In April 2020, inspired by the isolation of lockdown, South Australian gallerist Paul Greenaway initiated an international online project, Love in the time of Covid-19. In May, Sheridan Hart spoke to him, and two of the artists involved, about using art to cross borders and bring comfort. The entire suite of 133 works has recently been acquired by the Art Gallery of South Australia and is on show until 5 November 2020.
Lockdown: a word we know from prison films, or when school recess was cancelled due to a snake on the loose. Under worldwide government restrictions, ‘lockdown’ has come to encapsulate immobility, fear, isolation and financial loss. At home, we each traverse a diminished territory and time is detached from business hours, appointments, school terms and commuter timetables.
Despite being deprived of openings and workshops, artists continue to do what they do best: perceiving and reflecting the current moment. The subtleties of lockdown and long-distance communication have inspired Love in the Time of Covid-19, an online, mail-order group exhibition curated by GAG Projects director Paul Greenaway.
Isolated from family and forced to suspend renovations at his Berlin gallery, Greenaway found himself in unplanned limbo. “In that first week, some friends even mentioned that they’d reduced their kids’ pocket money because there was nothing to spend it on,” remembers Greenaway. Ever ready to encourage the formation of young collectors, Greenaway did some research and determined that production and postage of a small rag-paper print could be achieved for $25, “the price of a cinema ticket and snack.” If a few notable Australian artists could be persuaded to donate images, then maybe lockdown could be leveraged to burnish relationships between artists and collectors, young and old.
“We started with generous contributions from Patricia Piccinini, David Griggs and David Noonan and then it just took off. We’re sending out 60 to 100 envelopes every day,” says Greenaway. From the GAG website, buyers can peruse works by over 120 artists, from AES+F and Myriam Mechita to Juz Kitson and Hoda Afshar. Neither Greenaway nor the artists make a cent.
The catalogue itself is curiously democratised: works bear the same price-tag, format and brief info panel. This frees the viewer to be guided by spontaneous affinity with certain images, rather than reputation, framing, scale or cost. “People are happily buying artists they haven’t encountered before. They’re getting an opportunity to trust their eye and let go of fashion.”
As the pandemic progresses, the work artists do in chronicling and interpreting social change must find new avenues. Melbourne artist Ceri Hann has adapted his practice of gifting and dialogue for Love in the Time of Covid-19. His photograph shows a handful of Scrabble tiles arranged into a breezy two-word poem. The familiar tokens seem to infer synchronicity and kinship between isolated households.
“Blank and lettered game tiles imply that the world is yet to be written,” Hann explains. “I guess the punchline is that we make better sense of the world together.” Although the pandemic has imposed new rules of engagement (distance and disinfection), Hann sees an opportunity for the arts to take a leading role. “This is a good time to rethink what art can be; how it might accommodate and mitigate risk,” he says. “Art has a great capacity to engage with the unknown.”
What we learn about ourselves during lockdown – national resources, fortitude, values – could be quickly forgotten with the reinstatement of social liberties. It may well fall on artists to establish our newfound insights into the cultural lexicon, through projects like Love in the Time of Covid-19, which foreground the power of community. “It’s a collectively solved puzzle,” says Hann. “The cumulative effect of many people simultaneously moving towards a better condition; that’s how significant advances happen.”
While for many, art making has always been solitary, the long-term repercussions of Coronavirus are shaking the art world. “Some unknown quantity of galleries won’t survive,” says Greenaway. “That’s enormous, particularly for early career artists who need to find their foothold.” Seen in this light, the project’s emphasis on encouraging a new generation of art appreciators becomes all the more significant – and as Greenaway indicates – quite joyous.
As orders flow in from families, and grandparents buying for grandkids, Greenaway pictures the excitement of a child receiving “a parcel in the letterbox with their name on it: a completely new experience!” Greenaway knows firsthand the power of a well-timed introduction to collecting. “When I was 13, I had a little paper run. I bought a Michael Kmitt from Rudy Komon Gallery, which I paid off at five dollars a month. What I didn’t know was that my grandmother had already paid the entire amount. She gave me the money back at the end so I could get another artwork.”
Meanwhile, “pretty much everyone on the planet is stuck at home,” says artist Peter Atkins. His readymade abstraction Eveready indicates a recently-intensified awareness of household chattels. “A simple thing like a battery in the kitchen drawer took on such magnitude. It seemed to reflect the fear, stockpiling, the feeling of preparing for something momentous.” The capacity for a battery to provide light, heat and radio suddenly felt important. “In those first couple of weeks, anything seemed possible. The battery encapsulated all of those unstable feelings.”
Lockdown has changed things for Atkins. “Those nutcases” on TV’s Doomsday Preppers seems slightly less wacky, and objects like torches and butane canisters stand as reminders of how reliant we are on external services. Australians will emerge from lockdown with a rewritten set of virtues, including “that you have to be ready. That you can’t take things for granted.”
Still, work continues in the artist’s basement studio, the bright classicism of Eveready shines merrily in the online catalogue and Love in the Time of Covid-19 brings great solace. Artists can see what their peers are up to. Parcels arrive on doorsteps around the world. “While I’m sitting at home,” says Atkins, “I like to imagine someone in Germany or France unpacking my print, putting it up and enjoying it. It’s much better to think about that than about your gas getting turned off, or a horde of zombies breaking in for your canned tomatoes. Art brings comfort in times of distress.”
The Art Gallery of South Australia is currently open with social distancing and hygiene measures in place. The exhibition Love in the Time of COVID-19 is also available to view online at the GAG Projects website here.