Dhaltey Shehr Ke Do Sooraj.
“As soon as you have managed to define in words, it has already slipped – crawled – away into a blurred shadowy light.” Amos Oz
These words were used by the Israeli author in his 1989 novel, To Know a Woman, to describe the present and the near future. As we move into another year (it is hard to call it new), the state of uncertainty continues, and no one knows how long it will last. One can guess that by mid-2021, the vaccine for Covid-19 will be as widely spread as mobile phones are in the world, across classes, communities and continents.
At the beginning of the year, merely three days old, predictions, especially in art, would be more like a piece of fiction (although fiction often tells the truth) based upon the past. Recent past for that matter, can be labelled as the ‘post-normal’, since what took place in our lives after the outbreak of pandemic was far from any standards of normality.
Variants of normality, in a thesaurus, like sanity, soundness of mind, lucidity, rationality, reason, balance were also absent in the period marked by this global disease. So, one must envisage the same pattern of life until it is fully controlled. Last year, people learnt to cope with changed conditions; likewise, art activities altered as well.
Whether frequent or sparse, grand or humble, local or international, physical or virtual; art, one hopes, would keep on enthralling its makers and consumers. Big events such as biennales, and art fairs, residencies and museum exhibitions, one assumes will be held – no matter how remotely organised. But more than these mega shows, the real concern for 2021, is about that confined space we call an artist’s studio. What will happen in that working space, in the artist’s mind and imagination?
The period of social distancing, lockdown and safety measures may emerge in the art of future in a covert manner – not only for visual artists, but for other creative beings too. Recent incidents, accidents, encounters, shocks take a long and muted route to enter aesthetic expression, wiping out traces of the actual occurrence. Perhaps the pandemic will be translated into various versions: diffused, distorted, selective and summarised.
The issue of identity will probably appear as a major theme in the post-normal art. After seeing faces partially concealed (not the traditional veils associated with gender, religion or culture), of your close family members, friends – and yourself, in the mirror of imagination – is an extraordinary experience for an artist who mainly relies on exploring him/her and others, in images, words, sounds. A period of physical disconnection and/or partial contact could evolve into a realisation of common elements among human beings across the globe.
After forced isolation and the fear of others, human interaction may emerge as a strong feature in the art affected by Covid-19. We are so used to shaking hands, embracing family members, greeting friends by holding hands and applauding colleagues by patting them on the shoulder. For us, maintaining the six feet gap, elbow touching, Zoom meetings are becoming unbearable. More than responding to other human’s presence in artwork, the prospect of looking at an art piece in its materiality, moving around a sculpture, walking into an installation, entering a performance, would change our eyes altogether. Before this exile at home, the physicality of objects – of an artwork, was taken for granted, but after the break (sitting in one room and gazing at a computer or phone screen) it would be perceived differently.
An extension of physicality is the opportunity to shift one’s body from one location to another. Travels to distant lands in order to come across different people, cultures, histories, geography have been halted since March-April last year. Most of us fantasise about journeying to faraway lands, wandering in foreign towns, exhausting alien alleys, stumbling upon strangers – the joys that are currently beyond our grasp. Or reaching an unknown town in a bus, watching landscape running rapidly on train windows, landing at a city of flickering lights at midnight. These small, but not insignificant pleasures, missed during Covid-19, are necessary for an artist, because creativity is all about leaving one’s self, and arriving at some odd starting point.
More than its deeper impact, walking, riding a train, flying in an aeroplane exposes one to diverse ways of viewing reality, nature, human beings, animals, objects. It is possible that this major part of our existence, temporarily disrupted, will seep into contemporary art, in some unexpected scheme. Just the optical sensation of spotting a metropolis, looking at plants, buildings, strolling in parks, feeling the texture and strength of tarmac beneath our feet were experiences never noticed due to their routine and mundanity – but now with ordinary life interrupted, one recalls each and every detail of these insignificant ventures. May these lost and banal pleasures resurface in the works of artists now, or in years to come?
Missing the opportunity to travel to various destinations and being at home, in a paradoxical way, has united the world. Every evening you watch the news of the latest Covid-19 cases, numbers of deaths and of cured patients, not only in Pakistan, but in countries as far and removed as Poland, Morocco, Mexico and South Africa.
One wishes a similar kind of camaraderie in the realm of art. Sitting in front of our TV screens, we could be watching reports on art from Papua New Guinea, Niger, Laos, Chile, Martinique and Myanmar. This could bring worlds of art closer to one another, without a taint of hierarchy, a tint of economic superiority, or a hint of cultural dominance. Covid-19 has democratised the planet in 2020. This unity might survive it so that people can connect using physical and virtual means, simultaneously; as is happening in the art world currently. We saw it in a two-person exhibition, currently being held at Canvas Gallery, Karachi. Both the participants, Seher Naveed and Farida Batool transcribed reality – portions of houses, sections of urban spaces, segments of nature – one in materials like graphite on paper and the other in virtual reality videos, video on loop – along with lenticular prints.
The writer is an art critic based in Lahore