I read an Instagram infographic the other day that said comparing someone’s feelings to the greater suffering of others is toxic behaviour—I blocked that account for lacking emotional perspective. The hardest part about lockdown was becoming the occasional target of care and wellness culture. I have no accolades or prestige, just charisma. Katie Paine told me to apply for a PhD—after I explained to her how lost I feel—but I did not. We interrupt our lives with a performative check in, never offering a worthwhile gesture. Today is the next day—after hundreds of days—and holding our memories is making my hands sweaty. When someone uses the term ‘social justice’, I think of unethical narcotics and violent careerism, because they seem inexplicably intertwined. I am small in comparison to the excitement of your life. My emotional world is not gossip, or a broadcasting station for virtue signalling, it is a private experience: stop asking me if I am okay, I do not owe you a report.
I am licking my sweat because I am nervous about people reading this—it tastes pretty good. Four separate calls have told me family members have died since 2020, each sadder than the last one. Some people never tongue kiss and I do not understand why. I heard a ‘very sad story’ about an artist whose career stayed local because of COVID-19, then I took an Uber and the driver told me that his mother died overseas, but he could not go to the funeral due to border closures. See what I did there? I set up a conflict in the narrative and now the sad artist sounds unreasonably feeble by comparison. I want to hold someone that feels broken and tell them that I shattered, a long time ago. Sorry, I bought a ticket for an art event, not a pity party, can I please get a refund, rhetorical question mark. Every time I see an empty car on the street with its engine on, I think about stealing it for a few blocks. Vaccination campaigns led by art organisations are desperate attempts at appearing virtuous. “That would have been difficult for you”, said my empathetic date with a psychology degree, “it is a small problem for an adult…but a big one for a child”. In that instance, I saw our life together flash before my eyes, but in the future, that never was, we broke up with a delayed pain effect, because our attachment styles deactivated our nervous systems and now we are fucked. So, I replied, “Yeah, maybe”.
This is a review about 2021, the year “that both was and wasn’t”, in the words of Anador Walsh, who commissioned this piece with a letter, asking me to “dig around in the dirt” with her. As I contemplate this invitation, muddy cynicism swirls and bubbles in the swamps of my mind, where I keep thinking of a pervasive style of writing that strikes me as a ‘career move’, disguised as ‘caring so much’. Indeed, an exercise in this type of ladder climbing would find me telling you how incredible we are, because the creative industry surely attracts selfless people and everyone that says otherwise is faulty. The catch with this genre is that if you read between the lines, you would notice that I am elevating myself as the solution, centering my voice as a megaphone for the concerns of a wider group. Pfft, no, thank you. It feels good to hear we are great, but I think we are just okay—suck on that lemon.
This piece is ladened with “I” statements, because I am not interested in speaking for ‘my community’ (please) or totalising my views on lockdown. The renewed capacity to generate a better understanding of self in relationship to others is my main takeaway from this year. It is a wondrous time for tomorrow and contemplating yesterday strikes me as nostalgic, which makes it difficult to discuss shows. However, there is one occasion that I remember with sinister clarity:
I want to be more like Thea Jones and less like myself. It is the 15th of July 2021, and she is standing at the entrance of KINGS Artist-Run, during the opening of her show She let her body sway with the movement of the train, an exhibition about nostalgia. KINGS Artist-Run moved locations and the impulse to reminisce about their old building creates an apt environment for this sentimental theme. Her exhibition features a textile centrepiece called Wagga blanket, 2021 surrounded by a circle of oak chairs titled Autoprogettazione chairs, 2021, offering headphones playing a recording of her voice, amidst white curtains framing the space. The track reads humorous and emotional passages from her life, offering a unique insight into the small, yet significant moments, that have shaped her existence. A musky sensibility of yearning, invoked with wood and fabrics, permeates the installation, creating a melancholic feeling reminiscent of a grandparent’s living room. This wistful atmosphere is typical of Jones, who summons intangible moments with physical embroideries—turning these ethereal and fleeting moments into objects that are rich in texture, carrying a narrative with every fibre.
Thea Jones, She let her body sway with the movement of the train (installation view), 2021. Photo by Aaron Claringbold. Courtesy of KINGS Artist-Run.
A book of poetry with similar content springs to mind as I gaze at this artwork: Nostalgia Has Ruined my Life, 2021 by Zarah Butcher-McGunnigle. One of my favourite passages from Butcher’s book reads: “Couldn’t make a decision about a very basic simple thing so eventually did an online tarot reading to help me decide. Now I’m getting fingered surrounded by stuffed animals”. Butcher’s language is more reminiscent of blogs, while Jones’ trades in a different kind of intimacy, closer to a bedroom conversation spread across time. However, they both present nostalgia as an engulfing emotion that swallows the present with memories of the past. Jones’ audio narration, Together Forever, 2021, in collaboration with Bonnie Cummings, which is a combination of spoken word and an altered track by Taylor Swift—radically pressed against one’s ear—envelops the senses and transports the listener to older days, that are neither here, nor there.
If memory serves me right, we went into lockdown shortly after Jones’ opening and her exhibition remained there for almost five months. It acquired a new sense of longing by signposting an enthusiastic time of social movement and functional timelines that the pathogen disrupted with rapidity. A curious aspect of lockdown is that it turns exhibitions into concealments, vacating displays from their purpose, which is to be seen. In the case of She let her body sway with the movement of the train, the work gained a spectral layer, by removing something that was meant to be there: the audience taking seats. How eerie to imagine this circle of chairs, holding an audio track that is silent, amidst the darkness of a gallery out of operation, waiting for restrictions to end, like a heartbroken ghost idle with confusion.
Since the end of lockdown, I have only managed to see a few shows, including the beautiful SIMMER curated by Nanette Orly at Murray Art Museum Albury (MAMA), which deals with the connection between food and culture. And I look forward to visiting the Hyphenated Biennale led by Nikki Lam and Phuong Ngo across multiple locations. When I think of all that has happened since July, my head gets dizzy because it feels like everything and nothing has occurred. Yet, I can no longer relate to the person that walked into KINGS Artist-Run that night and sat on that chair, to listen to Jones’ voice recording and later typed these words—it simply does not feel like me.
Time seems fractured, broken and shattered but I can feel the (positive) effects of seasons gone by. My intention was to conclude this piece by answering the question “are you okay?” with a pun on the qualitative meaning of the word “okay”, as a state that is agreeable without being remarkable. But everyone freaks the fuck out whenever I say “I’m average”, because emotions run high in the creative sector. This is a piece without a conclusion, an ordinary state of mild resolution, a moment that is neither memorable or forgettable, nor regrettable. This year in the arts matters today, but soon it will be another period in a long sequence of events. We will shrug it off as unremarkable, because art is not a priority when people are suffocating in the ICU.