This time last month, the coronavirus lockdown was in its youth, as were the responses to it from galleries and museums in London and around the world. Galleries and visitors were considering new ways to show and enjoy art remotely, and the term “online exhibition” was still relatively new and exciting. Since then, we have become used to socially distant gallery browsing in the many forms it now takes. This month, I wanted to think about my experience with four such forms.
Steve Turner Gallery, LA-representative-of-choice of many of Europe’s hotly tipped young artists, is back open for business. To be clear, this is not an online exhibition. It’s a real exhibition: physical paintings hanging on actual walls, just like they used to here in London. That being said, having spent so much time in online viewing rooms over the last two months, I (rather depressingly) feel like I’ve experienced the show by simply visiting its page on the gallery’s website.
I can look at installation views and details of individual artworks, read the press release on these George-Rouy-meets-Fernando-Botello figures (all of which, I find out, are self portraits) and request a price list, all from the comfort of my sofa.
It is no reflection on the excellent works on show - Du is an accomplished painter who, at the tender age of 25, clearly has an exciting career ahead of him - but this feeling that I don’t need to see the exhibition to see the exhibition leaves me feeling somewhat duped. Like a dieter convincing themselves that reduced-fat hummus is equal to the real deal, this exhibition teaches me that 8 weeks of lockdown may well have lowered my expectations of the exhibition experience to mere pictures and words on screens. I need to remind myself that they can be so much more than this.
Installation view, courtesy of Steve Turner LA and the artist
Seemingly broadly satisfied with the pictures-on-screens format is Victoria Miro, a large gallery with sites across the world, including two in still-locked-down London. The dealer’s latest online group exhibition is set to be available to view only via XR (extended reality) app Vortic, which uses 3D scanning and rendering technology to recreate the gallery and artworks on a screen. Miro isn’t the first to use tech to make the gallery-from-home experience feel more authentic; other galleries who can afford it have invested in virtual or augmented reality tools to do so. However, I can’t help but think that such attempts miss the point somewhat.
Rather than looking at the reality of our lives in lockdown and trying to create an exhibition that resonates with that experience, this approach seems to work backwards. It starts with the exhibition format that has always existed in the pre-coronavirus world and tries to force it upon the near-unrecognisable place we find ourselves in now. It feels like an attempt at business-as-usual in this world where things are so far from usual.
This isn’t to say that the exhibition itself doesn’t look interesting. It features works by an impressive all-women roster of contemporary artists depicting male subjects, reversing the power dynamic of the male gaze that pervades art history. I’m looking forward to seeing the works but must remind myself, as I did with Jingze Du’s exhibition, that the online format will never contain all that a physical art exhibition can offer.
Chantal Joffe, Herb on the Red Stool (2019), courtesy of Victoria Miro and the artist
Embracing the online exhibition as a space for experimentation, collaboration and a truly mixed-media experience is this group show of digital artworks and writings. It takes the form of an ongoing collaboration between people from a variety of disciplines including visual artists, philosophers, geographers, architects and more.
The show’s starting point is an understanding of the earth as a “Critical Zone,” a term borrowed from the geosciences’ description of the surface of the earth. It is a fragile space supporting manifold interactions and dynamics between different life forms. The web page hosting the exhibition describes itself as a “field-trip” and offers a seemingly infinite number of routes for the viewer, each step based around keywords you can choose from including “symbiosis”, “care”, “alternative cartography” and “colonialism”.
Scrolling through, I must admit that a large proportion of what’s on show goes straight over my head. However despite its sometimes insurmountable academic density, it is refreshing to see an exhibition that embraces its form, using the online space to its advantage rather than trying to emulate a physical exhibition within it.
I stumble upon some interesting videos, essays and interactive maps, a special mention going to Goldsmiths-based group Forensic Architecture’s Cloud Studies series which is equally fascinating and heartbreaking. Overall my experience of this exhibition feels satisfying because, unlike the last two, it knows what it isn’t and embraces what it is. Instead of reminding me of the limitations of my laptop in representing physical artworks, it teaches me how it can present incredible digital artworks in engaging ways.
Still from Cloud Studies courtesy of ZKM and Forensic Architecture
For many galleries, the move online seems to have been taken as though it was the only option for continued engagement from a distance. We’ve seen Victoria Miro take the approach of moving the existing operation online and ZKM decide to harness a web-based format to show digital works arguably better than they could in the physical museum. Cell Project Space has instead taken a step back and considered another medium through which to engage with art and artists during this time.
For their new Queer Correspondence initiative, each month two artists will be commissioned to correspond via letters around a theme of their choice, exchanging texts and artworks in any medium that can fit in an envelope. Once the correspondence reaches some conclusion, it is published in an edition of 500 and sent for free to a (now over-subscribed) list of people.
I’m looking forward to seeing how this works. In an existence where I go from working on my computer to seeing friends on my computer to visiting galleries on my computer, the physicality of this format resonates now more than ever. It speaks to our need to engage with art physically and experience the differences between in-person and online that my encounters with Victoria Miro and Steve Turner glossed over.
David Lindert, Untitled (2020), courtesy of Cell Project Space and the artist