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‘Distanced Intimacy’: student artist perspectives on the pandemic gallery experience

July 16, 2021
'Supercharged' in the Audain Gallery. Photo by Sylvia Burtenshaw and Matthew Bogdanow.

Visual arts students on the SFU VOCE team reflect on making art for a distanced audience and how gallery experiences will continue to change as we slowly emerge from the pandemic.

What does it mean to make visual art in the time of the COVID-19? The pandemic has posed a unique challenge as artists have been pushed to reimagine how they create and share their work within and beyond the traditional gallery experience.

Two members of our team found themselves facing up to this task this past year, during the course of their studies in the SFU School for the Contemporary Arts (SCA). 

SFU’s Vancity Office of Community Engagement staff members Kathy Feng and Paige Smith reflected on showing work in different BFA exhibitions in the Audain Gallery during the Spring 2021 semester.

'Supercharged' in the Audain Gallery. Photo by Sylvia Burtenshaw and Matthew Bogdanow.

As the virus spread and restrictions began to roll out in March of 2020, Kathy and her classmates had their gallery show, RECURSION, abruptly moved online. For her cohort’s graduating exhibition this past spring, Supercharged, they returned to the gallery. The exhibition explored the tangible tensions in the air as people navigate their interactions with spaces and objects coming out of lockdown.

“We were thinking a lot about how the pandemic has changed our interactions with art, and the gallery as an experiential piece of art,” Kathy shared. “That space has been activated in such a different way due to social distancing, due to not being able to interact with people that we normally get to interact with, and as a level of distanced intimacy that we're working in.”

Supercharged as a title is really cool, because it feels like that is the energy in general in public spaces right now, but especially in the art gallery. They have so many restrictions. You have to book a time. You can only have so many people. You have to leave space. You can feel this kind of energy where everyone's a little more tense, super charged somehow,” said Paige, adding that the experience of walking into a gallery in usual, non-emergency contexts, already comes with its own set of prescriptions and uncertainties about how to engage with the pieces inside.

Covid safety protocols around appointment times, distancing, sanitization, or gloves added extra considerations for people to navigate when approaching a piece of art — whether it is meant to be touched, or if it has an auditory component that requires headphones. These were some of the elements Paige and Kathy see as contributing to a ‘charged’ atmosphere as people move through the gallery space.

'sometimes I dream' by Kathy Feng, shown at 'Supercharged'. Photo courtesy the artist.

For her contribution to Supercharged, Kathy made the piece, “sometimes I dream”, layering found images from 70s furniture ads and text evocative of a love letter into light boxes.

Of her work, Kathy said, “I've always been thinking about memory, and thinking about the ways that we hold on to memory, like personal memory, collective or cultural memory even.” Looking to the writings of Derrida and Mark Fisher, “sometimes I dream” explores the ways that neoliberalism has shaped our aesthetics and sense of time. 

“Thinking about past, present, future and that loss of a future, the nostalgia for a future that never was, I began taking inspiration from the visual culture of today. This present where we're so reflective on 70s nostalgia and this time of love and peace or hippie culture. [. . .] I was really interested in why we were so invested in this time again, in 2021. I think it stems from this desire to reclaim that happy, intimate domesticity that we lost because we're so hyper distanced.”

'sometimes I dream' by Kathy Feng, shown at 'Supercharged'. Photo courtesy the artist.

In the same semester, Paige’s class had the opportunity to show their work alongside SFU Galleries’ Audain Visual Artist in Residence, Heba Y. Amin, SCA professor Sabine Bitter, and MFA candidate Aakansha Ghosh in the exhibition Images that Take, Images that Give. An investigation into “the agency of images,” the show contained a glossary of 21 image agents, exploring themes of resistance, control, mapping, and language. 

The class spent time learning from Heba Y. Amin about her work and honed in on the themes that would inform the creation of their own pieces. They also kept in mind questions about how the pandemic has influenced not only the process, but the role of art.

'Hometown, or Fragment of Northeast Sector' by Paige Smith, shown at 'Images that Take, Images that Give'. Photo courtesy the artist.

Paige shared, “We thought about what images are trying to do — an image in the broad sense, as an art object, not limited to just a two dimensional thing. What is their goal? What are they trying to achieve? What is their action? Basically verbing an image.”

Each work was given its own active identifier, such as “The Deep Image”, “The Militant Image”, or Paige’s piece, titled "Hometown, or Fragment of Northeast Sector", which took the moniker of “The Phantom Image”. It incorporated deconstructed pieces from a retro CRT (cathode ray tube) TV with natural, textile elements, interrogating the environmental impact of cities and the artist’s materials. 

As an alumna of the SCA’s film program, Paige also told us how her fascination with CRT TVs first arose in her filmmaking: “I would do experimental films where I'd make a film, put it on a CRT and then put the CRT into a space, and then record the film playing on the CRT. And that would be the film. I loved them so much, they would constantly be in my work.

'Hometown, or Fragment of Northeast Sector' by Paige Smith, shown at 'Images that Take, Images that Give'. Photo courtesy the artist.

“These objects that I've been working with for years, just really made me think about my personal responsibility as an artist to consider the environmental impacts of my work.”

Taking inspiration from the phenomenon of ‘phantom settlements,’ resulting from cartographers’ copyright traps, Paige’s work maps "places that don’t yet exist.” The exhibition website states, “the phantom image urges viewers to erect these potential ideas into existence.” As Paige puts it, the piece is reflective of the clash between “technology and ecology”, but “points to a potential future, in a hopefully fun and playful way.”

'Hometown, or Fragment of Northeast Sector' by Paige Smith, shown at 'Images that Take, Images that Give'. Photo courtesy the artist.

Due to capacity restrictions for both shows, students offered tours to smaller, more intimate groups. To make the work more accessible to those who were unable to, or felt uncomfortable with visiting the exhibitions in-person, there are video tours available online.

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