Seeing a work of art in the age of coronavirus

As more art collections are calibrated for virtual quarantine viewing than ever before, will our art-viewing muscle memory be irrevocably altered?

by Rosalyn D'Mello Published on : May 01, 2020

While revisiting the draft of an old frivolous-minded piece I had been commissioned to write on art jargon, I stumbled upon a phrase I had used perhaps innocently used. “Emotionally run-over.” I hadn’t quite dwelled on its semantic heft. I used it flippantly. As I return to it, it reveals itself differently. Emotionally run-over; as in, to feel catapulted by a work of art; to be so overwrought, so undone by sensation as to experience it as a volcanic eruption within the body, as tectonic plates formidably shifting; as the soul being rearranged.

I had used the word as a segue way to introduce the concept of the Stendhal syndrome. To make it more personal, I referred to a run-in I’d had in August 2016 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, with an art work by Taiwanese artist Lee Mingwei, titled Sonic Blossom. The wall text had mentioned the involvement of a classically trained singer, who might be seen as approaching visitors at random to offer the gift of a song. This singer had been recruited by Mingwei to memorise five of Franz Schubert’s lieder. Apparently, the artist’s mother used to sing these songs as lullabies, to calm his restless brother to sleep. Years later, when she was recovering from open-heart surgery, his brother sang them to her, as if returning a gift. Between certain hours, the singer would go up to a visitor and seek their consent to be ‘gifted’ a song. If they agreed, they were invited to sit on a chair through the performance.
 
At the time, this information hadn’t registered within my consciousness. I was battling fatigue, having exposed myself to so much art, mesmerised by the view of the harbour. Though it had been three weeks since I had been in Australia, I still couldn’t quite believe I was there. It felt surreal, witnessing the Sydney Opera House just there within the immediate range of my view from the museum, and to be constantly crossing over the bridge, or taking the ferry. That I hadn’t actively planned to be here made my presence seem even more bizarre. I wasn’t a tourist, I had been invited to speak at two Writers festivals, which remunerated me in cash for every session at which I was an active participant. I saw no one around me resembling an opera singer, so I moved along, continuing to view whatever works were on display.

My eyes turned moist, and before I knew it, had worked their way into a flood. I was weeping. I was moved by this profoundly intimate sonic exchange; this artistically considered re-enactment of the primacy of love, and nurture; this gesture predicated on the capacity of art to heal.

Out of nowhere, I heard the tremor of vocal cords shattering the quiet of the sunny afternoon. I was instantly swayed and found myself melting from the heat of emotion. My eyes turned moist, and before I knew it, had worked their way into a flood. I was weeping. I was moved by this profoundly intimate sonic exchange; this artistically considered re-enactment of the primacy of love, and nurture; this gesture predicated on the capacity of art to heal. The notes rose over me in waves, caressing the space between me, their source, the singer, and their intended recipient, the person seated on the chair, and everyone else who happened to bear witness. We participated in the spectacle together. In fact, it was our presence that perhaps provoked it.

The Stendhal Syndrome is used to refer to such quasi-mystical encounters with objects related to art. It is also called the ‘Florence syndrome', considering its symptoms are most manifest in visitors to Florence. The French writer who went by the pen name, Stendhal, had recorded in his book Naples and Florence: A Journey from Milan to Reggio, his own state of being after having visited the Basilica of Santa Croce, and basking in his proximity to the corpses of the ‘great men’ buried there. He wrote, “I was in a sort of ecstasy, from the idea of being in Florence, close to the great men whose tombs I had seen. Absorbed in the contemplation of sublime beauty... I reached the point where one encounters celestial sensations. Everything spoke so vividly to my soul. Ah, if I could only forget. I had palpitations of the heart, what in Berlin they call ‘nerves’. Life was drained from me. I walked with the fear of falling.”

A diary entry by him is more eloquent. In Longing I:3, he writes, “My head thrown back, I let my gaze dwell on the ceiling. I underwent the profoundest experience of ecstasy I had ever encountered. I had obtained that supreme degree of sensibility where the divine intimations of art merge with the impassioned sensuality of emotion.”

Photograph of Imaad Majeed’s video performance, please share my self care (2020) hosted by Art Dubai on its website as part of its (ON)LINE Healing program, curated by Marina Fokidis | please share my self care (2020) | Imaad Majeed| STIRworld
Photograph of Imaad Majeed’s video performance, please share my self care (2020) hosted by Art Dubai on its website as part of its (ON)LINE Healing program, curated by Marina Fokidis Image Credit: Courtesy of the author

As we continue to inhabit the limbo of quarantine, I find myself struggling with how easily many have transited from the ‘real’ to ‘virtual’. It hasn’t been at all seamless for me. I struggle with the numbers, more than 2500 art collections now accessible online. Where, in 2018, I spent two-and-a-half hours waiting in a queue to enter the Uffici, I could now just view any work that hangs upon its walls at will. There’s this inundation of work meant to be experienced digitally that I am reluctant to experience. I am extremely aware of all the many lectures and workshops I may have missed in the city of my current residence—Delhi, because I had a deadline and couldn’t get my act together in a timely manner. Now, all I am expected to do is click on a link and enter its ‘live-ness’.

There are many aspects of this coronavirus-sparked trend that merit debate. What does it mean, for instance, to recreate a famous painting with whatever is available within the realm of the domestic, as against actively ‘looking’ at it, offering it the gift of our attention? Can what we have come to know as art still fulfil a transformative, transcendental function when it is so available, when it is almost being thrust in our faces through Instagram stories? Especially with works of art that we could never quite ‘touch’ even in a gallery or museum, whose tactility and texture we could still imagine through our gaze, what happens when they parade in front of us in pixelated form so we can zoom in and out on details.

Something must be changing at the level of muscle memory. Will it impact how our bodies behave in a post-quarantine set-up, when they are finally permitted to travel to ‘see’ a show, or a performance? Will we value the experience differently because we had to make do without it? Or will we associate art with distraction and return to more productive indulgences when the lockdowns are lifted? Do we embrace these uncertainties or should we begin the process of creating discourse around them, or has that already happened? Will we ‘see’ art differently, and will that impact our consumption of it?

Or maybe our relationship with art was always contractually elicited as something subconsciously kinetic. John Berger, whose 1972 BBC series, Ways of Seeing is worth re-watching in quarantine, had articulated it poetically in Bento’s Sketchbook. “Whenever the intensity of looking reaches a certain degree, one becomes aware of an equally intense energy coming towards one through the appearance of whatever it is one is scrutinising.” Maybe, after all, it isn’t the mode of visitation that impels one towards feeling emotionally run-over but the very act of casting one’s gaze upon something, considering a work of art through the prism of intention.

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About Author

Rosalyn D'Mello

Rosalyn D'Mello

D'Mello is an author, columnist, editor, researcher, art writer and critic. Since January 2016, she has been writing a weekly feminist column for mid-day, and, since mid-2016, a regular column for OPEN based on her visits to South Asian artists' studios, which she has been evolving into a forthcoming book for Oxford University Press, India, thanks to a research grant from the India Foundation for the Arts.

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