If 2020 Was An Art Exhibition…
As 2020 draws to a close, I have that familiar desire to look back on my year. Usually this manifests as a round-up of trips taken and countries visited on my travel blog. But, like Pip And The City elucidates, 2020 for travel writers is a bit of an oxymoron.
Instead, I am giving 2020 the side-eye. Peeping from behind my fingers at the carnage, both emotional and global. And while, in general, I try not to indulge in the personification of the year 2020, it’s hard not to wrap it up in that nice little package. Makes it easier to deal with, doesn't it?
Therefore, I am going to approach my 2020 review as if it was an art exhibition I am critiquing. Art is, after all, my ‘thing’. The balance to my practicality, the surreal counterweight to my tight grip on reality, and my chosen academic speciality.
2020: A Surrealist Retrospective
Like many modernist tropes we were positioned to have our course knocked sideways, and to have our thoughts, and prejudices disrupted in 2020. Akin to visiting a modern art museum in a 15th century château, expectations of normality were swapped for uncomfortable juxtapositions and confusion.
Like any year, it began with a full belly and a hangover. Notions of dieting and nippy walks to chase the post-Christmas blues away. Ironically, we had made the conscious choice to travel less in 2020, so that I could concentrate on my new business. What we got was not really what we had in mind though.
The entrance to the exhibition that was 2020 was rather captivating, I must say. I shook off my January blues with a trip to my former home, Edinburgh. It was the grand entrance to a museum I am deeply familiar with. Running my hands back over it with love and reverence, it was everything I expected it to be. Cold, damp, but full of wonderful stories and nostalgia.
February was all about the Renaissance, as we dived headfirst into exploring the re-birthed city of Bilbao. If there was ever a city to illustrate a modern day renaissance, it’s the Basque city of Bilbao / Bilbo. Pulled up by its bootstraps, and the Frank Gehry masterpiece that is the Guggenheim Bilbao, the city is a cultural hotbed.
From Gentle Disruption to Teeth-Gnashing
If February 2020 was an artwork, it would be the warm caress of a Mark Rothko colour field abstract. While perhaps a little challenging to the classicists, the soft warming colours used by Rothko are perfect to represent the warmth of Bilbao. Not to mention the accessible modernism of the city itself. Rothko disrupted, but oh so gently.
By March, we were starting to feel the discomfort of the impending challenge to our aesthetic sensibilities. As if turning the next corner could bring with it a grotesque piece of modern art, so far up its own arse that it leaves you cold and searching for anything relatable.
Before the hollow disappointment brought on by Tracey Emin’s 1998 ‘My Bed’ could ruin our year, we visited my spiritual home, Paris. Where, as is customary, my senses were assaulted joyously with Corinthian columns and linear Haussman lines, and then soothed by ancient (and wonky) medieval routes now awash with hipster bars and happy hours. But we knew Tracey’s fucking bed was around the corner, and there was no way to avoid it.
Fluent Art Elitist Hoi-Polloi
If 2020 was good for anything it was forcing a little self-reflection. Much like the white walls of an art gallery, stripping away context, influence, and distraction — we are left with room to connect and reflect. To discover the purity of aesthetics, to discover your emotional response before your rational one.
In the context of a global lockdown, purity of aesthetics comes in the form of never getting dressed from the waist down; and wondering why you own so much make-up, when it’s not needed under a mask. There is entirely too much time to pander to your emotional response, which can overwhelm you if you’re not watching carefully. Wine is consumed as quickly as at one of those Soho gallery openings, where everyone knows the free drinks run out quickly when surrounded by so many artistic types.
Lockdown as Installation Art
March through June was like staring at the sun too long — everything has been overexposed in my memories. It is burned white and useless. As if stuck in the 2003 Olafur Eliasson art installation, The Weather Project, in the Tate Modern Turbine Hall. Staring at the gigantic fake sun, equal parts transfixed and confused by its presence inside. Trapped by four walls, yet somehow elated by the pretence of vastness.
Finding a Quiet Corner
The exhilaration of summer and being allowed out was a little like finding an amazing library, squealing with joy, but then being shushed by a ornery librarian. We knew our hard yards during lockdown could be rewarded with some limited freedoms, but to what extent?
Much like when visiting a huge museum, finding that quiet corner to just hide and rest is a necessity. Our little Dordogne staycation was perhaps our finest hour during the summer. Taking a rest from lockdown sounds ridiculous, but we needed to find a quiet corner to recuperate.
And as with those quiet museum corners, I was chuffed to bits that for the most part, it was just us and the scenery.
Back to Work : The Dutch Golden Age
The Dutch Golden Age of painting was known for its liberal augmentations within the seemingly ‘ordinary’ painted scenes. Reflecting the economic and cultural upturn of society in the 17th century, the convivial scenes strived for technical realism, yet combined idealistic scenarios that had little to do with real life.
Fast forward to lockdown number two here in France, and my desire to hide behind a glorious Golden Age facade was strong. I have no problem admitting it now, but every smile was painted on. While my business was doing well, and we had plenty to be thankful for, I was in reality hiding behind the ludicrous antics of Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s ‘Wedding Dance in the Open Air’. A veneer of Vermeer, you could say.
Sorry, I couldn’t resist.
Give Me Dali’s Surrealism Back
I remember visiting the Dali Museum in Montmartre, Paris; and thinking how exceptionally normal surrealism had become. The friction that sent Dali down that path — to disrupt norms and escape the confines of our consciousness — simply doesn’t have the same gravitas as it once did. Simply put, surrealism now would present itself differently to surrealism then.
Then we found ourselves trapped in our own bloody Dali painting.
During lockdown in this surreal year, I smirked widely to myself, as I tipped my hat to 2020 — you have shown us what nouveau surrealism is. And for that, I applaud you. But by gosh, what I wouldn’t give to have Dali’s melting clocks and long-legged elephants as my surrealist anchor-points once more…
There is no doubt that we will all walk out of the 2020 exhibition a little dazed and confused — struggling to understand what exactly it was trying to convey, ruing the curator who juxtaposed Emin and Dali and by doing so created some unholy modernist monster…
…and yet determined to find meaning in the disruption. If nothing else, at least we understand surrealism a little more now.