Much as the act of taking a photograph freezes people and moments in time, the announcement of a UK lockdown on Monday 23rd March 2020 was a collective freezing of time on an entire population - creating a snapshot of our lives as we knew them and pushing them abruptly into the albums of the past. We were thrown, all of us, into the deep end of a shared experience that looks like it will define our history more than any event that has gone before in our lifetimes. In the early days we experienced fear and unknowing. We felt our way slowly and individually through a metaphorical dark tunnel. Now, 17 weeks in, there is light at the end of that tunnel as our towns and cities slowly reopen. We can emerge from isolation and edge back into the social networking that defines our human nature. What lies ahead is still uncertain, but we have adapted quickly and have accepted that some things will never be the same again.
But it has not all been bleak. Many of us fortunate enough not to fall ill with the virus have been given the gift of time to think. The enforced snapshotting of our lives has provided an unusual opportunity to stop and reevaluate. We have been able to reassess priorities, relationships and personal ways of life. On a global scale a more explosive force has been at work on gigantic, systemic issues that were not getting the airtime they deserved - racism, climate change and social responsibility have new momentum at the top of the political agenda, thanks in part to the time we have all been given to pause and reflect on what’s important. The outpouring of multiracial support for the Black Lives Matter movement will hopefully also define our history as a generation that used our opportunity to act and speak out.
After weeks of isolation it was refreshing to video-meet some of this year’s talented graduating photography students at LCC to discuss their final projects. Themes related to the period of the lockdown - temporality, mortality and the ethics of the global systems that we exist within - are very much present in their work which will preserve in its own unique way a moment in time when the world stopped and readjusted.
In Beatrice Bonino’s monochromatic video work, Glimpsing in the Dark, time feels strangely displaced. Fragments of opaque, part-formed images ebb and flow suspended in water. A soundtrack of running water, calm at first, builds towards a more thunderous crescendo. The image fragments twist in the water, as if helpless in stormy seas. The anxiety of the piece is heightened by lines of text - “slowly falling” and “i t’s been months with no one and nowhere to go” - which appear with the same unsettling and ghostly transience as the image fragments themselves.
Transience is the theme of Ruth Phng Keng Hwa’s series of lumen prints entitled, Temporary Residence. The cameraless process casts an eerie white mist over images of evacuated spaces - rooms, gardens, chairs - where the artist’s grandparents have recently been present and left their trace. The work confronts the inevitability of death and the effect of the lumen printing feels evocative of the bright white light it is reported that we experience when we are dying. Lily Boyle also meditates on mortality with a series of sculptural still-life compositions, made by repurposing the contents of her grandparents’ garage. The series takes its name from the Swedish concept of “Death Cleaning” - the idea that we should declutter our material possessions and leave less behind when we pass.
Our personal impact on the environment is the focus of Byron Chambers' timely questioning of the fashion industry in Fashion in the Anthropocene. U sing photography and sculpture in wonderful harmony, the project pivots on a central tension between the artist’s ambition to work in fashion and his questioning of the photographer’s role in magnifying desire, thus fuelling the consumption of fast fashion. Envisaging a body of work that could manifest as a large scale installation, the artist has produced a sophisticated dual narrative on the materiality of images and the permanence of the textiles we take for granted to wear as our “second skin”. Fashion in the Anthropocene strikes at just the right moment as the urgency for change has just taken a new turn during the lockdown. In an “Open Letter to the Fashion Industry”, coming from within and signed by leading figures from all of the major fashion houses, there is a growing call to radically reform the fashion calendar and slow the pace of an out-of-control production and consumption life-cycle.
Unexpected outcomes of the lockdown, such as a revolt from within the fashion industry, has also been happening on an individual scale. In my discussion with Aggie Zoltowska she is quick to tell me that her final project, What you see is not what you see, isasurprisingoutcomeforanartistwhowasfearfulofbeingjudgedina contemporary art context. Playing with the fundamental tools of photography - light and form - at home on the kitchen table, she presents an imagined exhibition of large-scale minimalist works that confidently own their virtual gallery space.
It was exciting to see the work that these students have made in the most difficult of conditions. I firmly believe their struggle will pay off.