A Brief History of Socially Distanced Art
Me, conversing with my plants 100 days into quarantine.
We’ve become so collectively used to, and at the same time fed up with, Skype calls and Zoom events that they will inevitably come up in any conversation.
Indeed, a huge part of what made New York a brimming arts community has always been in-person experiences: slightly wine-drunk gallerists at exhibition openings, enjoying a silent morning at the Met before tourists come rushing in, going home on the F packed with everyone else who was at the same concert… Curina team is feeling the absence as well, with studio visits having been our main channel of connecting to artists.
But is art intrinsically tied to public viewership? Does its effect change or diminish when the audience is limited to a few, or even just one viewer? Today we look at examples of personal uses of art in world history that end up being not just personal.
Meditation and Solitude
In the corner of the picture, there is a description in his own writing revealing that this is a gift in return for the valuable books sent by his follower Yi Sang-jeok who was staying in Beijing. The two evergreen trees in the picture symbolize their strong tie as a teacher and a student.
Literati (i.e rich, intellectual people) in old China and Korea considered the process of ink painting a meditative activity. These works were not meant to be shown in a public setting like modern art, nor were they considered a discrete “product” separated from the process. Amateur painters were encouraged to be aware of the connection between their mind and body through simple yet meticulous acts of grinding inkstone, mixing pigments, and applying just the right amount of pressure on their brush to achieve the desired density of color.
Naturally, painting was an activity done in the privacy and solitude of one’s own home. Literati only occasionally ventured out into nature to paint based on observation. Instead, they either painted still life or the scenery outside their windows and, even more commonly, painted nature based on imagination. The finished painting was often shared among a circle of close friends or sent back and forth as letters. Because many of these pieces incorporated poetic text, sometimes noblemen opened “poetry parties” where paintings were passed around to inspire guests to improvise a poem on the spot.
Art, Right on Your Body
What’s more personal than art you wear on your skin?
You might think at first glance that, since they are so noticeable, clothes or accessories mainly function as an expression of your personality to people who look at you. While this is not false, think about how wearing makeup or your favorite clothes makes you feel like a different person (or more like yourself?). When art is so close to your own tangible body, it actually changes your perception of yourself.
Weaving is one of the oldest art forms. Quecha culture in modern day Peru plays a big role in women’s daily lives - it is not only a bonding activity among close friends and family but also transmits oral knowledge through color and pattern. Called pallay, patterns are associated with certain communities or with the animals and landscape from a myth. Of course, the weaver has the power to reflect their own personalities on these more general themes as well.
Similarly, the Navajo and Pueblo (although there are conflicting theories about who transmitted the knowledge to whom) in what is now Southwestern United States had a long tradition of basket weaving, also produced at home but representing a wider network of symbolic knowledge.
Even more literally “on your skin” are tattoos.
Discoveries of tattooed human and horse bodies of the Pazyryk tribe in modern day Russia point towards the nature of tattoos to document and preserve your experiences like a diary. In this nomadic tribe, the bond between a person and their horse was lifelong and unique. By tattooing illustrations representing key moments of this horse-human relationship on both bodies, the person was seen to actually transform into the next stage in their life. Even more, because these illustrations are so symbolic and condensed, only the person who wears it would know the full extent of their meaning.
Dying Alone: Chapels and Tombs
Consider the fact that in the majority of human history, we have invested our creative efforts in adorning the afterlife - the audience being the dead person and them alone.
Most famously, Egyptian pyramids are believed to have been closed off once funeral ceremonies were over in order to preserve the luxury items within safe - although many were stolen in the millenia that followed - so that the dead could carry them to the afterworld. The elaborate wall paintings within either depicted key moments in the dead’s life, or served as a roadmap to what would happen once they arrived in the netherworld, all personalized as a protective tool to guide the dead through the afterlife. Of course, let’s not forget that the grandeur of the pyramid's exterior definitely had an awe-inspiring effect on the pharaoh’s subjects seeing it from the outside.
Sasseti Chapel in the basilica of Santa Trinita in Florence, Italy. Francesco Sassetti (1421–1490) was a rich banker and a member of the Medici entourage.
Although they now bustle with tourists, a similar intention was reflected in chapels attached to European cathedrals. Families of the dead would fund the costs for building and maintaining a chapel in return for getting access to the space for private devotion. Much like someone with first class plane access, this meant they could pray in peace and adorn their own shrine for a personalized experience. When one of those owning families died, they were buried under the chapel in the underground catacomb.
Fluxus and Mail Art
Fluxus is an art movement in the 1970’s that, despite its loose organization, emphasized art not as a static object but an event that unfolds in a particular space and time, and, of course, the audiences that come with them. While this summary, along with the well-known Fluxus performances by Paik Nam-June and the likes, may make you think in-person experiences were their priority, think again - Fluxus artists were aware that audiences exist in even the most private experiences.
From 1965, Japanese artist Mieko Shiomi composed a set of six “events” entitled Spatial Poems (1965), each instruction mailed to a group of friends who could interpret them as they wanted. Responses arrived from all over the world from Tokyo, Łódź, Montevideo, and New Delhi. The first Spatial Poem reads: “Word Event: Write a word (or words) on the enclosed card and place it somewhere. Please tell me the word and the place, which will be edited on the world map.” There is no designated price for these letters nor are they solicited by receivers - yet, instructions on them are reciprocated because, before being specific instructions for action, they are symbols of the personal connection between Shiomi and those who receive her letters.
Another way we form relationships with other people without physically meeting them is through buyership. Another Fluxus artist George Maciunas created “artist editions” including small-scale works like Takeshia Kosugi’s Theater Music and Shigeko Kubota’s Flux Napkin. These items were souvenir-like items intended to spread Fluxus ideas to an international audience, and were original productions, not reproductions of existing works. You are meant to collect them like you do stamps, stickers, or keychains, then to display them in the comfort of your home.
Sometimes a privilege for the few and sometimes a part of everyday life, it seems that the personal production and enjoyment of art is its own way of making and sharing meaning - not just subsidiary to pubic display. The "public" as an crowd of people with somewhat equal standing is a new concept after all. But even before that, society has and still exists everywhere no matter how many people are present, taking the form of how we imagine ourselves to be part of a larger world.