Virtually There  

Bereft of being able to visit galleries in person, Graham Hooper has put together a tour of wonderful online ‘visits’ for you to experience during lockdown.

The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths. Ask Bruce Nauman, he’ll tell you. He’s got a big show on at Tate Modern right now. Sound, video, photography and neon works from the last half-century are on show. Those words writ large in bright lights remind me that I’ve never needed art more, but never has it been harder to get it.

The Coronavirus has made getting to galleries, to see art in its natural setting, much more challenging. Social distancing, gallery closures and curfews have all taken their toll, hampering our ability to access the uplift that only spending time in front of a great painting can offer.

Alongside this, another strange and unprecedented shift, as every art teacher will know, namely the end of an exam component for this year. No exam unit! So seemingly with half the work to do and twice the time to do it in, we should feel blessed, shouldn’t we? But Covid has spoilt everything, right? Using a darkroom or lighting studio, borrowing books from the school library, sharing art materials (everyone needs to bring in their own sticky tape) and yes, study visits.

Luckily art teachers are clever folk. We can adapt, create, invent. We’re great at practicalities, lateral thinking, problem-solving. We love a challenge, right?

But there is a remedy, at least a pretty good work around. Bruce Nauman’s show is available online. Who knew? Yes, you can visit each space, room-by-room right here, for free. Okay, it’s not quite the same, but it’s a reasonable alternative. The website gives us essays, articles, video interviews, in fact all kinds of materials to read, watch and listen to. Luckily much of his work loses little from being seen in the comfort of your own home, or classroom. A neon sign projected on a smartboard at school can have the scale and colour saturation, even if it loses the 3-dimensional electrification. His photographs and videos translate better still, and what’s more, his work can easily be assimilated for students. Make your own sign that tells us a truth, as you believe it to be. Take two rhyming words and make a spoonerism. Choose a font and colour scheme that reflects your feeling about believing the statement. There, you’ve just saved yourself thirteen quid a head and a tiring day with 30 kids in the wet negotiating the train.

But us art teachers understand that it’s those days out when young eyes and minds might first experience the mystic truths. All that group bonding gone. All those one-to-one conversations in a quiet corner of the gallery with the quiet pupil to reveal insights, explain histories and share memories – all cruelly taken from us; for now, at least.

Luckily art teachers are clever folk. We can adapt, create, invent. We’re great at practicalities, lateral thinking, problem-solving. We love a challenge, right?

Tin fact, there are lots of art galleries and museums, all over the world, keen to share their collections with anyone who’ll take the time and make the effort to log online. The Tate Warhol retrospective has been extended, and has the same level of resource-rich support available as the Nauman show. 

Staying in London – as it were – The Royal Academy’s highly-rated “Picasso and Paper” exhibition, which finished at the end of the Summer, still exists on their website. There’s a 30-minute virtual tour to enjoy, image gallery and guide. Other galleries have created ‘viewing rooms’ which can be entered for free (at least for the ‘price’ of an email address). Many are listed here, helpfully. The Dutch photographer and film-maker Rineke Dijkstra, has produced very moving and incredibly incisive work over the last two decades, none more so perhaps that “Night Watching, 2019”. Recording after-hours group gallery visits made by diverse groups (business men, teenage girls…) to see Rembrandt’s epic painting ‘The Night Watcher’ in Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum, she has captured those free-thinking, often intimate moments between friends and colleagues, as they discuss the painting. They joke, scrutinise, question and realise over the course of half-an-hour. Precious moments. The ones we need reminding of. They’ll happen again.

But the Marian Goodman Gallery website supplements this with an online display of high-quality images spanning her entire back catalogue. There’s a brief biographic outline, extensive image captions and artist quotes to help young minds navigate her work.

Closer to home, Hastings Contemporary have come up with an ingenious solution to the problem of accessing art in lockdown, one that could perhaps be taken up by other institutions. They have engaged remotely controlled tablet-enabled robots to tour the gallery spaces for you! Just email them to book a slot. You operate the two-wheeled device from home, moving at your own pace and on your chosen route, to peruse the sea-side gallery. Stop and think at your leisure, seeing the works through the tablet’s camera. They’re showing the work of British Abstract painting pioneer Victor Pasmore and new large-scale paintings by one our nations favourite illustrators Sir Quentin Blake. A video shows Blake at work on his ‘State-of-the-World’ body of work, made in response to war, famine, ecological disaster and of course, pandemics. It is as awe-inspiring as it profound for the artist perhaps best known for bringing image to Roald Dahl’s novels.

David Byrne, the frontman of the post-punk NY arthouse band “Talking Heads” has produced a similarly inspired series of quirky “Dingbats” – GIF-file illustrations – on show in New York, or a web-enabled screen near you – care of Pace gallery. These are possibly a little more optimistic, humorous even, than Blake’s, though no less perceptive. Byrne has mused on what it means to be alone, distant but still connected, with the planet as much as his local community in the age of Covid. Kids and adults will equally love these. A short video by the artist offers us a glimpse of the background and context too.

In the absence of ‘in the flesh’ artworks to offer comfort and solace I have taken to watching Christian Marclay’s “Lids and Straws (one minute), 2016”. Readers of my reviews in Ink Pellet might remember my thoughts on his “The Clock” (Tate Modern, 2018-19). This time around he’s created a stop frame animation of, as the title suggests, 60 photographs of discarded plastic drinks lids, and their accompanying straws, in such a way that the straw becomes, in each individual shot, a second hand, moving one second each frame. Suffice to say it’s utterly hypnotic, as all his work tends to be. How can something so simple be, at one and the same time, beautiful and inane, yet seemingly so clever and full of meaning? It is another wonderful example of how artists can transform our view of the everyday world. We will never look at a lid and straw in the same way again, or a clock for that matter. Time, over the last few months, has sped up and slowed down, often times on the same day.

I need to mention a few other exhibitions that are really worth exploring. Sunderland’s Museum and Winter Gardens has brought together works that investigate the area’s industrial past, with Heritage At Heart. The entire show – objects, artifacts, paintings and sculptures – are available to see on the website. It’s the combination of different types of source material in this collection that I think marks it out as special. Someone has spent a lot of time carefully piecing together the array to reflect the relationship between Sunderland’s mining, shipbuilding, glass, pottery, car, rope and construction industries and culture’s response to it.

Next up is Leeds’ Fast x Slow fashion: Shopping for Clothes in Leeds 1720 -2020. Their brilliant and captivating site offers vintage photographs of Leeds’ changing high street, an exposé of the changing shape of fashion (from bespoke but slow and expensive, right up to the present day), a timeline, an interactive walk and even videos on how to make your own garments. Again, a highly inventive approach that deserves immense praise.

Lastly, The Barber Institute of Fine Arts at the University of Birmingham has “Sights of Wonder: Photographs from the 1862 Royal Tour” to relish. The Photographer Francis Bedford accompanied the future King of England (and the British Empire) Edward VII around the ‘Classical East’ to broaden the young Prince’s mind. The four-month journey was well documented in images that show the historical and biblical sites visited, designed to better help the Royal understand both contemporary and ancient culture. Drawings, journal extracts and newspaper reports from the time all help to deepen and enrich our experience. Pyramids, temples, sphinxes and shrines are all lovingly rendered in black and white prints of startling detail and definition, not least given the circumstances (hot and sandy) in which they were made.

Just reading this article you’ll have travelled from Sunderland to Egypt, engaged eyes, ears, heart and mind on a virtual odyssey. It should be a source of real pride that our cultural institutions, new and old, have stepped up to the plate to ensure that, as best as could possibly be hoped for, we can still benefit from all that art has to offer.