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The new (ab)normal: Artists respond to COVID-19

From creating art in a high-rise dwelling to managing social isolation, RMIT Gallery’s first online exhibition provides a glimpse into how artists are responding to their circumstances under COVID-19.  

The new (ab)normal opens online on the RMIT Gallery website on Thursday 18 June and runs until 28 August.

The exhibition captures the creative pursuits of more than 40 staff, students, alumni and industry partners from the School of Art in response to their new working conditions during the pandemic. 

Like much of society, the visual arts community has faced challenges associated with the virus including working from home, social isolation and financial uncertainty while at the same time the opportunity to publicly display their work to the wider public is not yet possible due to ongoing restrictions. 

Curated by RMIT Galleries Curator Helen Rayment and Lecturer in Arts Management Dr Tammy Wong Hulbert, the online exhibition was a way to give artistic expression to the new challenges and uncertainty faced by many of those in the visual art community. 

Rayment said it became very clear while curating the exhibition that this period in lockdown had affected each artist quite differently, depending on their personal circumstance.  

“I don’t think anyone has found this period easy,” Rayment said. 

“Many have lost income and students have been very dislocated. I hope this project has been able to give the artists a slight distraction and show our community how much we need our artists.” 

Hulbert said some artists had used the pandemic as motivation to make work, while others didn’t feel motivated due to other concerns. 

“Many have expressed that they had plans, which were now cancelled or postponed and felt disorientated by this situation,” Hulbert said. 

“Others were taking the opportunity to reflect on their past work and reconsider it in today’s context.”  

Melbourne artist and RMIT lecturer Rhett D’Costa said many new phrases had entered our vernacular during COVID-19, some of which had found a place in his art. 

“We are constantly asked to ‘keep our distance’ as a way to stay safe and healthy, while instinctively the human condition longs for closeness,” he said.   

Some participants were living overseas as the pandemic hit, such as Hong Kong-based artist Cordelia Tam, an alumnus of the RMIT Hong Kong Art School.  

Like many of those confined to their homes during lockdown, she had difficulty focusing on her artworks, with the infection number going up every day.  

“At the onset of the pandemic, my daily priority was to track down face masks and hand sanitizers as supplies were very limited,” Tam said. 

“Though we didn’t have a mandatory lockdown in the city, everyone was told to avoid social contact and stay home. So, I did not travel to my studio and all exhibition plans were put on hold.” 

As Tam had no access to her studio, she resorted to drying her sculptures on the air-conditioning ledge outside the window of her high-rise apartment.  

Despite the challenges, artists have responded to the situation by creating visual artworks examining the impact of their locked down experience with others taking the opportunity to reflect on their past work and reconsider it in today’s ‘new abnormal’ context. 

While the exhibition had inspired the curators to keep researching other possibilities of virtually gathering communities in online platforms, neither Rayment nor Hulbert were ready to permanently swap the physical gallery space for the virtual.  

“We may have more interesting online platforms, but there is nothing better than setting foot in a gallery and immersing yourself in works of art,” Rayment said. 

However, Hulbert noted that although many still craved the physical experience of viewing art, online exhibitions could provide a safe and acceptable way for people to enjoy visual art for the time being. 

Image: Cordelia Tam makes art in lockdown in Hong Kong – on her airconditioner ledge.