially those who are just starting out in the art world. Living in the challenging reality of the pandemic, it is both inspiring and humbling to see artists’ active efforts to stay creative whilst expanding their repertoire with limited resources.
On one level the pandemic has brought about a crisis, revealing the multifaceted precariousness of the arts sector. But on another level, it has opened up room for productive reflection and experimentation, pushing many artists to pursue more resourceful ways to sustain and communicate their practice. To some practitioners, the lockdown has been an explorative time for discovering new techniques and materials, and approaches to public engagement; to others, it’s been an introspective time for revisiting and refining old practices. In whatever ways artists and creatives choose to adapt and respond to adversity, what remains consistently vital is mutual support within the arts community.
Our Fragile Coexistence was installed at the Athenaeum Building, 27 Fawcett Street, Sunderland (lent to AMN by Breeze Creatives).
Christie Yung-hei Chan is a curator, writer and artist born and raised in Hong Kong. She is currently based in Tyne and Wear, North East of England.
This feature is supported by Arts Council England as part of Corridor8’s 2019/20 critical writing programme.