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What to Do? Stay Green. Never Mind the Machine, Whose Fuel Is Human Souls

Our tips for getting through lockdown

Peder Balke, Lighthouse on the Norwegian Coast (1855). Courtesy the Noweigian National Museum

BY Louisa Buck
contemporary art correspondent

AND Vivienne Chow
journalist and critic

AND Jonathan Griffin
writer and critic

AND Christian House
freelance writer for the Guardian and the Daily Telegraph

AND Jane Morris
writer and editor

AND Julia Vennitti
editorial assistant

Published
In Must See

You know the drill: stay inside; stay safe; stay sane. Here is how some of our writers around the world are getting through it. (And drop me a line at charlotte.burns@artagencypartners.com if you’d like to share your own coping strategies—we’ll run them in the next issue.) C.B.

 

Hidden Urban Histories

Noticing new things on the empty streets (St. Paul’s Cathedral in London from the Millennium Bridge)

For the time being at least, Londoners are allowed out to take one walk a day—but parks and canal-side towpaths are full of people and we are being advised to stay away. Safer—and arguably more stimulating—is turning into the now-deserted city streets, clutching a copy of “Pevsner”, one of a lengthy series of guides begun in the 1940s by an émigré German art historian which describe the notable architecture of Britain.

In the years since they were first published, these books have garnered a loyal following. Essayist and architecture critic Jonathan Meades describes Nikolaus Pevsner’s labor of love as “the greatest endeavor of popular architectural scholarship in the world”.

Walking 20 minutes from my home in Shoreditch towards the City of London down Bishopsgate—one of the main roads of today’s financial district—I learned that the gate in the medieval wall from which the street takes its name was demolished as late as 1761.

But probably the best thing about Pevsner, and about having time on your hands, is that it really allows you to see things you would otherwise miss. I’ve walked along Bishopsgate for more than 20 years, but had never noticed the Canadian-inspired carvings (feather headdresses, snowshoes) on the neoclassical façade of the former Hudson’s Bay Company headquarters near Liverpool Street Station. I looked further up and saw for the first time its weathervane: a large, glittering gold beaver. J.M.

Fantastic Beasts

Carole Baskin as seen in the new hit Netflix docuseries Tiger King (2020). Courtesy of Netflix

Did you know that there are now more big cats in captivity in the US than live in their natural habitat? As we enter week two of coronavirus lockdown I am being sucked into the dark and sordid world of Tiger King: Murder Mayhem and Madness, a new Netflix documentary series that follows the feuds and shenanigans of the grotesque individuals who run many of America’s big-cat animal parks.

The central character is Joe Exotic, the titular Tiger King, a gun-toting married, gay polygamist who bred baby tigers on a farm in Oklahoma for petting by visitors to his zoo and travelling sideshow. He is currently serving a 22-year jail sentence for taking out a contract on his nemesis Carole Baskin, an animal rights activist, internet star and proprietor of the non-profit Big Cat Rescue sanctuary.

But then we learn that Baskin, sporting an extensive wardrobe of eye-popping animal prints and served by a devoted fleet of volunteer acolytes, has an inexplicably missing second husband, whose disappearance has never been accounted for.

Another creepily fascinating character is the “conservationist” Bhagavan “Doc” Antle, whose cult-like operation trains big cats for Hollywood while he boasts of grooming a personal harem of young women to cavort with him and the beasts. And then there is the unbelievable Scarface-alike Mario Tabraue, once one of Miami’s biggest drug dealers who is now the legitimate owner of an extensive private zoo.

Forming a magnificent backdrop to this lurid freakshow of blighted humanity are the hapless big cats, which are tragically at the mercy of the greed and warped agendas of their owners. Closeted in our covid-induced confinement, humankind now faces the consequences of its abuse of the natural world. Tiger King is a reminder of the values that brought us to the state we are in. L.B.

Take a Tour Through Time

The Bronze Head of Augustus (c. 27-25BC) © The Trustees of the British Museum

The Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca once said: “We should always allow some time to elapse, for time discloses the truth.” Take some strength from the continuum of human endeavor by way of a virtual tour through 4,000 years of history at the British Museum. Structured chronologically, this virtual walk-through entitled “The Museum of the World” is more akin to a tour through time than a single museum, reminding us that this present moment, too, shall pass. J.V.

The Art of Endurance

Christian Krohg, (Lifeboat men in a Storm)

One of the pleasures of working on Norwegian Arts , the cultural site of the Royal Norwegian Embassy in London, is the opportunity to chart the links between the nation’s art and its character. Over the past week, as lives everywhere have been placed in limbo, I have taken solace from a seam of Norwegian art, from the 19th century to the present day, that approaches trauma with empathy, and frequently suggests the balm of social unity.

In paintings from masters such as Edvard Munch, Peder Balke and Christian Krohg, in explorers’ charts and protest tapestries, in wartime postcards and humanistic graffiti, I found images that act as beacons. Norway is a country shaped by nature at its most monumental, with all the beauty and danger that denotes, and its artists understand endurance.

In quick succession, Munch painted himself in the grip of Spanish flu and then then turned his easel to the farmers planting for another season. Balke painted lighthouses looking out for mariners; Krohg captured lifeguards attempting rescues and Samaritans providing meals.

Defined by the forces of nature, Norway inspires art that can navigate rough seas. As Munch once said: “Without anxiety and illness I should have been like a ship without a rudder.” C.H.

Spend time in “Nature”

The curved room dedicated to Monet’s “Water Lillies” series at Musée de l’Orangerie

Spending time in nature benefits your wellbeing in a myriad of ways—just 20 minutes outside has been shown to reduce stress and anxiety. Since most of us are now restricted to our homes, a good substitute can be found in the two oval rooms entirely dedicated to eight paintings from Claude Monet’s “Water Lilies” series (1915-26) at the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris. Take a virtual tour at musee-orangerie.fr.

Or view a byōbu, or “wind wall”, a traditional folding screen that originated in China and became popular in Japan in around the eighth century. These screens typically depict landscapes using gold leaf, ink and bright pigments. A 17th-century version, available for viewing on Google Arts & Culture thanks to the Tokyo Fuji Art Museum, is by an unknown artist who interprets the Musashino Plateau in the Kantō region of Japan. If you can wade past the reeds—the faint gray silhouettes of which are just visible if you zoom in on this remarkable high-resolution image— you can just about reach the gold-sprinkled peaks. J.V.

Down the Digital Rabbit Hole

DIS, A Good Crisis (2018). Courtesy the artists

“Feeling left out? You wasted a good crisis!” Or so raps a master-of-the-universe-style suited-and-booted incarnation of the Night King from Game of Thrones over a gritty soundtrack. This is A Good Crisis, a 2018, high-production-values digital work by art collective DIS, which takes as its subject matter the 2008 financial crash, its winners (corporations such as Blackstone) and its losers (most of us).

It is one of 45 digital art works and exhibitions on show in “First Look: New Art Online”, a curated section on rhizome.org, hosted in collaboration with the New Museum in New York. Other sections include a 100-work history of internet art from the 1980s to today, “Net Art Anthology”, and “Artbase”, an archive of another 2,000 digital works collected since 1999.

While many will be aware of Rhizome, founded by artist Mark Tribe in Berlin in 1996 and affiliated with the New Museum since 2003, it is possible that most of us have never settled down to the myriad digital works on show.

Inspired by art critic Ben Luke recently on Monocle 24 radio, I decided to give it a go. Some of the artists on the site will be familiar: Petra Cortright, Amalia Ulman and Juliana Huxtable. Others, like Cassie McQuater, who creates dreamlike, feminist “games” such as Black Room (2018), João Enxuto and Erica Love, perhaps less so. If you’re craving to see art in the context for which it was made, then born-digital art is one answer. But be warned, once you get into rhizome.org it is surprisingly addictive. Down the rabbit hole indeed. J.M.

Long Live Brief Lives

Andy Warhol with Halston, Bianca Jagger, Jack Haley Jr., Liza Minnelli and more at Studio 54, New Year’s Eve, 1978. Robin Platzer/Twin Images/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images

As someone who loves—LOVES—the experience of looking at things in galleries, I’m not much of a fan of online viewing rooms or virtual museums. Let’s not even talk about Instagram, which is inescapably seductive but never satisfying. Nor, by the way, do I particularly enjoy reading in galleries. Home is where I like to read about art; best of all is reading about the people who make (or made) it. Artist biographies are my jam.

Last week I received in the mail two beautifully bound books from publisher Laurence King, the first editions from a new series of artist biographies, “Lives of the Artists”. The Guardian’s art critic Jonathan Jones has written about Artemesia Gentileschi, while British editor and critic Robert Shore has penned a new title on Andy Warhol. These books are short—around 100 pages each—and would fit snugly inside a coat pocket. John Richardson’s A Life of Picasso they certainly are not. Rather, they are just the thing to dip into (or binge-read, if you’re lucky) while you juggle the other exigencies of working and/or parenting from home.

Warhol and Gentileschi are great editorial choices: both their life stories are breathless tales of scandal, intrigue, tragedy, ambition and remarkable personal resilience. Warhol is shot and (prematurely) pronounced dead by the third page of Shore’s book; Jones mentions Gentileschi’s rape by the tenth line of his introduction.

Both books start out at full tilt and refuse to let up the pace. I can’t wait to get back into them. But what’s that? Aargh! First the kids need lunch. J.G.

Carrying on in Hong Kong

Chow Chun Fai, Chun Yeung Estate (2020). Courtesy of Gallery Exit

Staging an exhibition opening during a pandemic might be unthinkable for most, but not Hong Kong artist Chow Chun Fai, who is among a handful of artists who opened a solo show in mid-March at a moment in which the city had briefly managed to flatten the curve of infections.

The opening at Gallery Exit was well-attended by people covering their faces. “We have been wearing face masks for 10 months already,” Chow says, referring to the ongoing Hong Kong protests that started in June 2019. “I felt that it was safe to have an opening because we are all wearing masks. Many of us in Hong Kong are prepared to face this plague.” The masked crowd echoed the theme of Chow’s show “Portraits from Behind”, an exhibition of small oil paintings that frame the artist’s observation of the political turmoil in his hometown.

Haunted by the memories of Sars, the virus which killed almost 300 people in the city in 2003, Hong Kong citizens took covid-19 seriously from the beginning. Face masks, hand-sanitizers and early closure of schools, offices and public facilities spared Hong Kong a mandatory lockdown, with the number of infections maintained at under 200 over a month since the outbreak began at the end of January.

The art scene began to look up in March. The Hong Kong Museum of Art and M+ Pavilion in West Kowloon Cultural District re-opened after temporary closure. A new commercial gallery, Villepin, opened its door, as did a handful of gallery exhibitions. The inauguration of Art Basel’s online viewing room, the digital alternative to the cancelled fair, made Hong Kong briefly appear to be in a more positive position than Europe and North America, which were just at the beginning of their own infections.

But the hope did not last long. As the number of cases in Hong Kong surged in the last week of March as people returned from abroad, the government tightened social distancing measures by banning public gatherings of more than four people. The Museum of Art and M+ Pavilion shut down again, while galleries such as de Sarthe, Blindspot and the privately-run Sun Museum have postponed their openings.

Artist Edwin Lo, who works with sound and digital media, says the virus might have caused difficulties in life—some of his artist friends have lost freelance jobs and they might not be able to pay their rent. “But it has also given us a good chance to rethink how we can work with the digital medium. The digital space has never been so crucial,” he says.

Shuttered art galleries and old printing shop on Tai Ping Shan Street, Sheung Wan, Hong Kong

Chow still paints on canvas in his studio in isolation, but he has been teaching painting at the Chinese University of Hong Kong via Zoom since the end of January, when schools shut down. “It feels like I’m teaching in front of a list of names, not real people,” he says. He has turned his class into a project, in which he and his students each paint a painting inspired by tarot cards, as training for reading symbols and interpreting visual language.

“We are still living in the phase of anxiety,” Chow says. “Prolonged isolation has brought us uncertainties. But we are still waiting to see how this will change our way of life and global government structures in the long run.”

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