In late 2019, as we in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (UK) were grappling with Brexit, our exit from the European Union and the biggest change to our daily lives in a generation, news from China began flooding social media. It informed a growing realisation of the impending impact of what was to come.
In 2020, on the 11th of March the World Health Organisation declared Covid 19 a global pandemic. Shortly after, on the 23rd of March our government announced a UK wide lockdown imposing the greatest restrictions on citizens in living memory. Expressions such as ‘social distancing’ and ‘self isolation’ entered our vocabulary as museums and galleries began closing to the public and suspending their programs. This mirrored what was happening across the world. By April international borders had been closed and the skies once again belonged to the birds.
And so began, the most unusual of times for artists worldwide; times which will live long in the memories of those of us who were to live through them. As was the case for most artists, I continued to work quietly in my studio finishing a series of works
for an upcoming exhibition in Japan, which I had given the title ‘the life of a bird’. Creating the icons gave me focus and peace of mind to some extent. However with the closure of venues continuing to extend, plans for this exhibition were set aside pending a return to something resembling normality. Artists across the UK were increasingly on-line discussing when this might actually be and offering support to their colleagues. It is fair to say there was not a lot of optimism in the air.
Just before the introduction of the restrictions I had received a request from a friend to create a work for the European International Art Book Biennale. This was due to be held in the museum gallery of the beautiful Karolyi castle in Carei, Transylvania. Upon considering how to provide a suitable object I decided to create a diary, painting one page each week during lockdown. This was an unsurprising subject. Artists everywhere had been watching the situation intensely and many were presenting work inspired by those unique times across social media. It is a key aspect of the work of an artist to document their times in their own unique way, and this paper, providing a snapshot of the times, may be considered part of this important body of work.
For the diary I took motifs which I been developing in my work and blended them with the ubiquitous corona virus symbol to create very personal designs. These were then drawn into dark, turbulent, brooding atmospheres. For each page number I used the number of people who died from the infection in Northern Ireland that week. I accept that this is not the most cheerful of artworks but I believe it truthfully charted both the devastating impact and our progress towards a resolution. It captured the mood of those strange days. On the back cover I painted the 100 year old Captain Tom Moore walking fearlessly, as he had done throughout. Captain Tom had become a symbol of strength in the face of adversity, a source of inspiration and a highly respected gentleman.
During the second period of lockdown I created a second volume of the diary. This time the back cover showed the number of people in Northern Ireland who had received their vaccines. Quite by chance I completed the final page on the day I received my vaccine, which was also the anniversary of the first diagnosed case in
Northern Ireland. The development of the vaccine so quickly was impressive and was something which earned our gratitude. Our National Health Service did a superb job of the rollout. There was of course some controversy as conspiracy theories ranged from mild reservations, through an understandable mistrust of the government’s involvement to deranged nonsense. I elected to take the vaccine, as did all of my friends, and I immediately felt more secure and able to face the challenge.
As people everywhere sought to adjust to the new reality and institutions began adopting their plans, some events were placed on hold until the situation improved sufficiently, as was the case with the Biennale; others were able to successfully convert to new online formats. I had been scheduled to attend the ‘France and beyond’ conference in Massey University in New Zealand, providing a lecture and an exhibition which was to serve as a fringe event. Even at this early stage of lockdown and with little past experience to build upon, this event adapted superbly. I was able to host an opening event which welcomed virtual guests to the gallery using technology provided by H-France. The determination of the organisers was inspirational and their hard work was well and truly rewarded.
Similarly for my work on tour across Ukraine and Russia as part of the ArtMedia 10th anniversary celebrations, a large screen was set up in the galleries allowing me to participate in the opening events. I was able to talk with guests from those regions as they attended and walked around the actual exhibitions. This was actually a great solution and connections were made and old friendships revisited. Venues were sharing feedback on how solutions were working and a maturity of approach was gradually emerging. At the time this was being referred to as the ‘new normal’.
Projects such as these were created worldwide and in great numbers and played a key role in navigating the pandemic. They gave artists an outlet for their creative endeavours and the encouragement needed to keep going. These were difficult days for most artists. Here in the UK our government introduced a furlough scheme which provided payments for people who had been prevented from continuing with their work. However for artists who of course were not in the employment of companies, qualifying for the payments
was difficult and often impossible. Given my lack of success with previous applications to the government’s arts funding bodies, I did not even bother applying. I simply worked in a form of survival mode. Sadly this was the approach which seemed most prevalent amongst my colleagues at the time. However artists are creative people and many found creative solutions.
There were also a few precious moments which lifted my spirits. In a strange twist of fate, the Webby Awards ceremony moving online actually worked better for me. Having served as an executive member of the International Academy of Digital Arts and Science and a judge for these awards for eight years I had not been able to attend an actual awards ceremony. When this moved online I was able to take my place as a virtual guest alongside everyone else and enjoy it live for the first time. It may not have been as good as being there but it was fun.
Mid way through the pandemic, I received a request from a colleague Dr. Ioana Filipescu, who was in lockdown from her work at the National Museum of Art in Cluj-napoca, Romania. She was seeking permission and assistance to write a monograph detailing my life and work. Having curated exhibitions of my icons in the past, Ioana was familiar with both the work and the thought processes. It was a perfect foundation for this work. Like Ioana, many historians and curators found that lockdown and the suspension of events gave them more time to analyse the work of artists and to write and a wealth of new academic work was created.
Working with Ioana brought focus and enjoyment to those historic days. It set me off on the long overdue task of properly cataloguing my work. This was something I had never quite gotten organised and had become a daunting prospect. However, once started I found it highly rewarding. It is important work that so many artists neglect and I cannot help but feel I was one of many who were in that same position. I suppose the completion of this work could be considered a ‘lockdown bonus’.
Strangely, during lockdown I also found myself doing almost as much writing as painting. This was certainly a new situation for me. Writing about the icons caused me to revisit older works and it will be interesting to see what impact if any this has on my new work going forward. Artist’s work is always impacted by their circumstances.
By winter 2021 I had begun to once more receive invitations to participate in events and to prepare exhibitions of my icons for 2022. At this point I seemed reasonable for me to consider that the impact of the pandemic on the arts sector had finally eased. I was also aware of a growing confidence amongst my colleagues during on-line conversations. A willingness to travel and to appear at opening events had returned for many and there seemed to be an air optimism.
It is clear that one of the lasting legacies of the pandemic will be the level of on-line connectivity now found in artist’s studios. As most increased their level of on-line participation in events and became more dependent on applications such a messenger and Zoom, it became imperative that they had fit for purpose connectivity. We now have stronger and more personal communications. Amongst even older artists I noticed an increased interest in digital work. This is easily transported and presented and so it offers a practical solution to some of the
issues from lockdown. Time will tell, but perhaps the increased interest in NTF’s also owes a debt to the pandemic.
An unfortunate side effect of lockdown was that it seemed to turn peoples gaze inward and serve to harden attitudes. The word ‘woke’ had entered our vocabulary and we were witnessing a dramatic increase in the number of activist groups and soaring levels of intolerance and aggression in their behaviour. Our attitudes towards one another and our environment had become careless and on occasion shocking. This shift in the mindset of the public inevitably influenced artists.
The arts have a long tradition of young artists in particular rebelling and rejecting the art and approaches of the establishment. This was no doubt part of the attraction, as was the desire to appeal to the current market; however a narrowing of focus was apparent. Changing times often create a step change in art, as was the case with impressionism and expressionism. On this occasion however the change was primarily in subject rather than technique. This gave me cause for concern. Artists have a unique place in society and for me it remains important that we each follow our conscience, using this privilege thoughtfully and responsibly, rather than fashionably or within limits set by others.
During lockdown and to some extent during the days leading up to it, governments worldwide seem to become more nationalistic. Brexit had been just one example of this trend. However it seemed to intensify during lockdown and the most shocking example of it came just as we seemed to be getting back to something resembling our previous normal. The unimaginable happened as Russia invaded Ukraine in an onslaught so brutal that it stunned and then galvanised the world. Once again the world had been thrown into war. This will impact upon the stability, economic wellbeing and environmental sustainability of Europe and beyond for a generation, with what looks likely to be permanent damage. While art is
clearly of much lesser importance, it often provides people with hope and this had taken yet another major blow; however that will be a story for another day.