Despite moves to experience culture on online platforms, there is no substitute for in-person encounters with art and artefacts, writes Veronica Simpson
Words by Veronica Simpson
As I write this the UK is bracing itself for its second lockdown of 2020, and after two months of relative freedom, when we could visit in each others’ houses, go out to bars and cafes, and experience culture in most of our galleries and museums, I find the thing I am most grateful for is the degree to which I have crammed in every cultural experience I could while the opportunities were there. Family and pals I know I can catch up with online; a situation I can put up with in the short term. The bars and cafes I can live without (hopefully, temporarily); like many of us, both I and my family unit have improved our cooking and baking skills immeasurably during lockdown. But art and artefacts online will never be more than an inferior substitute for the real thing.
Back in April, May and June of last year, I was aware of all the online guided tours, archive visits, filmed talks and even craft workshops that kept being offered by so many of the museums I know and love – and many more besides – around the globe. But the thought of staring at paintings or objects on a screen, when so much of my working and social life was being lived on screen, was deeply unappealing. Trying to remain open minded – after all, we didn’t know how long that lockdown would continue or whether there would be further lockdowns – I checked out a few. I have to say I enjoyed Camden Art Centre’s online content for the exhibition I’d been looking forward to in the spring: The Botanical Mind. And I had been rewarded with some fascinating insights into the show’s theme – humankind’s endless fascination and relationship with nature, and how it has inspired and informed our art and consciousness over the centuries. But I made sure to visit the real thing as soon as the exhibition reopened in August. And it was so much better looking at ancient mandalas and manuscripts, and revelling in the mix of textures, from botanical drawings through paintings to film and music.
Jaqueline Poncelet’s curious works in the New Art Centre near Salisbury
I realised how much I had missed that 360-degree workout for the senses and the intellect, and the serendipity of how one work resonates with or contrasts with another; the conversations they trigger in your brain. Yes, nature can provide the most wonderful, immersive sensory experiences – and I had enjoyed my daily walks or bike rides throughout the summer – but encounters with art and culture, whether historic or contemporary, work on other sensibilities, including intellectual and emotional, in a way that a walk in the park never will. It reminds us of who we are and how we got here.
As I traversed what I could of the UK’s post-lockdown cultural landscape, I was struck each time by the importance of that vital mental, social and contextual response, as well as the visual – it rewards and refuels a lifetime of looking and thinking. One personal highlight was the moment of drama when I enter an upstairs floor at the Whitechapel gallery at its reopening in October to see Kai Althoff’s tribute to Bernard Leach; just one, stately, full-height vitrine ran the length of this atmospheric, entirely top-lit room, each glazed section revealing not just a hand-picked Leach pot, vase, plate, bowl or row of buttons, but a specially commissioned textile on which they are placed. Even though you can’t touch it, your senses are that little bit more alive to the thought of how that fabric might feel when you see it in the flesh rather than on a phone or laptop.
Edmund de Waal’s translucent porcelain in the New Art Centre near Salisbury
Your haptic sensibilities thrill to the anticipation of touch, moving from that warm fabric to the chilly substance of the ceramics; the contrast between clay and wool and their heavy metal, monolithic display case. Your eyes feast on those flashes of colour threaded through the textile to complement or contrast with the sludge-like tones of Leach’s pottery. Althoff (whose own work fills the larger ground-floor gallery) says he wishes his paintings could function like Leach’s pots and ‘become part of (their owner’s) life to such a significant degree that they will grow a soul of their own within the heart of the one to use them’. What he speaks of is a relationship that only comes with daily encounter, with the familiarity and ease of use. No screen-based experience can come close to flagging up or emulating that. We consume what is on our screens so fleetingly.
For the most multisensory, deep dive of a cultural experience I recommend art and nature combined. Entering the New Art Centre near Salisbury – a sculpture park and gallery set within and around a Georgian farm – you might witness the surreal placement of a Michael Craig-Martin 8ft corkscrew sculpture against a landscape of rolling fields and fluffy brown cows. The experience of moving around the buildings – one of the finest marriages I know of contemporary and ancient architecture, thanks to Stephen Marshall’s quiet, elegant, mostly domestic spaces, added over the past three decades – in which the curatorial team now displays art, sculpture, furniture and textiles, is always a joy. On each visit, there is the pleasure of experiencing a familiar space anew as the rooms are transformed with a different artist’s work, and in this case Edmund de Waal’s translucent porcelain pots are in residence, coupled with Jaqueline Poncelet’s curious, questioning textiles, ceramics, paintings and sculptures. Each room – and also the work within it – transforms in different weather conditions and seasons, as I can vouch, as I had the good fortune to see these artists’ works in both summer and autumn. It is a spontaneous workout for the eyes as they are lured up close to caress each work before being drawn – perhaps by a shift in sunlight, or a movement in the clouds – to the windows, which are aligned with great skill to frame the surrounding planting, trees and views. That shift in atmosphere and temperature as you move from a sun-filled, glazed contemporary gallery to an antique summerhouse is both a sensory and intellectual workout as you acknowledge – however subconsciously – the different materials, forms, histories and sensibilities.
The Camden Art Centre’s Botanical Mind exhibition
So, as we enter another lockdown and the museums and galleries close their doors, my thoughts are going out to wish all those custodians of our cultural riches the best and most survivable of transitions. In my view, virtual art and exhibitions should be an interim measure only. See you, in person, on the other side.