I’m in Mayfair and I’m boarding an airplane. Or rather, I’m boarding an approximation of an airplane. In the centre of Hauser & Wirth, there are airplane seats, organised into a formation that resembles a section of economy, and dislocated windows, hung on the walls where paintings might normally be. The seatbacks are stuffed, and a spring/summer 2012 edition of Sky Shop magazine is splayed across one of the seats. We are frozen in time and space.
Like most of us in recent months, this plane — an installation by German artist Isa Genzken — isn’t going anywhere. It remains perpetually rooted. Its windows open on to white walls. The work — ‘Untitled’ (2018), the centrepiece of a larger exhibition called Window — connects aircraft space with the sterilised placelessness of a white-cube art gallery, spaces that have always been highly controlled but perhaps never more so than now. Since galleries reopened in London last week, appointments must be booked in advance. Capacity is limited, masks and hand sanitiser are required, and some have signs directing foot traffic around the gallery.
It’s perhaps not a surprise that when I visited, the art objects on display seemed to be speaking directly about conditions of life during the pandemic. Art often refracts back to us a new version of some unarticulated thought or feeling, some submerged element of our own experience; this is perhaps what we mean when we say that a painting ‘speaks to us’. There’s some narcissism, certainly, in this response to objects that were not created with us in mind — this plane predates the pandemic — but it is also one of the most primal elements of the experience of looking at art. For three months, we’ve been held at strange arms’ length from art. During that time, I’ve trawled digitised art collections and taken Google Street View tours of museums, many of which were fascinating, but none came close to the experience of standing before ‘Untitled’. I was physically embedded in the aircraft-cum-gallery as I thought about the regulation and control of space, and our particular stuck-ness at this moment in time.
A few blocks away, in David Zwirner gallery, an exhibition of Paul Klee’s late work spoke to other feelings I’d been having, about rearrangement, dislocation, upheaval, and illness. The works were done largely in the late 1930s, after Klee left Germany, following the rise of the Nazi party. Spanning two floors, the show is an impressive array of mainly drawings and paintings, most of which are inventively abstract, playing with line and colour. Many were painted after 1935, when Klee became ill, and the experience of pain seems to run through the later works like a live wire.
Some are quite spare: ‘Newly adjusted’ (1939) suggests dislocated and rearranged body parts through only a few pencil lines. In ‘Torture’ (1938), there is the contortion of a twisted figure reaching out with what might be arms or pitchforks. Others, such as ‘Masks at twilight’ (1938), are densely figurative but ambiguous. Figures with faces like hieroglyphs seem to overlap and press against each other on the canvas. The canvas, which is set apart in the exhibition, glows with a burnished orange against a bare white wall. I stared at it for a long time.
I didn’t expect to be so moved by returning to art galleries, perhaps in part because I forgot what it was like to encounter the unexpected. Being in the galleries was the first time in three months that I had spent extended time in a room that was not in my own house. It was the first time I had contemplated a physical work of art that was not on my walls. I was struck both by how the artworks I saw seemed to speak so directly to me, about illness and stasis and upheaval, and by how entirely unexpected they were. I encountered, in Klee’s ‘Masks at twilight’, something familiar, a vision of a masked society; I was, after all, wearing a mask myself, and the painting’s strange portrait of transfigured faces seemed to capture some of the fear and unreality of this time of masks. But I also saw a shade of orange that I had forgotten existed, in an unfamiliar white room with high ceilings. It felt like a kind of awakening.
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