It features artists from Latvia to Brazil, all attempting to communicate the toxic cycle of grief and boredom that's become so overwhelmingly familiar to life in 2020, with results either starkly realistic or loosely allegoric. The gallery is home to an image of a frontline medical worker, spangled in luminous space dust, hanging his head in pensive exhaustion after another hard day's work. Another artist inks a colorful portrait of a baker loading sticky disks of dough into the oven, a white hospital mask covering her face. But elsewhere, Covid is represented through nothing but vibes and feelings, winks and nods. A man sits under a palm tree on a tiny desert island—elbows resting on knees, enjoying a faint breeze blowing in from the west, waiting for the future to arrive. A year ago, that image would evoke a very different sensation. Now? Well, you know.
Someday, after Covid mercifully recedes into history, it seems likely that a curator might establish a formalized exhibit dedicated to the art produced under lockdown. But for now, as indoor public institutions remain a touchy place to be, The Covid Art Museum stands pat as an Instagram page uploading fresh compositions two or three times a week. Like everything else this year, contemporary art must thrive in cyberspace.
"We didn’t want this artworks to be forgotten, so we came up with the idea of a digital museum, to make it more accessible for people all over the world," say the three founding members of the museum, who answered my questions collectively. "We thought it was a good idea to share this type of art so that all the people who were confined would not feel so alone. … There was no point in starting a physical museum in the middle of quarantine."
Those founders are Emma Calvo, 25, who works alongside Irene Llorca, 27, and José Guerrero, 29. Each of them lives in Spain, a country that has already weathered multiple waves of the coronavirus. The Instagram account has gathered over 150,000 followers since its launch in spring, and it solicits sculptures, paintings, photography, 3D modeling, poetry, Photoshop warps — and really, whatever else anyone wants to call art, through an application form linked out on the profile page. At the museum's absolute height, at the beginning of the pandemic when the entire world seemed to be under an unimaginable stay-at-home order, it was receiving upwards of 200 new works per day. Since then, as the world has reached some level of unsteady normalcy—as people have felt safe enough to go outside—that number is closer to around 50 a day. In total, the team has received solicitations from artists in over 100 different countries, an endemic sign of the unfathomable amount of people that Covid has affected.
This is not a traditional art exhibit, after all. Yes, obviously they tend to select works that please the intangible instincts that all curators rely on. But beyond that, explain the founders, they look for stuff that reverberates with the apprehension of the moment, be that a disquieting anxiety, a newfound tenderness, an existential anger, or even an absurdist humor. It will be years before any of us will be able to fully explain the impression that Covid left on the human spirit, but good art has a way of speaking the inarticulable. Some of my personal favorites include a child trying to play with his toys in the middle of a tornado, a glass of red wine passing through a medieval, stone-wrought window, and, more to the point, a man waking up to a punch in the face. "That's why we don't close ourselves to any technique," say the founders. "From all the works received or found, a selection is made to publish those that best reflect the Covid-19 situation." With all the confusion and disinformation that's defined this crisis, there is emotional clarity in the way creative people have pictorialized the trauma.
There is a sense, among the Covid Art Museum curators, that their collection will be studied as a primary source by distant generations, when they attempt to decipher what 2020 felt like. Already, it's interesting to scroll deep into the archive to see how our relationship with Covid has mutated. There have been so many different periods to this turmoil—so many micro-trends and newscycles—and they've each seeped into any artist paying attention. At launch, says the team, the tone of the work hitting their inbox was comparatively light and humorous. "Toilet paper was an icon, people thought it was a game," say the founders, referencing the many reports of department stores plucked clean of every Charmin roll. (An image in the museum from April featured a woman dressed in a toilet paper bikini.) But the tone has slowly shifted in the following months, as the fatigue set in.
"It became more serious," they add. "There were many elements about raising awareness about the use of masks or the importance of washing your hands regularly. And finally, now the work describes, in many cases, this new world in which everyone wears a mask."
One of the artists who submitted to the museum is Jose Navarro. His piece is a digital rendering of a ball and chain, with a weight that looks conspicuously similar to the COVID pathogen. The symbology is clear — we've all felt a little bit imprisoned, lately — but Navarro says he also hopes his work, and the museum's collection, can pierce through some of the misinformation that has poisoned the discourse. "Since art, design and creativity are related to communication, I find it very interesting that artists reflect the importance of what is happening daily with the global pandemic," he says. "This can help educate and raise awareness, as well as help them take precautions about disease prevention."
Eventually, they'd like to see this institution jump off the internet and into a physical gallery; one where enthusiasts could gather to remember what their lives were like during the pandemic, as a crystallization of the era rather than an ongoing living document. (Currently, the team is working on launching a website, which would carve out a permanent piece of digital real estate detached from the ephemerality of Instagram.) But all of that hard work is offloaded to the future, just like the rest of our normal lives. Until then, they'll keep uploading pandemic art that comes their way, reassuring visitors around the world that they're not the only ones losing their minds.
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