“The Past is a Foreign Country; they do things differently there”, so stated L.P. Hartley in his award-winning novel the Go-Between (1953). Beyond the mainstream critique of that text and accusations of its culturally narrow reference base, I would argue that before long we will have need to revisit textbook diagrammatic representations of the human timeline, and perhaps even the dendrochronological carbon record as we traverse this momentous watershed called Coronavirus. We may also need to rethink our Julian definition of BC (I am hereby christening ‘Before COVID’ BC2 here for the purposes of this article) and the rest (I am compelled to say I am already weary of the term ‘the new normal’ btw).
The point of my essay here is, perhaps disconcertingly, to highlight the pressing need to reconcile ourselves to an ongoing absence of collective and individual certainty. I also want to attend to the prophetic, titular assertion as we move online and live vicariously through a viral ‘wormhole’ that has rendered human existence asynchronous and nomadic. So it has come to pass that even the very recent past is certainly a very different country, and one that, perspectivally at least, we may never be able to truly re-inhabit.
So, the world is changed and it seems to me that our application of rational, premise-based Greco-Roman, Franco-German et al nut-cracking to-date, has not enabled us to conceptually grasp the notion of how we might address the emergence of irrevocable and unrecognisable change, and how the past might look from the BC2 perspective.
Even 4 months in, there remains an unthinkability of our own species being under threat in a time where our self-centred pre-eminence as a species has led to the dubious dignification by self-anointing our own geological epoch (the Anthropocene no less): And whilst the new Coronavirus may not constitute a truly existential threat to humankind, the more worrying implication is that the increasingly overcrowded, destructive exchanges between the human and bacteriological worlds may, in the future, unleash something far more virulent and unimaginable than even COVID-19. COVID-19 has not only revealed the Fairy Feather fabric of our society(s), but also our relative lack of resilience in the face of a challenge that, in terms of scale, doesn’t even remotely place humanity on any endangered species list.
Cynically perhaps, I would posit that there are perceptual obstacles preventing us from processing information at the core of this crisis: The news media perpetuate two dominant narratives at the extremes; on the one hand we are presented with the international mortality league-tables (as comparative governmental KPI’s), whilst on the other, we face the bleak truths emerging from emotive-individualistic and genuinely gut-wrenching human stories, and these more of illness and death than of recoveries. I would argue that this combination has served, more than anything else, to drive politicians increasingly to offer a mistaken, anthropomorphized reification of Coronavirus into a solid. A solid adversary as they grasp for some notion of their own political placement and the need to be seen to be being appropriately responsible.
The 45th President of the United States, Mr Donald John Trump, with his incessant narcissistic presser declarations that he is a “wartime president… fighting an invisible enemy”, crystallises our childlike struggle to embody the threat. Presidential attempts to intimidate an entity (other than the press and Pelosi), that de facto does not exist, on a scale incompatible with the potential deployment of the biggest nuclear arsenal on the planet, have been both grimly risible and literally (potentially) toxic. Further to this, I believe that the mobilization of public sentiment against the virus as a stealthy ‘sentient’ actor, with origins unknown, but (dangerously) open to topical/xenophobic hi-jacking, not only impedes rehabilitation, but starts to unravel it. And all this of course whilst lockdown protesters, survivalists and evangelists from the extremes seem to relish the likening of this episode in human history as a ‘smiting’ of us sinners, who have, through a systemic abuse of the laws of the first paradise come to deserve this particular form of divine chastisement.
So what has this got to do with art? Well, absolutely everything. I believe that the move online and social distancing has exposed the difficulties in the credibility of art/life to exist meaningfully as an entity driven by images without being anchored to physical form and the sense that this lends. Over the past weeks I have been looking, with a sense of incrementally diminishing optimism, at Hockney’s drawings, Hirst’s free artwork, Gormley and others’ moves to represent their online “in response to the virus…” utterings in a whole range of admirable, worthy, but ultimately disappointing ways. Mindless “wellbeing” Colouring In books have re-surged in popularity, competitive food shopping is the new existentialism, online JPEG virtual galleries have sprung up every-but-nowhere, online drawing and photography competitions abound with more or less good intentions, along with scams, fake shows, vanity publishing and paid entries. I mean who can (would want to) absorb all of this stuff?
As I browse my office bookshelves filled with exhibition catalogues and art-related texts from the last 6 decades and beyond, I am impossibly torn between a nostalgia for the art I experienced before new Coronavirus (BC2), but also nauseated at any prospect of a simple return to how things have been in the art world for the past 50 years. I mean generally the art business hasn’t exactly represented an ethical pathfinder, but there must be an alternative mustn’t there in terms of what things might be in the future, and isn’t this the opportunity for the visionaries to make a change?
My only conclusion is that there is something about the very tangibility of art/life that I miss; physical spaces in museums and galleries full of tactile, olfactory, audible, dazzling-the-living-bejeezus-out-of-me stuff. Through my lockdown-world portal of the computer screen, less may be said to be more, but it’s still not enough. I leave you with some works that, for me, embody the contradictions of that other country.