What Worried Artists in Lockdown? The Same Things as Everyone Else

What Worried Artists in Lockdown? The Same Things as Everyone Else

BREGENZ, Austria — A tuba sitting on a rolling upholstered chair moves through a small room, to the sounds of a Shostakovich waltz. From the space’s perimeter, a man in a white shirt pulls and spins the improvised contraption across the floor with ropes, like a puppeteer or a dance partner. Why?

The man is the renowned South African artist William Kentridge; his waltzing artwork is a meditation on the months he has spent confined to his studio because of the coronavirus lockdown. The work, “Chair Waltz,” is one segment of a video series on display at Kunsthaus Bregenz, a venue in western Austria. Its exhibition “Unprecedented Times,” running through Aug. 30, is most likely the first (and possibly only) show in a European museum made up of work produced by artists as the virus spread and they sheltered in place this year.

With the abrupt arrival of Austria’s strict lockdown, the Kunsthaus was shuttered. In the following weeks, its director, Thomas D. Trummer, found himself in email conversations with many international artists: Some sent him pictures of the art they were producing in isolation; others he sought out, to see what they were up to. As a result, an exhibition showing artists’ first reactions to the extraordinary situation was perhaps only logical.

Quickly curated, and displaying works made in places including Johannesburg, London, Paris, Vienna and rural England, “Unprecedented Times” highlights the anxieties and uncertainties of life in a pandemic. Boredom, doubt, and isolation weave through the works, some of which also offer glimpses into how artists produce under pressure.

On the ground floor of the exhibition space, two veteran artists explore conditions of solitude and waiting. The Center for the Less Good Idea, a Johannesburg art center founded by Mr. Kentridge in 2016, presents “29 Long Minutes” — a series of one-minute films that respond to the lockdown, mostly through dance and performance, shown in sequence on one screen. Ten of the 29 films, including “Chair Waltz,” are Mr. Kentridge’s own, shot in his studio. (The other 19 are by international artists he invited to take part.)

In “Hold,” we see Mr. Kentridge’s signature charcoal drawings filmed in stop-motion animation, alternating words like “touch,” “breathe” and “wait”— all laden with connotation and appearing like title cards — with drawn images including a caged bird and a masked medical worker.

Arranged in a vast inverted triangle on a nearby wall is “Certitudes — Incertitudes,” by the French artist Annette Messager, a series of 52 watercolor sketches depicting skeletons and skulls. They are initially macabre, but on a closer look, some of the figures are dancing impishly, or taunting playfully. (One skeleton, wearing a face mask, is giving the middle finger.)

These pictures aren’t necessarily about doom: Ms. Messager, 76, had surgery in late 2019, and her recovery dovetailed with the coronavirus outbreak. Part of the same series, called “Youme,” pictures two skulls, fused at the forehead, in a heart-shaped configuration rendered in a deep purplish-red. Ms. Messager experienced lockdown in Paris with her husband, and this work seems to distill the comfort, but also the claustrophobia, of confinement with a loved one.

Other works also address the big themes of life and death. Marianna Simnett balances mortality with levity on a screen in one of the Kunsthaus’s vertiginous stairwells: “Dance, Stanley, Dance” is a colorful 16-second animation that metaphorically revives a dead squirrel she found outside during lockdown in London. In “Chalk Outlines,” a two-minute animation of drawn human figures rising and falling in white on a black background, the Beirut-born, Berlin-based artist Rabih Mroué could be depicting a crime scene, or moving graffiti. Its twitchy visuals reflect nervous distraction — and allude to the violent protests that erupted during lockdown in the United States and elsewhere.

As well as the nervous energy that a lockdown might provoke, it also forces inaction and immobility: In Helen Cammock’s 19-minute film “They Call it Idlewild,” the camera scans the rural landscapes and interiors around the artist, one of the winners of the 2019 Turner Prize. She never appears onscreen, but in the soundtrack she sings of idleness and utters aphorisms about “futile acts for futile times.” Completed as the virus was rampaging through Asia and Europe, but before Britain went into lockdown, the hypnotic film anticipates the coming limbo and its loneliness.

The only work created pre-pandemic is by the Austrian artist Markus Schinwald, who for years has modified 19th-century portrait paintings by adding accessories to their subjects — often fictional prosthetics such as fake noses, but also fabric masks. The elegantly masked “Grita” and “Meron” now seem eerily prescient.

Although the Kunsthaus chose “Unprecedented Times” as the English version of the exhibition’s name, the German title, “Unvergessliche Zeit,” which translates more directly as “Unforgettable Time,” seems to better express the show’s emotional dimensions, which resonate through the gray concrete interiors of the Kunsthaus’s monolithic building. This is not an era anyone will easily forget, and for many, confinement has led into uncharted psychological territory.

We’ll be seeing more “pandemic art” in the future, of course. These early responses are intriguingly direct and raw: Some attest to the rigor, self-discipline, and sometimes loneliness of making art, others are a reminder that we’re not through this yet.

The Paris-based artist Ania Soliman’s “Journal of Confinement” began in April as an Instagram project. Nearly every day, she created a sketch in mostly black, white and red, which she posted on the social media platform. The original works are displayed in free-standing vitrines and on walls in Bregenz.

That journal, now of “deconfinement,” continues on Instagram, and is well worth following. In a post accompanying one of the works, she asks: “All creatures follow the same impulse to movement, from spinning RNA/DNA strands to the turning of planets. How to move forward together?”

Like she does, this exhibition seems to ask us not only to reflect in real time, but also to take this fraught moment as a point of departure, and to shape what comes next.

Unprecedented Times
Through Aug. 30 at Kunsthaus Bregenz in Bregenz, Austria; kunsthaus-bregenz.at.

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