Making the case for art as an essential activity in a pandemic

Jasphy Zheng, 'Stories from the Room', 2020 (detail). Photo: Ken’ichi Miura. Courtesy the artist

TarraWarra Museum of Art has commissioned a new series of artistic inquiries that will explore the role of art in a global pandemic. The series, titled Art as essential activity: an inquiry, is conceived of and curated by Melbourne-based independent curator Biljana Ciric.

From the depths of Melbourne’s COVID-19 Stage 4 lockdown, this new series will begin with NY/China-based Chinese-American artist Jasphy Zheng with Stories from the Room, a participatory work that collects personal writings about the shared experience of living through the COVID-19 pandemic. The artist now invites anyone to permanently contribute their reflections, journals, or memos to help build a living archive that documents this unique moment in history.

Jasphy Zheng (Photo: Malachi Smythe)

Earlier this year, Stories from the Room was staged at the Center for Contemporary Art, Kitakyushu, Japan, where it received submissions from people living through the pandemic from across Japan and further afield, including Wuhan, China, and the USA.

Once lockdown is lifted, this archive will be assembled for public viewing at TarraWarra Museum of Art, in a COVID-safe manner, as a monument to the contributors’ stories and voices.

Curator Biljana Ciric says the pandemic has shown we need to develop new modes of connection and exploration. As we have discovered, the internet will never be a substitute for a physical encounter because physicality is crucial for our wellbeing.

Art as essential activity: an inquiry will look at new ways to practice international collaboration in this time of limited mobility. Some of the questions we are posing include: What is the role of art in times of a global pandemic? Can art be considered as an essential service and, if so, how can institutions perform that essential service? Can they be used in the cause of emotional health and how?

Jasphy Zheng, 'Stories from the Room', 2020 (detail). Photo: Ken’ichi Miura. Courtesy the artist

“Given our current restricted living conditions, can art institutions provide an experience more valuable than an individual work of art? How do we conceive of the physical presence of museums and galleries in these times, without turning them into a hyper-sanitised space?

“In a gesture of solidarity, artists have been invited to contribute to Art as essential activity by thinking about our common future and ways of co-existing with the coronavirus.

“Through new modes of encounter and connectivity in a time of closed borders, the project seeks to generate a renewed feeling of solidarity amongst the international community. Underlying this approach is a spirit of generosity, of not being afraid to learn from each other, and a willingness to allow for cracks to open wider and expose certain failures.

Curator Biljana Ciric (Photo: Hu Yun)

“In showing their vulnerability in this time of immense uncertainty and turmoil, and by creating a space for openness in a period of great restriction and poor access, each of the artists will prompt us to consider a new role for art as a form of radical care,” Ms Ciric said.

Victoria Lynn, Director of TarraWarra Museum of Art said, “We are thrilled to be working with Biljana Ciric, whose project will demonstrate ways of working outside of the conventional rhythms of a museum, and how to sustain international collegiality at a time of immobility. Rather than strictly being digital presentations, this series will create artistic actions within the Museum in spite of, and in response to, lockdown.”

Zheng says, “In my ongoing long-term project Stories from the Room, I wish to stimulate a physical gathering by collecting parallel realities from participants and displaying them at TarraWarra Museum of Art. Through a collective act, a sense of emotional connection is generated, in the form of a community, regardless of distance.”

To find out more about Art as essential activity and more, see TarraWarra Museum's current exhibitions here!


Location: 313 Healesville-Yarra Glen Road, Healesville VIC 3777 TarraWarra Museum of Art Website