Art in the time of COVID-19: finding ways to render the invisible visible

Wednesday, April 29, 2020 - 9:00am
Carla DeMarco

An abundance of art and creativity has burst into living spaces through platforms like Zoom, livestreams and over social media in the last few weeks of the lockdown. It is a development that does not surprise Professor John Paul Ricco, who has borne witness to past social upheavals and health crises that have inspired artists.

“I do think this speaks generally to the value of art in all of its various forms, and that it is probably our principal and most developed way of being attuned to the world,” says Ricco.

“It is a way to try to register, record and reshape our perceptions and to really take stock. But also, I think art plays an incredibly important role in a moment when people are looking around and really being interested in art and humanities and writing again because when the world feels like it's imploding, art and aesthetics are there to save you.”

Ricco, who has been on faculty in UTM’s Department of Visual Studies since 2006, is an art historian and queer theorist whose research most closely examines the relationship between art and ethics.

Ricco’s 2014 book The Decision Between Us: Art and Ethics in the Time of Scenes argues that scenes of intimacy are spaces of sharing, but that they are also spaces of separation, which has a particular resonance in the current climate.

He posits that the present situation is a time to ask how we can find ways of connecting while in solitude: space allows the social to happen but also the capacity for people to figure out how to deal with being physically separated from others.

Ricco points to past health crises that have led to exploring similar concepts in art, particularly the AIDS outbreak that surged when he was an undergraduate student at New York University. That health epidemic in the 1990s influenced his path throughout his graduate studies, and he became involved in AIDS activism, exploring ways in which contemporary artists were contending with the situation. He curated a contemporary art exhibition in Chicago in 1996 entitled Disappeared that brought together artists contemplating the question of representation in relationship to AIDS. There was the “disappearance” of the people who died from the disease but also the loss of aesthetics in not being able to fully represent AIDS in a visual form. He also points to a past exhibit by artist Félix González-Torres that challenged the prohibitions on physical contact to avoid the spread of the disease.

Similarly, with the current COVID-19 crisis, there is again a warning to avoid physical proximity and it is also difficult to put a shape to the invisible virus. However, Ricco feels this is part of the challenge for visual artists in representation and for rendering the invisible visible, and that we are all taking part in the process by our inadvertent choreography of physical distancing in our homes and out on errands or on walks.

“I think one of the most interesting things that art can help us contend with is exactly those things that cannot be seen and what we do with that difficulty or that problem,” says Ricco.

“We can imagine art being made in the midst and in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, that takes up this prohibition of physical proximity, touching and contact, and uses that as the way to explore what it means to be in physical proximity, to have contact and how art can kind of stage that and enable people to engage with that, perform, and enact that. I think one of the things that has happened in the midst of this, is that there is a whole new awareness of ourselves in the world and with others.”


Read further with Professor Ricco’s article “Impotentiality and Resistance,” his contribution that appears in Tilting, a publication the Blackwood Gallery recently issued as part of their Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge (SDUK) broadsheet series, launched expressly in response to the pandemic and to support artists.

Also, listen to the full interview with Ricco on VIEW to the U podcast where he discusses his research, suggests a look ahead but also a look back at art in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and what he is doing in this time of solitude.