That artists, curators and directors will respond to the pandemic in their work is inarguable. Yet my visit to the Whitechapel also proved that the viewer’s role has also changedby Ravi Ghosh / August 1, 2020 / Leave a comment
Approaching Whitechapel Gallery in east London, I can see queue barriers outside the gallery’s frontage. The silver, waist-high pillars are now a familiar sight in the city, marking out entrances, smoking areas, outdoor seating—and curtailing the spontaneity of the walk-in customer. For a small space like Whitechapel, an unplanned visitor is now an inconvenience. I am here on a rainy Sunday to see Radical Figures, the newly reopened exhibition of contemporary paintings.
I’ve booked online, and read that strict social distancing measures will be in place. The most noticeable change in entering the lobby is the mandatory temperature check, run by a single visored staff member. What looks like a small iPad sits tilted on the desk. I quickly revert to passport control mode: shoulders back, straight face, direct stare into the lens. You’re doing it wrong, the gallery assistant says. You have to lean right down into the camera, as if approaching a microscope. After a few seconds, it displays 36.4 degrees. The cut-off is 37.3. I have my ticket checked again, and walk ahead into the first room of the exhibition.
The pandemic has forced us to dramatically rethink our approach to public space: to reclassify destinations according to perceived risk, with little concrete knowledge of the virus’s true prevalence. Indoor spaces are friendlier to infection. Space that serve food and drink—and our medical centres—have been deemed essential. Education, exercise and community follow closely behind. The argument for reopening our cultural institutions has been made with force: art sustains us, say the museum executives over the morning airwaves. But when I enter the exhibition, the first thing I wish is that, in the quest for sufficient sustenance, I’d brought a bottle of water—the mask dehydrates you quickly.
The social contract between the visitor and the gallery has changed: risk assessment and behavioural control are now the parameters within which visitor experience is defined. A space of relaxation, leisure and education has become one of intense moral precarity. What does choosing to see art in a time of suffering say about our values? It is not essential, and therefore…