Kenny Pittock, A Sign Of The Times (Shimbu), acrylic on ceramic, 2020.Credit:Courtesy of the artist
When artist Kenny Pittock was asked in the very early days of COVID-19 to “capture the moment” in the Melbourne CBD, he chose to immortalise the ephemeral. Things felt like On the Beach as the city emptied out and dread filled the air. Exploring the quiet streets, Pittock recorded images of hastily written signs posted in shop doorways. Painstakingly, he replicated 19 of those signs. He turned them into fragile ceramic sculptures, almost identical to the originals, right down to the Blu-tack.
These imaginative sculptures are anything but literal – their delicate transformation records not only the pragmatic details of mass closures but also, Pittock says, elements of humour, hope and togetherness. Their fragility echoes the way our world – especially the economy – can crumble so quickly. Commissioned by the City of Melbourne for its art and heritage collection, Pittock’s project is titled A Sign of the Times.
It’s just one example of a plethora of visual art projects spawned by the pandemic. While many people during lockdown have turned to creativity as a form of processing or for solace, professional visual artists have been highly visible – especially on social media and in mural-scale street art – in using their skills to help us negotiate a challenging landscape and face an uncertain future.
Yet those in the arts have been having an extraordinarily tough time.
Kenny Pittock, A Sign Of The Times (Aquarium), acrylic on ceramic, 2020.Credit:Courtesy of the artist
In June, the federal Education Minister foreshadowed a doubling of fees for humanities degrees as part of a shift to encourage students to pursue careers in priority industries such as teaching, nursing and agriculture. In the same week, the National Gallery of Australia announced it would slash future acquisitions from 3000 to about 100 annually and lose about a tenth of its staff. Meanwhile, arts organisations and galleries everywhere are contemplating closure.
Arts publishing, too, is in crisis: in April, the Australia Council for the Arts decided not to renew funding (for 2021-24) for magazines such as Art Monthly Australasia, Australian Book Review, The Lifted Brow and Overland. On June 25, the federal government announced a $250 million package for the arts, mainly directed at restarting film, television, theatre, performance and other entertainment industries. But many in the arts remain deeply troubled, and there is a lot of grief and anger in the air.
The executive director of the National Association for the Visual Arts, Esther Anatolitis, says artists and the creative industries are crucial to culture, the economy and social connectedness, and to envisioning and planning for the future. After all, artists, along with scientists, are the visionaries who offer us road-maps, practically and emotionally, to how things are likely to pan out.
Anatolitis is not alone in valuing the role of creativity in times of crisis. Asked recently why we had been caught out by the myriad effects of the pandemic, US infectious diseases expert Dr Michael Osterholm was blunt: “I think, first of all, we really lack creative imagination.”
Osterholm used his own creative imagination in a series of articles 15 years ago to accurately predict a global pandemic very similar to what we are now living through. In 2017 he turned these forecasts into a book, Deadliest Enemy: Our War Against Killer Germs. Most of it has come true; little of it was heeded.
Anatolitis says the ability to envision a complex set of possibilities is the basis of good government. “And it is of course the fundamental skill of the artist and anyone with a humanities degree who has been taught how to critically analyse risk and ethical implications, how to think outside the box. That is exactly what we need right now and into the future.”
Anatolitis says she worries when she hears statements about “quiet Australians”, a phrase regularly used by Prime Minister Scott Morrison, which has been described as an update of John Howard’s “battlers”.
“I want to look to our government and hear a group of people who find Australians inspiring ... I want a nation of confident Australians, innovative Australians, ethical Australians.”
Only four years ago, the 2016 World Economic Forum predicted the top skills required for our rapidly changing world are complex problem-solving, critical thinking and creativity, emotional intelligence and cognitive flexibility. Professor Ted Snell, chief cultural officer for the University of Western Australia, affirms this, citing the growing body of local and international research demonstrating direct links between an arts-rich education from an early age and an increase in students’ confidence, and intellectual abilities across all learning areas.
“It encourages them to be creative risk-takers and to become fully rounded human beings alert to the social, political and cultural forces changing our communities,” Snell says. “That is why at all levels of education, students must have the opportunity to engage with the arts and humanities.”
Art Monthly Australasia chair Ann Stephen says the skills derived from studying the humanities – notably critical and creative thinking – are central to building a better, more humane society.
“The humanities not only provide society with invaluable knowledge, but these many disciplines underpin Australia’s competitive economy in education, social services, health, tourism and the creative industries,” she says. “As our times rapidly evolve, the humanities offer a space in which to develop the leaders who will deal with a changed world, armed with an understanding of the learnings from the past.”
This changed world of COVID-19 is proving to be massive not only for artists but for the institutions they gravitate around. Art and other museums can only guess at the longer-term effects on policy, operations and even the subject matter of their collections. For now, they are grappling with how to function.
Many museums have had to work imaginatively to stay connected with audiences, formulating myriad online offerings. From the smallest to biggest galleries and museums, virtual tours, “exclusive viewing rooms” and other internet-based options were embraced: even glitzy art fairs took the plunge. In New York, the Frieze art fair became a virtual event, with about 200 galleries showing 30 works each.
But while greater use of these formats – especially for art fairs – is likely to remain long term and bring an enormous saving on resources, energy and wasteful air travel, few would consider any online “tour” a substitute for an in-person visit. Museums face tough choices about how to continue – or not – with what had become a regular menu of blockbuster exhibitions and big crowds.
Perhaps we will see longer-running shows that allow fewer viewers at a time – but what will this mean for artists, and how will this work for the money-making treadmill the bigger institutions have found themselves on? Perhaps they will emphasise other forms of allure: as one British art writer observed recently, museums have an advantage in the relative freedom of movement that appeals to visitors. By contrast, confining people to seats in enclosed spaces – theatres, concert halls, cinemas – is not nearly as enticing.
David Walsh’s MONA (Museum of Old and New Art) in Hobart was one of the first to shut down when the pandemic hit. Walsh is well-known for his ability to predict, assess the odds and take a bold decision. He’s not leaping back in quickly, either, saying recently he didn’t expect to re-open until October – but he did foreshadow big changes.
“The world won’t be the same, so MONA shouldn’t be the same. How it changes depends on how the world changes. Ten years ago, we were all dressed up, with no place to go. Now we are naked, wondering what to wear, so it’s a little embarrassing that everybody is watching.”
MONA’s director of collections and exhibitions, Nicole Durling, says it is impossible to ponder what a post-lockdown, post-vaccine world (“If one emerges …”) might be like. “I see hope in getting off the treadmill of constant growth and validation of ‘busy work’, a slower way of existing, perhaps, with a reduced sense of urgency to be on the move and doing,” Durling says.
“I’m optimistic about what I’m hearing from some peers and colleagues across the globe. There’s a unifying narrative that we have [pre-pandemic] found ourselves in a revolving door of programming with exhibition after exhibition, bigger, brighter, more, more, more. There is a sense of relief for some that this hibernation period has provided. A moment to pause and assess our activity.”
Dale Collier, Pseudophryne Corroboree II, 2020.Credit:Courtesy of the artist
Yet she is also concerned at how fragile the creative industries are, with scarce funding support and the closure of some venues and spaces. “This is heartbreaking to say the least,” she says. “It is also a difficult time for artists, they are left exposed by cancelled shows and no direct wage subsidy. Indeed, our political leaders have a responsibility to navigate through for our communities as a whole.
“But it will be the artists who will help us make sense of the ‘new normal’ and how to exist and maybe even thrive in that world. The work artists do is as vital as ensuring our health and safety is secured.”
Artists Siri Hayes and Dale Collier are among those using their creative imaginations to help us understand our changed circumstances. Both were commissioned by the Nillumbik Shire Council to make work for a coming exhibition as part of its Art in the time of COVID-19 program. While Collier says the pandemic has intensified his ideas about global conditioning and the environmental crisis used in his work, Hayes has been intrigued by the creative potential of this global situation and how people have quickly innovated to deal with it.
Siri Hayes, Under the doona, 2020.Credit:Courtesy of the artist
Already she has made a test shot for her commissioned work. It shows her daughter in a handcrafted facemask holding her pet rooster, photographed in front of a large handwoven fabric that emulates a significantly enlarged Chux cloth.
“The universally recognisable Chux cloth is associated with cleaning and hygiene,” Hayes says. “However, my cloth will be localised by the woven yarn being dyed with the indigenous plant Indigofera Australis and spun by a local spinner.” Hayes also plans to create a self-portrait draped in the handwoven Chux cloth and lying in the yoga corpse pose in the Eltham bushland reserve opposite the yoga studio she used to attend before COVID-19.
While at first Hayes was worried that the commission theme was too prescriptive, she eventually found it to be an intriguing challenge. Like all artists, she’s using her valuable creative imagination.