Art Comes Back to Where it Belongs

Discussing the role that art plays in our worldview, engagement with current events, and the issues it has thrown into light throughout the coronavirus pandemic.

by Yiyao Yang

Image 1: Stephanie Comilang, Lumapit Sa Akin, Paraiso (Come to Me, Paradise), 2016, 3 channel video projection, cardboards, UV print texts on cardboard

I usually take my time to write art reviews. I dive in and dive in and out of the art world that I feel connected with.

But this changed after I saw the exhibition So close that I can see inside of you in Berlin recently. Whilst writing this piece, my typing speeds up, as if I am racing to catch up on lost time after a long absence from museums and galleries.

The creative community in Berlin has long sat in silence. This artistic hub of a city has been muffled by lockdown restrictions since November last year.

But in March, the government reopened the shut doors of museums and galleries. ChertLüdde - a gallery showcasing international emerging artists’ work in Kreuzberg where I saw So close I can see inside you - is one of them.

Seven international artists explore various ways of claiming and creating space. They use video, sculpture and multimedia to give form to what is absent or overlooked.

'We all realize the everyday intimacy we lose to social distancing rules'

Space, distance, and boundaries: they are motifs that I constantly reflect on through my writing and photography during the pandemic. We all realize the everyday intimacy we lose to social distancing rules: the compassion and affection we share with friends through hugs and kisses; the improvised conversations with strangers in an exhibition.

So close I can see inside of you is almost a bittersweet joke amidst this obvious lack of closeness.

The reopening of museums and galleries at least provides space to discuss these amplified motifs. However, the art world comes with conditions now: the signs of social distancing; the tight FFP2 masks; the smell of disinfecting solution. The smell permeates the air and adds a new layer of sensual experience to my art adventure.

Images 2-4: Stephanie Comilang, Lumapit Sa Akin, Paraiso (Come to Me, Paradise), 2016, 3 channel video projection, cardboards, UV print texts on cardboard

The displaced and the disappeared

I enter the exhibition room of Stephanie Comilang’s Lumapit Sa Akin, Paraiso (Come to Me, Paradise), a science-fiction documentary tracing the lives of three Filipina migrant workers in Hong Kong.

The videos are projected onto three walls, whilst the fourth wall and the floor are covered with cardboard. I find myself stepping inside the daily life of the migrant workers. I eat, laugh, and converse with them. My heart beats with theirs.

The video was shot by drone. The life situation and mental status of the migrant workers are as unstable as the drone’s flight. I become an observer of the epic — a documentary seen from a bird’s-eye view as if they live in a dream world at a distance from me.

'I begin to grasp a fraction of the bitterness of living at the edge of society'

But the drone comes down to earth.

The cardboard isolates a shelter for displaced workers. It reveals my cold, third-person perspective. Only after I read the poem written on the cardboard (that echoes the one read aloud in the video) do I get a bit closer to them.

I immerse myself in the space created by the fragile flattened boxes covered in brand names and trade marks, that represent a tiny part in our huge consumerist world.

I begin to grasp a fraction of the bitterness of living at the edge of society, the sadness, the hardship, and the homesickness felt by 2.2 million overseas Filipino workers (OFW) (according to a Press release from the Philippine Statistics Authority).

Living in the cardboard, they are so visible on the busy street in central Hong Kong. But they are still forgotten and marginalized by so many of us. The FFP2 mask is tight as usual. But the intimacy I feel with the three Filipino women featured in the documentary makes me hold my breath.

Images 5-7: So close I can see inside of you, Installation view at ChertLüdde, Berlin, 2021.

The promised and the obtained

The next piece I encounter contrasts the documentary’s strong statement with a question: how far can art push action to happen?

Christine Sun Kim’s wall mural titled Will … Call assembles the two words at either end of a music staff, emphasizing the blank space between promise and action. For marginalized groups in society, the journey to receiving public service takes much longer than it takes an artwork to travel to a gallery in Berlin.

Discussing artwork and exchanging perspectives is usually the way we connect with the work, the artist, and friends with whom we visit.

But the discussion has become inconvenient inside galleries and museums. I crave the spontaneity of wandering through the streets of Kreuzberg and dropping into any of the galleries.

This is impossible now - all visits must be pre-booked and planned ahead of time. Yet I am still grateful for the chance to re-discover the creative cultural atmosphere of Berlin after so long stuck in the single-screen world of art in lockdown.

The inconvenience posed by the pandemic somehow plays a part in our discussions - we are able to engage with issues at a slower pace, and the pandemic has only highlighted real-life inequalities.

While grabbing a coffee at Ritterstraße, we talk about the mural by Christine. The relationship between promises and actions it reveals exists outside the doors of the gallery: the slow vaccination process in many European countries is an example.

'Under the ache of restrictions, we still talk about art.'

What do we talk about when we talk about art during Covid? Galleries and museums are irreplaceable in stimulating public discussions about freedom and democracy provoked by the pandemic.

Under the ache of restrictions, we still talk about art. The well-planned reopening at least gives space for re-engaging and reflection. We still question what we have always questioned.

We are at a distance with artwork but the reflection on reality draws us closer to the art world. This new dynamic will be a unique opportunity for artists and activists - no matter how much we doubt whether art can translate into action, we will continue creating, and reinforce the social issues which this strange new world has thrown into visibility.

After all, art not only documents reality, it illuminates reality. And simultaneously, reality illuminates art.

Image credit, 1-4: courtesy of Stephanie Comilang, Berlin, photo: Andrea Rossetti

Image credit, 5-7: courtesy of Gabriel Chaile, Lisbon and ChertLüdde, Berlin and Ghebaly Gallery, Los Angeles and Christine Sun Kim, photo: Andrea Rossetti

Yiyao Yang is a freelance journalist based in Berlin. She pours expression and authenticity into her daily policy school life. Don’t date her. Your stories might rest on her keyboard. But her friends are often the most lovely characters in her never-published novels.