Dino Gabito’s mysterious folds appear to be hospital gowns.
Black swans, art fairs and coping with COVID-19
TREASURE HUNTING - Lisa Guerrero Nakpil (The Philippine Star) - March 23, 2020 - 12:00am

I used to wonder about the way millennials used the word “random”, but alas there’s no better way to describe our current predicament. Any one of us can be struck down by that invisible enemy, the COVID-19 virus, at any time and for no apparent reason.

The term for the devilish event now upon us was coined by risk expert Nassim Nicolas Taleb. He called it the “black swan” — an occurrence so unimaginable, so seemingly impossible that it can never be prepared for and therefore, will have catastrophic impact.

Today’s pandemic joins the dark pantheon that includes the 9/11 terrorist attack, the 1997 Asian financial crisis, the Fukushima meltdown and the fall of Lehman Brothers — but all these other black swans now fade in comparison.

Norman Dreo’s “Visit to the Vatican” and “Journey to the Louvre” in a museum-like setting

In response, galleries, art fairs, and even auction houses, have decided to go online to somehow make sense of this mess.  The Art Basel HK fair announced that it would have online viewing rooms from March 20 to 25 where “234 galleries (or 95 percent of the fair’s original roster) would show a combined 1200 works, valued at a total of $270 million”, reported the Art Newspaper. (That’s a tidy P14 billion.) “As the saying goes, when God closes a gallery door,” the journal remarked almost lightheartedly, “he opens a browser window.”

Now, art fairs for one, have already become perhaps this millennium’s new museum. Lisa Periquet, one of the founders of the highly successful Art Fair Philippines, says, “I think the primary way millennials enjoy art is as an experience. Life is all about experiences for them — and social media ties into the desire to relay the experience to others. And yes, the offbeat setting, contemporary content and tastemaker elements all contribute to the unique nature of the experience.” But, she hastens to add, while there is an educational element in both, they are different experiences. “Art fairs are driven by a commercial purpose even while promoting all aspects of art to an audience during a limited time frame. Museums exist to preserve and care for collections and reach out to their audiences in a culturally philanthropic way.”

Emmanuel Santos’ “Zambales” and “Pampanga”

Miguel Rosales, curator and art adviser, says, “I suppose one advantage of the auction houses and art fairs in terms of putting across that experience is the ‘instant gratification’ one gets from seeing a wide range of works on offer under one roof. Museums, on the other hand, offer works for study and admiration for longer periods of time.”

However, this may be an old-school divide. In terms of ambition, art fairs and auction houses now offer top-rate research and scholarship as well as curation and presentation. Trickie Lopa, also of Art Fair Philippines, adds, “We are very cognizant of the fair’s reach and that our audience is still quite “young” in terms of exposure. That is why we make it a point to push our educational component, such as working with the Sol LeWitt estate to mount his pieces that we had in the fair.”  Chitty Cometa of Metro Gallery, a first-time participant at the ArtFair, confided that she worked with a well-known creative consultant to make sure her space was on a competitive footing with the international galleries.

Prophetic images of alienation

Blurring the lines even more between the museum-like experience and gallery were certain participants at the recent Art Fair. J Studio’s doyenne Jia Estrella said, “With Norman Dreo’s massive masterworks — “Visit to the Vatican” and “Journey to the Louvre” — as centerpieces, we used the European museums as reference to transform our space. We covered the cement floor of the iconic Link building with a carpet in our gallery’s signature lapis lazuli color. Vintage velvet clawfoot armchairs and ottomans, Moroccan drapes with oversized tassels,  antique French bronze planters, and a chandelier completed the classically luxurious yet intimate vibe to juxtapose with the edgy dynamism of the fair.”

Indeed, in terms of agility and adaptability to the unpredictably horrendous situation that is the black swan, private institutions may be expected to prevail over the public ones. More’s the pity, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City just announced that it was “bracing for a shortfall of $100 million” as a result of its lockdown.

What lies ahead for art in a post-COVID-19 world? The first order of the day is simply to survive. Guillaume Levy-Lambert, co-founder of the Singapore-based Art Porters Gallery, emphasizes, “It is essential that we all do what we can to keep the economy going.”

Migs Rosales explains, “For some, the viewing and buying of art is an escape from the daily anxieties. There are so many people involved who are affected by current events and that includes the art world : Artists, curators, framers, packers and shippers, graphic designers and printers, the entire backroom. For others, it’s their livelihood. Should they suffer more?”

One of the most warmly received exhibitions at Art Fair 2020 happened to be Emmanuel Tolentino Santos’ Shadow Earth series of photographs. In one of the photos, titled Pampanga, a completely suited astronaut divides a sea of white-plumed grass. In Zambales, he appears to be leading a carabao to safety. The images are all very much prophetic of the hazmat suits we now know as ‘personal protection equipment.’ “The astronaut is a metaphor of our alienation from our own planet and our real selves,” he intones. Santos hopes that the COVID black swan will make us finally “less individualistic and more caring for one another” — a pivot that seems to be happening now. (As for Santos, he was actually at the airport, when interviewed, to catch the last plane out of Manila to return to his studio in Melbourne.)

Rosales puts in the right last word,” Perhaps the virus will make people re-evaluate and look at art differently once again. Perhaps art can be used to aid in helping through the crisis as well. Art can uplift, art can heal, so art can definitely help.”

BLACK SWAN COVID-19
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