2020, as we all know, has been a particularly strange year for those associated with the arts. While some have struggled and withdrawn themselves, being unable to process the situation, others have identified opportunities and announced innovative projects.
As the year passed by, I saw an explosion of paintings on quarantine life—toilet rolls, sanitisers, accumulated food and drink in tins, packets, bottles, jars. There has been a lot of straightforward “representational” art, artists just documenting what has been around them/everyone during the lockdown. But there was another kind of creative expression that caught my attention more—a “metaphorical” one involving a passage, a separation…but also an opening—the possibility of a new vision and state of affairs, maybe a whole different world. The literary and visual poetry of portals, windows, doors.
In April, I read an article in the Financial Times by Indian author and activist Arundhati Roy (https://www.ft.com/content/10d8f5e8-74eb-11ea-95fe-fcd274e920ca) who saw the pandemic as a “portal”. I’d like to quote that paragraph:
Whatever it is, coronavirus has made the mighty kneel and brought the world to a halt like nothing else could. Our minds are still racing back and forth, longing for a return to “normality”, trying to stitch our future to our past and refusing to acknowledge the rupture. But the rupture exists. And in the midst of this terrible despair, it offers us a chance to rethink the doomsday machine we have built for ourselves. Nothing could be worse than a return to normality. Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.
Later, I encountered two artworks shared, not inadvertently, by Jack Shainman Gallery (New York City) on Instagram that touched upon similar themes—a painting, “The School (Door)” by Ottawa-born Montreal-based artist Pierre Dorion and a painting-sculpture titled “The Universe is on the Inside” by Germany-born New York-based artist Leslie Wayne. Both are simple and meditative.
In Dorion’s minimal painting, mostly white and grey, the door is big and heavy-looking. It is tightly shut, and the viewer gets no intimation of what might lie behind it. Danger? Wonder? We do not know. The only certainty is that of division. And there is a suggestion that one might have to make a real effort to reach the other side. The title of the artwork is fitting, given all the realisation and learning that we have undergone during the pandemic.
Wayne’s painting-sculpture captures the spirit of the time in other ways. The window refers to the manner in which we are living at home—seeing the world of chaos and unpredictability from a distance with a limited view. Interestingly, the title of the artwork runs opposite to the form of the artwork itself. The latter projects outwards into the cosmos, yet the former goes inwards into human soul. The universe is on the inside…does this mean we have everything we need at the moment within ourselves already? Could it imply that, ultimately, we will be rescued not by some external force but by the disciplining of our own willpower?
The artwork makes its appreciator travel in two directions simultaneously. Whatever is out—the good or the bad—it seems to communicate, comes from whatever is in. The terrifying physicality of the pandemic has been a result, in the end, of humankind’s interior thought processes and choices. And the external world that we will see outside the window tomorrow, too, will depend on our internal order or disorder today.
Temporally now we are before another passage, opening and threshold. The new year—2021. And it is difficult to imagine the course of events that will unfold. Allergic reactions to vaccines, mutated strains of the virus, new hotspots—the drama goes on. A big question mark still hovers over our social lives, our professional lives. In this phase of continued uncertainty, may we take a moment to meditate upon the divisions explored by the artworks above—between here and there, between us and the world—and arrive at our own precious existential answers.
Written by Tulika Bahadur.