The Virtual Outdoors
Just as depicted in the virtual life platform Second Life (https://secondlife.com/), launched in 2003 and still going strong, today we too are living our own second lives online, doing just about everything imaginable in front of our screens. In Second Life people can “discover incredible experiences, fascinating people, and vibrant communities in this vast virtual world”. Second lifers use an avatar to be creative, find entertainment, have social relationships, buy and sell real estate, take courses and also run a business, both real and pretend. Oh dear, it sounds just like what we have been doing since March 2020. As the days go by, I feel like I’m losing brain cells to this flat, germfree existence. In a moment of lucidity, I wonder how much longer we can take all this virtual living. Is it living? Are we all little avatars darting about our screens?
It also makes me wonder what is happening to our art world. Are we supposed to get excited about works of art that we can zoom into and see in all the fine details, in the void of ethereal space?
Out of desperation I find myself accepting an invitation to the Abu Dhabi Art fair; curiosity and visual boredom got the better of me. I was going to the 12th edition of this enterprising art fair with Liviana Martin, our Milan editor, and Daniel Nanavati, our European editor. Somehow it didn’t work out for Liviana or Daniel; they didn’t quite make it to this virtual event, not surprising, as I barely made it myself. Flying into Abu Dhabi from London, with a view of the turquoise coloured sea, I looked down with wonder at all the beauty and vast expanse of buildings on this desert kingdom with its reclaimed land of coastal salt flats, quite a contrast to the lush Cornish landscape where I live. The day before the press review was due to start, the management of the art fair wrote that it had been postponed to the following day, perhaps for unknown technical issues? The press review before the fair’s opening was reset for the following day at 10 am GST. Unfortunately, GST isn’t Greenwich Mean Time as I had erroneously thought, but Gulf Standard Time. Such ignorance on my part meant I definitely missed the starting event, impossible to attend four hours late, though I could go and listen to the talks that had taken place, also other talks happening during the fair. If it was all online, why did a specific listening time matter anyway?
Having recently turned down a virtual Christmas carolling event in Zoom, and after attending numerous meetings in Zoom, Skype and other meeting platforms that I haven’t appreciated greatly, I accepted the invitation to Abu Dhabi Art, even though it was another virtual event. Since the beginning of the lockdown, the New Art Examiner, like everyone else in this sector, has received many invitations to virtual exhibitions in galleries and museums across the world. I have avoided most of these shows, while I respect the great effort people are taking to try and create the effect of a real visit somehow, online.
However, notwithstanding the fact that I truly hate virtual anything, lately I’ve been pining to go just about anywhere (I had wanted to say, go virtually anywhere, in the classic use of the word virtually); I was hoping Abu Dhabi might help satisfy this unfulfilled desire of mine. Wondering if I might have to cover my head for the webcam, I thoroughly researched this aspect of my appearance and found it wasn’t necessary.
Before even attending the fair, I imagined the benefits of not having aching feet from walking hours and hours around art pavilions; perhaps this is the best part of an art fair being held virtually. I would also miss meeting people, seeing old friends, art dealers, gallery owners, artists, hearing people’s comments and most of all, seeing the artworks in person.
Going through the exhibition pages of online viewing rooms, I click in and out of exhibition booths, but skip many; enough is enough. I can’t take the sterile, lifeless artworks on display on my screen in a pseudo representation of an art fair. Sadly, before really going anywhere in the show, my finger is already tired of clicking, zooming in and zooming out of the displays. I am left feeling empty and dejected, discouraged at what our lives have become.
As a follow up the offices of the fair sent an email asking for feedback: “How likely is it that you would recommend Abu Dhabi Art to a friend or colleague?” I told them that if it’s virtual again, I wouldn’t recommend it, not because of anything they did wrong or did not do, but because virtual just doesn’t cut it for me, while as an attendee in person, I would definitely recommend it. I can’t wait to go next year.
Tim Schneider from artnet writes, “A new report brings quantifiable proof to a feeling that has shuddered through the art market since the darkest depths of the spring shutdown: that the online-viewing-room industrial complex is collapsing under its own weight, and that everyone is suffering from it.” After my visit, or rather non-visit, to Abu Dhabi, I felt like a failure; I wasn’t able to go through with the online viewing room experience. Gone was the poetry, the magic and beauty of what I can sometimes see in an artwork. Even when I don’t like a painting, I might have a strong feeling of dislike. Abu Dhabi was totally devoid of any feeling or passion.
Instead, back in Devon in the UK over Christmas, while anti-socially distancing during a walk on the moor, I met Nick Anderton. Without gallery shows or a well-positioned studio, he makes it as a virtual artist and sells real paintings widely around the world. He has no need for the in-presence people; it’s enough for his buyers to see a flat photograph online to appreciate his work and to click, make a purchase. I find this way of promoting artwork lifeless and unexciting, but what I find extraordinary is that Nick is successful. Leaving criticism apart, I admire anyone who is able to make a living as an artist online in these times. It sounds like he has chosen the right vehicle to make it all work for him. The social media play their part, with Instagram being his major platform. It makes me wonder how people get the urge to own and fall in love with a painting, seen only online. Are people conditioned by the reviews on Instagram that are taking the place of reviews in traditional spaces like the New Art Examiner?
Our lives have taken on such a virtual dimension today that almost everything we do in our lives can be done online, or can it? Eating a meal out with friends can now be eaten on our own, safely at home while chatting together with our friends in Zoom, visiting an elderly relative in residential care, likewise with work, shopping, birthday parties, school, art galleries, or even going on a trip to Bali or to Cuba. It no longer makes any sense to me. Perhaps I need to be reprogrammed or given a new avatar, so that I can fit into the new mould required of us today or even better, function as a hologram. The contrast between what is now virtual and the memory (now fading) of what real art is like in person is humbling. It’s all a fake now and we’re all little avatars, hiding behind our masks where we can no longer touch, smell, feel or see from different perspectives, but can only see and imagine life as a series of photos tastefully shown in carousel.
Looking at artwork from a distance, like looking at a beach from a plane, is not like being on the beach and touching the water, same for a painting, a sculpture, a performance. I’m aiming to go in person next year to Abu Dhabi Art, and to as many in person shows as I can possibly go to; then I will have something real to write about, as I realize that I have lost nearly one year of my life in this abyss and paralysis of activity.
Abu Dhabi Art, 19 – 26 November 2020 and Nick Anderton on Dartmoor, December 2020
Volume 35 no 3 January – February 2021