COVID-19 outbreak is gradually shaping every aspect of people’s lives before they even know. Very fast and steadily, the conventional view on things proves to be inapplicable in the current situation, and people have to adjust their mindset and behavior to the new circumstances. There is no doubt that many spheres of life will change dramatically. The pandemic has brought about a sudden loss of free movement, affecting the social and personal lives of individuals. In times of social distancing, the interaction with the outside world is reduced dramatically. While people still communicate in certain ways during self-isolation, they find themselves in a confined space.
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Living in a fish tank
The self-isolation has locked people inside their houses for an undetermined period. Whether they like it or not, most of them follow the lockdown guidelines to eliminate the spread of the virus. Though it might be safe for physical health, mental health is at risk, as many individuals experience anxiety and stress because of the pandemic and limited social interaction. Some even compare the current situation to living in a fish tank. Indeed, people are stuck in their homes indefinitely, surrounded by long-familiar objects and experiencing the same events day by day. This change impacts their consciousness and relationships with other people and interactions with objects around them.
The concept of space is now moving to the foreground, as it suddenly feels scarce, even more than usual. Space refers to the organization of coexisting objects and can be viewed from different perspectives. For example, Lefebvre suggested a threefold scheme: “perceived space,” “conceived space,” and “lived and endured space” (qtd. in Weinert, p. 6). Whatever approach one takes, for Lefebvre space “determines who we are as humans” (Weinert, p. 6). Such a definition might explain what makes people feel suppressed during the quarantine sometimes: the isolation and extended social distances. The current space where everyone spends the majority of their time is their homes. According to Baudrillard, home space is specific, because personalizing the place and binding together family members is the principal function of the objects that fill houses (p. 16). In contrast to the outer space, home indicates property, in the social and psychological sense. In light of recent events, this sort of inner, private home space becomes the context for most actions.
The art space during the lockdown
Even though almost every industry is undergoing changes now, art is one of the fields that is affected most during social distancing. Art is aimed at society, but the latter is kept in a state of uncertainty right now, which makes the future of the art industry indefinite too. Museums and galleries are closed along with other institutions that can cause gatherings of people. The economic impact is harmful, and it will become worse if the coming summer season is missed out.
At this time of crisis, the strongest will survive, similar to the natural selection principle. Art is distinctive with its adaptivity, and it remains one of the most flexible fields at all times. Some museums and exhibition halls are offering virtual tours to let everyone experience new things from the safety of their homes. It is not something new, as the art space went online right after the internet was invented. However, shifting to virtual travel is another great example of how flexible art is. It is created by people, and it addresses people, changing their lives and shaping the space they live in, virtual and real. In the difficult times like now, art becomes a release, an escape from the unsettling reality.
How the fish tank relates to the “white cube”
The situation of the limited space people find themselves today is relatable to the principle that has been predominant in the design of gallery space since the early twentieth century. O’Doherty refers to this principle as “the while cube,” emphasizing that rooms with white walls are used for exhibiting works of art (p. 66). The purpose of such a design solution is to minimize the impact of the outside. Just like the person stuck in a fish tank, the work of art placed into the white cube becomes the true self, as there is no social space. Thus, when the external space is neutralized, and nothing intervenes, the limited space becomes the scene where everything happens; in other words, context becomes content (O’Doherty, p. 65). It might seem that this idea represents a full harmony when the inner and the outer are intertwined and do not stand in contrast, but the real picture is different.
Every decision in the art space is made with an intention, and putting the art into the white cube has a specific purpose too. According to O’Doherty, the social order is behind the gallery design, as the cube becomes the connection between the “artist and the elite spectator” (p. 76). The gallery space is seen as expensive, inconceivable for a general audience, once it is framed with the white walls (O’Doherty, p. 76). Thus, the art is restrained; once put into the cube, it cannot reach society. The flexibility cannot become apparent when the space is limited.
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Thinking out of the cube
Today, when people are feeling locked and restricted, art becomes even more essential. It is one of the few means of expression and release, and since art comes in many forms, everyone can find an appealing activity. However, people need to be able to think out of the cube in order to express themselves; similarly, art needs free space to develop. Physical, as well as social space, is limited; therefore, art space becomes the only possible way to be mobile. Even more frequently, people turn to books, films, music, video games, as to something that gives them the chance to move freely. Art can connect the familiar and the new, the usual and the impossible, creating its own unique space.
The feeling of control over the area can give people a sense of control over their own life, which is much-needed right now. A similar principle is discussed by Weinert, who states that “power over space is power over life” (p. 9). This thought supports the idea that in order to deal with the challenges and anxiety today, people need art space that allows them to create and contemplate. In times of global shutdown and financial needs, art will not solve those problems, but it can help deal with them.
Interactions in space and time
Feelings that one is experiencing while sheltering in place are closely related to the objects with which they are interacting. As stated by Baudrillard, a specific organization of objects turns home space “into a closed transcendence” (p. 16). It is a closed system with “conventional values,” developed in the household (Baudrillard, p. 127). For many people, the objects they use now are limited to bed, toothbrush, laptop, and fridge, roughly speaking. Usually, they are associated with a delightful home atmosphere, but it is different when the same and only patterns of actions are repeated for weeks. In other words, even though the intimacy of home is pleasant, the contained space limits the number of objects people come in contact with, which makes the interactions with items repetitious and the daily actions cyclic.
The foreign is now seen as dangerous, so people are trying to avoid contact with the outer world. Even after the shutdown, the Safer-at-Home order might still exist on a subconscious level. Thus, the virtual experience becomes more valuable, as a means that can let people explore the world and interact with objects safely. Therefore, every industry and field of life, including the field of art, should be ready to develop in accordance with the new circumstances to keep up to the pace of the fast-changing world.
Ultimately, the social changes resulting from the coronavirus pandemic change the space people find themselves in and the way they interact with other people and objects. The familiarity of the surroundings creates a unique atmosphere, influencing the interaction between individuals and things around them and making life cyclic in a way. Art becomes salvation that leaves space for imagination and considers context. It cannot fight the virus, but it is therapeutic for people suffering from the consequences of the pandemic. However, to develop and progress, art needs free space and a way to address society, and finding this way becomes an objective for art institutions around the world.
- Baudrillard, Jean. The System of Objects. Translated by James Benedict, Verso, 1996.
- O’Doherty, Brian. Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space. University of California Press, 1999.
- Weinert, Jasmin. Making sense of Lefebvre’s “The Production of Space” in 2015: A review and personal account. Martin-Luther-Universität Halle-Wittenberg, 2015.