Things lost, things gained – Annie Birchenough

At a time when we are looking for new visions for the future, we must tap into these feelings of disquiet and of turning in to each other and our surroundings. Coming up with new visions relies on imaginative thinking which is nourished by creative practice: that’s why art and the way it masters the imaginary appear ever so important to me right now.
—Mikhail Karikis, 2020

In March 2020, London ground to a halt. Museums, galleries and cultural centres closed their doors, and we were all left out in the cold, told to return home and await further instruction. The city sat empty, eerily post-apocalyptic. The pandemic has in many ways united the world, bringing human kind together in a rare moment of collective vulnerability. However, the past four months have been different for everyone. Each personal pandemic-tale will be passed between friends for years to come. It has been a time of immense difficulty and devastating loss for so many people, the wake of which will be felt across many generations.

As a group of nine young curators, caught up in the global pandemic whilst studying for a Masters, our story is not one of such devastation. In the context of the world situation, we have been incredibly lucky. We have been able to complete our programme on time, we have continued to learn and work closely as a group, and we have even walked away with new, unexpected skills and expertise that will arm us better than others for the world that awaits.

Producing Unquiet Moments as an online exhibition was not something we ever expected or planned for. Collectively we experienced our own sense of loss, mourning the months of friendship and study in London we had hoped for, stopped in our tracks with the closure of the museums, libraries and archives we had envisaged living among. Above all we seemed to have lost what for many of us would be the first exhibition of our careers. The launching moment of life as a curator.

Four months later, we are on the other side of the great unknown that had stretched before us and we are able to reflect upon and appreciate the things gained by those lost; the windows that opened when the pandemic bluntly slammed the front door shut.

In my role working with the Arts Council Collection and liaising with all our living artists, the greatest gain has been in the relationships and communication made newly possible. Unquiet Moments brings together the work of 25 artists, 19 of which are alive today. We spent time speaking at length with almost all of those artists, which, for a student exhibition sourcing loans through National Collections is remarkable.

We have been astounded by the generosity of these artists to help us with our thinking and inform our interpretation and curatorial approach. It has been a joy to hear their thoughts on the move of their work online and discuss the poigiency of their practices in the pandemic moment. Almost without exception, all have been invigorated and excited by the opportunity to be shown alongside each other – as well as old masters from The Courtauld Collection – made possible by the digital liberation from atmosphere controls and display conditions.

Relationships between the artists have also been gained. Mohini Chandra and Karl Ohiri, whose practices and interests overlap in a multitude of ways, met for the first time this month, and the conversation between them, recorded and archived for years to come, marked a moment of artistic collaborative conversation we never expected. Likewise, Andrea Luka Zimmerman and Mikhail Karikis, old friends and admirers of each other’s work, will come together this week, an event never physically possible due to their geographic separation.

If I were to continue writing about the opportunities of imagining this exhibition online, you would be stuck reading for hours. But this does not render the physical irrelevant. As museums begin tentatively to reopen, the human need for physical cultural encounters will appear clearer than ever. However, I believe we are moving into a world where these two things must live in parallel, where the focus is no longer on replacing that which is lost, but maintaining what has been newly acquired.

When I am asked in years to come where I was during the (First) Great Lockdown of 2020, I expect I will respond that I was on the vanguard of a new moment of cultural experience, learning what might be gained in the face of loss.

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