Chronicles of the virus

March 22, 2020

What would happen to the art world if coronavirus is not controlled? Will the art market go electronic?

Untitled by Kiran Saleem.

The news of Art Dubai postponing the 14th edition of the international art fair, scheduled for end of March 2020, did not come as a surprise. The prestigious event was abandoned in view of “the on-going global health implications of the Coronavirus”. An epidemic that portends the end of the world. Like McDonalds, Hollywood, Coca-Cola and jeans, coronavirus is now global.

What would happen to the art world if the disease is not controlled? First, the Art Basel Hong Kong got cancelled, now the Art Dubai. Who knows how many other important international art events would be hit by coronavirus.

It’s not only international shows; local, regional and small exhibitions face the same fate.

Art exhibitions are occasions where people meet, shake hands, embrace, exchange price lists, write comments with a shared pen; and, touch the art pieces once they are bought, handle them while installing — thus exposing themselves to the risk of catching an infection.

I am not painting a pessimistic picture but the speed of corona virus’s spread in countries quite far from the source is alarming. One hopes that some remedy is discovered soon. But, if not, the case it is scary to imagine… what will happen to the world of art. Contemporary European and North American Art may suffer a huge setback. Same goes for the art from nations where the disease is escalating. Its presence and impact are rather unpredictable. This is forcing people to take measures which were unimaginable at the time of outbreaks of SARS and Bird Flu.

It is possible that the world we are familiar with would be transformed beyond recognition after the outbreak of a pandemic. In a sense, coronavirus is comparable to contemporary art, because it disregards differences among nations, ignores passport controls and neglects identity makers like gender, ethnicity, religion and class. The disease has travelled beyond security barriers and political borders, uniting the uneven world into a single entity. Where in the world would you find Iceland and Indonesia mentioned in the same sentence, unless it’s a review of some biennale or triennial, or an update of the Olympic games; or the latest count of coronavirus-infected patients.

Apart from keeping themselves safe from the threat, the foremost question for artists today is about their professional practices. We all know that this virus reaches the other person through contact. Thus, purchasing material for making art, bringing work to a framer’s shop, fabricating a piece with a team of assistants/collaborators can all be hazardous. Visiting an exhibition, and interacting with viewers and collectors can risk an infection. Works of art are primarily regarded as visual. But, in reality, these require a lot of physical interaction by assistants, co-workers, technical help, curators and galleries and audience.

One must recognise the calling of our time — going virtual. Our recent past has altered the conventional concept of exhibition, gallery and even artwork. Now you make a painting, a sculpture, a print, a video, or an installation, and before contacting a gallery, you post it on your Instagram account, share it on your Facebook page, or include it in your website. You may be approached by a collector based in Arizona who is following you on Instagram or visits your website, requesting the work be sent to his address — after he transfers money into your account.

Even though you dispatch the artwork (once the shipping cost is covered), there is this hassle of packing, customs, insurance etc. You could have opted for another course: of making an artwork that is generated at your studio but its physical manifestation takes place at the location of the connoisseur/buyer. You send a software file of the image that can be printed as per the direction of the artist, a 3-D printed sculpture on the scale suggested by the artist, or an installation following the artist’s layout. A conceptual piece can be similarly reconstructed according to the guidance of the artist.

Coronavirus is comparable to contemporary art, because it disregards differences among nations, ignores passport controls and neglects identity makers like gender, ethnicity, religion and class.

These possibilities are not being suggested to cope with the pressure of untouchability in the times of coronavirus; these practices have in fact been a part of contemporary art — overcoming the distance between the maker and the viewing venue. This reminds one of Carl Andre, the minimalist sculptor, who instead of manufacturing his work used to order a relevant company/agency to place “repetitive blocks, bricks and metal plates arranged directly on the floor” prior to visiting it. This work had the aesthetics of industrial goods.

Likewise, Rashid Rana creates his work in his studio in Lahore, sends it as a computer file to a printer in Germany where it is fabricated, to be dispatched to a collector in Singapore.

One feels that coronavirus has opened up other possibilities for contemporary art which cannot be disconnected from contemporary life. Today, we spend more time on our cellphones, chatting with friends and family, connecting to curators, searching for inspiration, posting our productions. Our window to the world is that small device in our hand (a means of migrating to other destinations for characters in Mohsin Hamid’s last novel Exit West). In that sense, severing human touch, as long as internet signals are available, may not be a great loss to the artists. I know an artist who buys his daily groceries on Amazon. For him, selling his work through internet is as normal as getting broccoli on a daily basis to his house in Manchester.

If in future, immediate or far, corona-infected or post-corona, works of art cease to be physical, there will be images accessed, enjoyed and possessed virtually, just like emails. The new world may be healthier (less damage to environment), quicker and smarter.

In that scenario, when a work of art, a print, a photograph, a video, a detail for installation, is sent through email, it is also purchased electronically. A marketplace of this type might bring the lingering question of art and commerce to a happy ending, just before the end of the world. Perhaps.

Coronavirus: Major art exhibitions cancelled across the world