Dispatch: Art World Aftershocks

by Alexandra Germer

At 11am on the day before the long-awaited reopening of pubs, hairdressers, and museums across the U.K., an email appeared in my inbox from one of London’s most prominent contemporary art galleries: “we’re excited to announce that our gallery spaces are now open,” Sadie Coles HQ wrote, promising to take all of the “necessary precautions.” While running errands in the neighborhood later that day, I stopped by the gallery’s Kingly Street location. There, Sarah Lucas’s highly anticipated Honey Pie was finally open to the public for the first time, having been installed right before the country went into lockdown in early March. A masked gallery assistant sat behind the desk; upstairs, Lucas’s lumpy, stockinged figures slumped over chairs. 

Save for a sign directing visitors clockwise, the gallery seemed entirely untouched by the events of the last six months. Sarah Lucas was one of the first artists to exhibit at Sadie Coles’ when it opened in 1997 and has been showing there ever since, so the gallery was taking the U.K. Government’s dictum of ‘business as usual’ literally. 

The logistics of socially distanced installation are all but insurmountable. So Sadie Coles, like many other galleries and museums, just continued the exhibitions they had opened in March.  This ‘let’s pick up where we left off’ model feels at odds with public discourse, not least because it runs counter to the promises of long-lasting institutional change many art institutions made on social media in the wake of George Floyd’s murder.

In 2018, the New Museum hosted a widely acclaimed retrospective of Sarah Lucas’s work, the first in the United States.  At the time, Martha Schwendener wrote that though Lucas brazenly tackled questions of gender and class, the display of “white European ennui feels almost like a luxury product.” A friend recently likened going to a museum after lockdown to returning to your hometown—it hasn’t changed, but you have. The grand return we’ve all been waiting for? It felt normal, and I hated it.

Over the course of the pandemic, countless Zoom conferences were convened to discuss the role of museums in instigating structural change. But they were nothing more than  hypothetical; the visitor’s perspective was noticeably lacking. Hoping for something more meaningful than escapism, I surveyed the offerings of London’s post-lockdown art museums had to offer, in practice, rather than in terms of curatorial intent.  

Whitechapel Gallery, Saturday morning

I’m fifteen minutes late but the first to arrive for my pre-booked time slot for Radical Figures: Painting in the New Millennium, and asked to stick my face up to an iPad camera-turned-thermometer before being let in. Looking at a painted figure for the first time in a few months, it strikes me that texture and depth aren’t the only things lost in a painting’s online reproduction. The process of viewing a work of art in person is no longer immediate, it feels pleasantly laborious. 

Searching for a glint of recognition behind the layers of abstraction in a Cecily Brown isn’t so different from searching for the same in a masked stranger’s face. Denied visual access to  neutral smiles from other visitors, the gallery’s social dynamic feels more precarious. 

There has always been an underlying choreography to walking through a gallery: an embodied etiquette of restraint that signals pensive engagement and assures nearby guards of our physical control. We (the visitors) walk slowly but with purpose, keep our voices down, and our expressions neutral and contemplative. Here, I’m even more acutely aware of this performance than before the pandemic. I worry that I’ll hog a painting. Even for larger canvases of six or ten feet, the radius of reasonable viewing space can only accommodate one or maybe two people. Equally, it’s harder to zig-zag through an exhibition as I usually do, darting over to a work sparks interest, circling back to compare. The fewer paths crossed, the better; every move feels calculated.

I ask another visitor what he thought of returning to galleries. He says he’s glad the staff is hyper-vigilant about hygiene, but also notes that the space feels quieter, more restrained. We watch as a couple arrives together, only to split wordlessly as they step into the room. 

Silence is one signifier of safety; the white cube aesthetic seems to be another. In 1986, Brian O’Doherty wrote that this design, with gleaming blank walls, high ceilings with skylights, gives paintings space to breathe. It gives us the same by extension. Thomas McEvilley wrote that the white cube aesthetic creates a sense of atemporality and eternity: right now, the former is a welcome break, and the latter – as we are constantly reminded of life’s brevity – comforting. 

These spacious, prestigious, immaculately minimalist institutions gain new currency in a pandemic. White cube galleries win out over the curatorially subversive, the interactive, the cozy, and the collaborative. I think of the London ICA, still closed, with its recent penchant for tactile fabric sculptures and rooms where you remove your shoes before entering. Regardless of statistical risk, the ICA’s galleries don’t evoke sterility the way Whitechapel’s do. The ICA is often noisy and filled with spatial roadblocks, so the implicit choreography of the visitor is relaxed, replaced with a stronger sense of community. The ICA still promises to open eventually, but it’s easy to wonder if many like it will be casualties of the pandemic, leaving only the frostier institutions standing. 

National Gallery, Sunday afternoon

If Whitechapel restricted visitors’ paths by appealing to norms regarding exhibition etiquette, the National Gallery was more explicit. We were given three possible routes that wove through the massive collection, with arrows to follow within each room. Route A went from Bellini to van Eyck and then back to Raphael, while B and C were more hybrid, spanning Caravaggio to Van Gogh, Holbein to Monet. Confusingly, they included some of the same paintings. From a hygiene perspective, the system was efficient at shepherding sizable groups through the museum, save for a stand-off in front of the Arnolfini Portrait and a bottleneck by Leonardo and Gauguin. But art and efficiency are strange bedfellows.  

On my way out, I think about Goldsmith’s professor Janna Graham, and Somali activist Shadya Yasin, who together write that in the battle for authority between curator and visitor, the ability to carve out one’s own path has been pivotal: 

… seeking not to confirm traditional hierarchies about the relationship between the private connoisseur and public agent of the museum, the lines of interaction which interested us were more akin to those described by urban theorists in the 1930s as ‘‘desire lines.’’ Desire lines, or, as we referred to them, ‘‘lines of desire,’’ are the routes that people insert into the landscape that amend, oppose, and reconfigure paths designed by planners, bureaucrats, and other city officials…In the museum, these are seen in the ways in which people, when enabled, by accident or subversion, use spaces, collections, exhibitions, and processes idiosyncratically, politically, and creatively to activate the museum’s public role. 

Lines of desire, it seems, are a privilege we’re no longer afforded. Another visitor remarked that she missed having control over her own visit. Without control over your movement, that unique experience, the personal connection to the exhibition, is lost; the interpretation is skewed. 

The Barbican, Monday evening

After an awkward exchange with a security guard who instructs me to search my own bag while he watches from behind a glass wall, I’m let into Masculinities: Liberation through Photography. Its structure is more maze-like, with lots of smaller rooms, so they allow as many as twenty people every fifteen minutes. Ironically, one guy I talked to said it felt safe, but overstaffed, referring to the guards giving directions at every turn. 

The crowd was predictable – tiny sunglasses and baguette purses abound. We’ve read ad nauseam that Covid has “exposed the fault-lines” of inequality; the same is true in museums, where audiences make up a narrow and privileged subsection of a city’s population. Given the immense economic precarity of the last few months, it makes sense that admissions tickets are not a priority for many. (Of course, museums are not innocent bystanders to rising inequality: this month, workers protested outside the Tate over the 300 jobs at risk in the museum’s retail, catering and publishing departments).

Later that day, I walk past an art gallery on a side street in Hackney. The door is propped open, paintings hang on the walls, but the only thing there to welcome me is a bottle of hand sanitizer. It feels apocalyptic. 

The U.K. government has set rules about distance and capacity, but there is another set of rules at play, too: of comfort, interest, institutional priority, and perceived (as opposed to statistical) risk. All of these have aesthetic ramifications that restrict the kinds of shows that open, and the types of people that attend. In both cases, exclusivity prevails. 

I think about Hito Steyerl’s Duty Free Art: 

The market economy of art has its own economy of presence which revolves around art fairs, with their guest lists, VIP areas and performative modes of access and exclusion on every level…In a word, presence can be easily quantified and monetized. It’s a thing that few people get paid for and a lot of people pay for, and is thus rather profitable.

What happens when ‘presence’ is both a source of income and an existential threat? The answer lies in the museum gift shop, where for most museums, the enforcement of social distancing was dropped altogether.