We invited some Wellington art-world friends to join us to comment on their time in lockdown and on leaving it.
Elizabeth Caldwell, Director, City Gallery Wellington
At the 2011 Venice Biennale, I queued for an hour to see a spectacular James Turrell installation. Three people were allowed in at a time and only for five minutes (you had to wear paper slippers). It was hot and about a gazillion-percent humidity. For the first half hour, the queue only moved when people got so sick of queuing that they left. Waiting was boring and uncomfortable. But the moment I got in, all discomfort left me. The tedious wait time was forgotten as I was transported by the work. Getting back into the Gallery was like that. After weeks of developing a love-hate relationship with Zoom, weeks of relentless planning for guiding the institution back through different Alert Levels, and weeks of escapist Netflix binge viewing—all that seemed to fade away the minute I got to stand in front of the new art being installed in the Gallery and share this joy with a team that was equally delighted. One of the most dispiriting parts of the Covid-19 seclusion was being cast adrift from our core purpose: working on behalf of talented artists to connect their visions with audiences eager to gain insight into them. Just how quickly that feeling of being untethered to this vital work dissolved was a potent reminder of art’s power to restore and lift our spirits. When all is chaos, trust the art.
Marcia Page, dealer, Page Galleries
I am privileged to have a farmhouse in the Wairarapa, so lockdown for me was something of a rural retreat, an idyllic return to nature. I spent my days with my hands buried in the soil. Of course, I spent a lot of time thinking about what life might look like post-lockdown.
I opened my first gallery in 1987, just before the stockmarket crash, so I am no stranger to unpredictability, but these are extraordinary times we are living through. I am thinking a lot about how to best support and contribute to the local art community here in Wellington. It feels as if the city has lost its identity as the arts capital. How can we reclaim that? Dealer galleries and their artists are sometimes thought of as outliers, but want to be engaged with and supported by their community. We live on the edge. There is a lot of financial risk involved.
I am happy to be back in the gallery, working towards our upcoming exhibitions, which will include a parallel programme of younger local artists alongside our represented artists. It’s a bloody difficult time for a lot of people, but I ardently believe art can continue to provide an uplifting experience in the face of uncertainty.
Séraphine Pick, artist
After experiencing some initial anxiety, I settled into my staycation—this new game of restrictions. It was nice to hang at home, but I felt I should be making more art, especially as I had all this extra time, and no appointments, no shopping distractions. But it was hard to make art on the kitchen table, being unable to spread out and be messy. I couldn’t concentrate in the way I can in the studio.
Time passed slowly. There was boredom. I missed the journey between home and studio, and I missed seeing people. And there was added pressure from the uncertainty as to how we would survive, financially and mentally. On the up side, no planes was good. It was so quiet that the birds came back. I watched the world move online. I was in the online art fair, my first digital show. However, watching daily life and human interaction become digital is not something I want to get used to.
Now that we’re emerging from lockdown, time is becoming condensed again, with deadlines and pressure to get things done. As we slip back into old ways—albeit in a new world of social distancing and code scanning—we can gather, go to bars and drink. But, for a while, I’ll miss the free-flow time I enjoyed.
In the next few years, it will be interesting to see how the artworld adapts as the economy dives. As an artist, the lockdown made me consider how artists in the past got through such big crises. Maybe art history will also be transformed and revived with all the reading and YouTube watching we had time to indulge in.
Jhana Millers, dealer
Lockdown meant closing the physical gallery, cancelling shows, and missing out on attending art fairs. However, the silver lining was that it gave me the chance to focus more on digital-virtual presentation of work, which will help introduce our artists and their work to a larger range of people and create opportunities moving forward. During the lockdown, we improved our website, started new online projects, and received a CNZ grant to make videos of exhibitions. The Virtual Art Fair went really well too, although you miss out on connecting personally with the Art Fair audience. We’re happy to be back in the gallery, meeting with people, and moving back to normal, but remain glad of the stolen time we were able to devote to these other aspects of running the gallery.
Sonya Lacey, artist and Walters Prize finalist
Fiction helped me to indulge the bleakness and make a more discernible object of my apprehensions. I reread Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky’s 1926 surrealist short story ‘Quadraturin’.
Citizen Sutulin lives in a claustrophobic eighty-six square-foot apartment. He is irritated by his neighbours and by noises from upstairs. To remedy this, he applies Quadraturin (an experimental agent for ‘biggerizing rooms’) to his interior walls. In the morning, he notes with pleasure an incremental increase in space between the pictures hung on his wall and the new gap between the wall and his bed. He buys fresh yellow curtains and considers picking up a new rug. As the room grows, he becomes wary of visits from his landlady and resists oversight from the state. Sutulin leaves his apartment then returns at night. On unlocking his door, he attempts to comprehend the dark expanse that confronts him—the scale of which continues to expand exponentially. His once stifling room now ‘can’t stop squaring: a square squared, a square of squares squared’. He has created a vast and terrifying void. Sutulin stands still in the spot where he calculates his coat should be. It’s not there, he’s cold, and he can no longer find the door to leave the room.
Now that we are easing out of the strictest period of lockdown, what remains with me is how paradoxically mundane an experience it was—that the most profound and caring thing we could possibly do was to wait, to stay home, in the face of something moving so frighteningly fast.
Su Ballard, Associate Professor, Art History, Victoria University (still in Australia, starts July)
It is now week eleven of remote teaching. In week one, I bought all my books home, gathered digital resources, recorded online lectures, posted out piles of readings to students unable to access the Internet, rearranged my ‘home office’ so that only the smartest books lined up behind me for important faculty Zoom meetings, and made a family timetable so that year-six home school didn’t overlap with three-hour first-year university-physics labs and contemporary-art-history tutorials. I started a Facebook group where I posted curated gallery visits, then virtual gallery walk-throughs, gallery postponements, gallery closures, and gallery-job losses. I had work to do. And yet, in week ten, I found myself searching the Internet for Francis Alÿs’s video The Nightwatch (2004). I watched as the fox slipped around the walls, sniffing at a bench, pausing beneath a portrait of Elizabeth I, its eyes locking onto the camera for a split second. The gallery never felt so empty. In week eleven, I’m restless. I want to be able to control where I look, what I look at, where I go, when I go. I talk to friends around the world and we pretend to talk about art—I wonder out loud if I’ll ever see Walter De Maria’s Earth Room or finish that project in the archives— but really we are talking about loss and grief, departures and arrivals. I hold a book launch in Norway. I’ve never been to Norway. I write every day about art, about nature, about the Anthropocene. I have a sense that art and galleries have changed, that art history will need to be written differently now, but I’m yet to step outside.
Sophie Davis, Director, Enjoy
I spent lockdown in the small apartment that I share with my girlfriend, with both of us working on opposite sides of our living-room table for the last two months. Before moving to Wellington, I lived in Christchurch during all the major earthquakes, so the feeling of limbo and uncertainty in lockdown was strangely familiar, despite that being a very different and localised experience.
Last week was my first back at the gallery in Leftbank Arcade. Our small team is currently enjoying the company of a few local artists in residence, who are working onsite until we reopen to the public in mid-June. These additional weeks are a chance to begin reconnecting and to give artists back some making and thinking time.
In the arts, we’re used to challenging work conditions and smaller crises, and there’s a persistent idea that we can always come up with innovative solutions to face these. During lockdown, I’ve been thinking more than usual about this high-performance culture, particularly in relation to online spaces. The artists we work with put so much into their exhibitions and projects under normal circumstances, simply making their work or being present for an install, an opening, or a talk is a significant commitment of time and resources on its own. I’m trying my best to remain focused on supporting this, as it’s the core of our work at Enjoy and what I’m most excited about coming out of lockdown.
I was planning on moving overseas towards the end of this year, which now feels like an alternative reality! So, I’ve been trying to stay openminded about what the future and staying local for now could look like.
Nina Tonga, Curator Contemporary Art, Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa
I spent lockdown here in Wellington and on the screens of devices across every calling app from Facebook Messenger to Zoom. Like many others, my day pivoted around the government’s 1pm daily briefings where words like ‘essential’ took on new meaning. In one briefing, the Prime Minister gave special recognition to Rose Kavapalu, a cleaner at Ōtāhuhu Police Station who works thirteen-hour days to keep over 220 staff safe in their workplace, calling us to remember our essential workers as being ‘essential’ well after this pandemic has passed. Later that day, when Newshub did a follow-up story, I cried watching the humble response of Rose, who spoke on behalf of her fellow cleaners saying, ‘hey, you work un-noticed, it’s noticed’, then took the opportunity to advocate for a living wage. Lockdown definitely shone a light on many existent inequities and the massive cancellation of events, exhibitions, and projects made visible the arts’ importance for our sense of community, culture, and wellbeing. This week, I ventured beyond the bubble and back to work, stepping into a world that feels forever changed, perhaps I am too. While there is still so much uncertainty ahead, I feel encouraged by the small acts of creativity by artists, writers, and curators—all ‘essential workers’ that have sustained us through isolation. Ironically, isolation brought me a greater awareness of our arts ecology and the strength that comes through supporting each other—can we keep being kind? As we envision new futures for the arts and embrace the local (which is a great thing!), I don’t want to lose sight of the many essential workers like Rose, who are vital to our sector. We need to see them. We need to know their names and to value them as essential to our way forward.