What we did during lockdown

 

We were on pause. We stood still for days. We lay on the couch. We stared at the clouds. We listened to the neighbourhood birds as if hearing them for the first time. We listened to the sound of nothing. We cooked. We slept. We wandered around the house. We poked in the kitchen cupboards for snacks. We planned trips to the supermarket. Food was king. We sewed buttons on shirts and finished projects. We grew beards. We ran around the house after our new cats. We clung to each other and Zoomed and video called and phoned and felt lucky. Time hugged us with its bounty, absence made holes in the day. I became obsessed with drawing. I was supposed to be working; I had a job. But I couldn’t stop drawing. It kept me looking at the world and nothing else mattered.

Occupation: Artist, a group of Wellington artists, wanted to continue their practices in a productive way. So they set up an online gallery. It gave them a mandate to carry on making, to try things out, try new things, and a place to show. The reasons for this necessity are well documented—exhibitions cancelled, events cancelled, openings cancelled, everything cancelled.

And then Creative New Zealand was offering grants from its Resilience Fund, and  O:A’s application was successful. It provided the funding to develop the online gallery and to promote and stage six exhibitions, and commission a writer to respond to each one.

 

Gallery Faux https://www.galleryfaux.com/

 

Click. The entrance to the gallery is a modest front page with a grid of images promoting the exhibitions. Click. Squidy runs away with submersible time by Nadine Smith. In this exhibition of sixteen photo montages, marine machines swim and shift and wheel around on the floor of the ocean. Some of them wink and others stare. There is a retro quality to them, a Thunderbirds aesthetic, and Nadine’s interests in clockwork and tiny bits of machinery. Beneath the images is a photo of all the characters, the Bit Part Crew, their title signalling the recycled materials they are made from, but also hinting that this story has a screen adaptation under development. Further scrolling to a poem by the artist providing context on her process and the meaning she wants us to take from the images.

…[Squidy] meets a friend Hoover who’s sucking up trash

Our world is unravelling, it’s hell bent on cash

Spare a thought for our creatures that all share this space

Let’s pick up behind us, let’s not leave a trace…

 

Nadine was trialling poetry and potential new directions for her work as characters in animated stories. For this reason she commissioned Scottish animator and writer Ainslie Henderson to provide the written response to the exhibition. The response documents the way he approached the exhibition relying on the visual language of the images to generate meaning and narrative. The result is a warm light-hearted narrative around Squidy and the life that led him to the ocean and his mission to protect it.

 

Click. RESET by Factory Girl, Sarah Read and Sondra Bacharach, the most conceptual of all the exhibitions and in keeping with Sarah’s practice. The exhibition provides activities to do during lockdown sourced from Miranda July and Harrell Fletcher’s blogsite Learning to love you more. The audience are invited to document the outcome of the activities and submit the photographs to the blog. They range from climbing a tree, to making an encouraging banner, to drawing a constellation from someone’s freckles.

“From August to September, seeking respite from the thrashings of our own shattered brains — a way to turn the poor things off and on again — we trialled a selection of assignments inspired by and in some cases borrowed from Learning to Love You More (see FAQs for details). And they worked! Each one left us refreshed, lifted, lighter.”

 

The most popular activity was creating a constellation by connecting freckles with lines drawn on the skin. This might be one of the most memorable motifs from the exhibition and a metaphor not only for this group of artists who connected with each other during this time, but also for our situation. We were all connecting unknown dots and needed some structuring instructions to meet the lockdown experience and stay functional. I too had found my drawing activities through online courses and having someone else provide the instructions was a relief.

Craig Folz’s response as the commissioned writer, riffs off the impulse to provide instructions for others as well as the instructions provided by RESET. He connects the instructions with constellations, satellites, the internet, ephemerality, being human and the fleeting nature of our lives in the face of the universe. It’s witty and poetic and navigates around some of the more general thoughts I had about exhibitions on the internet, and objects and object making and when an object is an object and can an internet object really be an object etc etc.

 

Click. I couldn’t resist the title, Fake it, F*ck it, Fecit by Caroline Thomas and the teaser image—a woman holding a strange yellow object in her mouth with two egg-shapes that obscure her eyes. Clicking through to the exhibition, a video of an LED sign flashes the individual words of the title in red. On the floor its reflection flickers like flames from a living room fire. I want to warm my hands in front of it. Text by the artist explains: “We’re all familiar with the phrase, “Fake it ‘til you make it”. What happens if you don’t ‘make it’? Or at least not on the terms that you were hoping for, planning for, expecting? Why not make ‘it’ anyway, whatever ‘it’ is?”

What follows is an illustrated story about Caroline’s evolving sense of identity as a girl who wanted a boy’s life, a horsey girl, a London girl, a puberty-resister, a childless woman, a middle-aged woman, an artist. Selecting images from Photography Year Book 1964, the year she was born, Caroline represents this narrative by replicating in sterling silver a tiny object from the photograph and presenting it on the photograph. There’s a chain, a horse’s nose, the smallest dome at the top of London’s St Paul’s Cathedral, a top lip, a pair of red high heels, a purple tombstone with the word MOTHER engraved across it, and a pair of golden gloves. Expanding the narrative are photographs of jewellery—the strange egg poachers of the front page, Pony nest bracelet, a charm bracelet, a breastplate, a self-help book, a neckpiece called Requiring Instructions, two brooches made of split pin paper fasteners, and a bag of yellow and black badges that say CONTEMPORARY. And this is all accompanied by Dominic Hoey’s hilarious poem “Look The Part, Be The Part Motherfucker” with lines like …Fake it till they call the cops … / …Fake it till you have a falling out with the dog…

The images, the works, the narrative, the poetic response. All the elements work in synch to create a cohesive and engaging experience. The strangeness, the freshness, the story, the ideas, the vulnerability, the horses… it steers into some of my favourite territories.

 

Click. Becky Bliss went off into space with her exhibition Three space oddities and a jeweller. It is divided into three sections, Gold, Space Junk and The Cost of Space Travel and surrounded by texts which provide facts and narrative about space. Who knew, for instance, that gold comes from space?

“In 2017 scientists detected a burst of gravitational waves from what they believed was an ultra-powerful collision between two neutron stars. Through analysis of these tiny ripples in the fabric of space, it was revealed that the debris included gold.”

 

And along with the interesting facts and quotes from scientists are a series of brooches. “All of the series take their shapes from satellites and rocket ships, as well as derivatives of emblems/logos from television programmes and movies” Becky writes in an email. Space Gold # 1, #2 and #3 appear like gold samples showcasing different grades of gold. The Space Junk section channels a Star Trek aesthetic. I imagine Lieutenant Uhuru wearing any one of these large vibrant geometric groupings on her uniform. In The Cost of Space Travel, the brooches have more complicated shapes and groupings and less colour—like plans or blueprints.

There’s a tension here between the use of the space branding aesthetic and protesting the excesses of space travel and exploration—that problematic of co-opting visual language without unpacking and redeploying it. This is highlighted in the response by Nicola Edmond who writes of a space travel company. She imagines that Becky would create the badges for Elon Musk and Tom Cruise’s uniforms sparkling their way to Mars and the Moon to establish new film sets and new homes for humanity. But is Becky planning to sabotage their plans with a mission of her own? Do the brooches contain hidden codes beaming warning messages out into space? Or will they self-destruct at the outer limits of the atmosphere ejecting Tom and Elon into space… Planet Earth is blue and there’s nothing you can do…

 

Click. Keeping it real is the umbrella title for a series of three mini projects by Kelly McDonald. The first project, Piss, poo, and spew, bounces off an Instragram post by Jacinda Adern about finding nappy cream on her work blazer. It imagines two brooches to hide the fleck of cream—a smiley face brooch made from a Goldilocks pot scrubber, and Stone for a glass ceiling, a beautifully tide-rounded piece of greywacke hanging by gold chain from a steel band. “You never know when you might need a stone for a glass ceiling. With this brooch, you always have one close at hand – yank and throw!” the text reads.

Writer Rosanne Bartley explores the idea of jewellery created by life—in this case the fleck of nappy cream—comparing the 1975 Everyday Adornment performance of Dutch artist/jeweller Robert Smit with the way Jacinda deals with it. While McDonald suggests the brooches that might hide it, Adern’s Instagram post provides an image of the fleck, presented very much like a badge of honour.

Tools for Lockdown, the second project, is a series of ‘tools’, Kelly’s favourite motifs. With their ‘fantastically descriptive’ titles and modified compositions, they document Kelly’s experience of lockdown. Rosanne describes them:

In form and content, they’re [the objects] infused with the absurdity of confining people to their homes for extended periods. A saw blade cut to a right angle and a hammerhead bonded to a stovetop element coil capture the imagination and transcend the flatness of the screen. While these objects blur the boundaries between function and fantasy they’re totally convincing. They capture all that is confusing about this time and in effect remind us that life is at its best when we are caught up in the struggle of keeping it real. 

 

The third project, Mask, plays with the concept of the mask at the same time highlighting the mask questions we were suddenly faced with during lockdown and the choices we were having to make: where would we get masks? Disposable or reusable? Were they effective? Would we wear them? Would other people wear them? This mini project brings together images of the masks that Kelly has been making for some years and highlights her obsession with Ned Kelly’s mask. It’s a different sort of mask but still has the same effect of reducing the face to the eyes and protecting the wearer—albeit from different troubles.

 

Click. Nautilus into Night by Kedron Parker is a series of twelve photographs documenting the Nautilus Creative Space in Owhiro Bay, Wellington. These richly-coloured images capture the cluttered and whimsical interior of the Space and the chaos of creative activity. The photos move from day into night, and a couple have a mysterious zig-zag of light that’s almost figurative. As with much contemporary photography in Aotearoa, the absence of people in the images is used to highlight their presence, and is a sense of community who meet and converse around low tables in comfortable chairs beneath colourful lanterns and stars. There’s something magical and nostalgic about this series, and poignant in the context of lockdown when nobody could meet.

Tim Corballis responds to Kedron’s exhibition with Renewal of Life’s Possibilities. In this story four characters who have launched themselves into space during the 1919 Russian Revolution, find themselves landing in the Pacific in 2020—even though they have only been gone a month. It is a metaphor for our month in lockdown, stuck in each other’s company in a fever of repose and creation. 

“You took the results of the revolution with you? Do you think they remain relevant to the world you returned to? After all this time?

The revolution has no results. It is a spirit of ceaseless creation. That’s what we did. We hope to be able to carry it on now we’ve stepped outside.”  

Using the space pun, he’s made a marvellous imaginative leap infused with the golden light of Kedron’s photographs, the revolution and the creative fervour within.

 

A spirit of ceaseless creation. That was the spirit that kept us sane. Thinking about and working on our projects, reminding ourselves that these were the things that truly sustained us. Gallery Faux represents this spirit as well as snapshotting a moment in time. I enjoyed the way themes threaded their way through the exhibitions and the writing; the jamming across language and text and the visual punning and humour. The Factory Girls were enlisting participants to make constellations from freckles, Craig Foltz was sitting on a beach looking at Elon Musk’s satellite trains, and Becky was remembering that Earth’s gold and minerals come from space. Kedron and Tim Corballis were both in space and in spaces. Becky’s alarm at the excesses of space travel and the renewal of the colonial narrative of the necessity of new homelands met Nadine’s concerns about the planet and the ocean. The horses in Caroline’s work and the horse in the Nautilus. The provision of instructions by Factory Girl and Caroline’s need for instructions.

And the writers. Their responses to the exhibitions expand the Gallery experience in all directions. From the more academic art historical response of Roseanne Bartley to the stream of consciousness approach of Ainslie Henderson, with stories, poetry and travel writing in between. It demonstrates the symbiotic relationship of art forms and the sheer joy of collaboration, and each exhibition is opened out as a result.

 

Writing about an online exhibition and gallery was new for me. It generated questions about how to approach the project. Should I think of these exhibitions as thought experiments, finished works, coherent bodies? What was the function of this gallery? To connect artists? To connect artists and writers? To provide a framework of activities to get through lockdown? Was it a community-building activity or an art world event? Or all of the above? It was like looking at an archive of something that had occurred five minutes ago—what did it mean?

And of course, brought to you by the internet. We are now aware that as well as being a platform where we transact some of our lives, the internet is a giant archive collecting data and information about everyone and everything engaged with it. But during the Covid lockdown the internet took on a new benevolent dimension. It looked like our saviour. We counted ourselves lucky to have Netflicks, to be able to video call, and to continue to work. This exhibition snapshots that moment in time when the internet fulfilled its potential for good. It connected us. It provided instructions from people we trust. It was where we saw evidence of “the spirit of ceaseless creation” and it gave us a platform from which to speak.

 

Mary-Jane Duffy for Gallery Faux 

April 2021

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