top of page

Empty Spaces Echoing Empty Streets

Across London, galleries have once again opened their doors. But while physical operations resume, the days of meandering down Cork Street and popping into exhibitions found by happenstance remain distant. The walls are full, but the galleries are all but empty.

Spectre Exhibition by Josh Smith at David Zwirner. September 2020.

Recently, after a day spent visiting newly re-opened London mega-galleries, I found myself reflecting on my experience. I was particularly concerned with adaptations to gallery operations, and how they, along with current events, shaped my perception of the exhibitions. As for operational changes, the previously intimidating atmosphere high-end galleries are renowned for has been exacerbated. Unsurprisingly, visitors are now required to book appointments to assure national distancing guidelines are met. Gallerists sit behind plexiglass walls donning the now familiar haint blue masks. Upon entering reception, my greeting, “hello,” was again and again garbled and unintelligible under my own mask. I was instructed to sign in through QR codes affixed to the walls, as the British government requires businesses to gather contact information to more efficiently track transmission trajectories. As well, further QR codes - providing exhibit information and artist biographies - have replaced paper exhibit guides. With that I was on my own, left to leisurely wander the spaces with unimpeded views. Isn’t this what I once spoke of wistfully of after one too many experiences elbowing my way through overcrowded corridors in the Louvre? If so, it certainly did not feel like I anticipated. After completing my allotted 30 minutes, I smiled at the gallerists in thanks and goodbye before remembering my mask. The end of my visits were each marked by a muffled, "thank you," squeaked out over my shoulder before returning back to the street.

Damien Hirst's Mandalas at White Cube

Moving on to the specific exhibitions, I began my day at White Cube in Mason's Yard. Nearly a year ago exactly, I stood in line for hours in anticipation of Damien Hirst's Mandalas exhibition preview. With a beer in hand and classmates interspersed throughout the line, it felt like the square surrounding the gallery was vibrating with energy. This time, the sky was grey with clouds and the square was entirely still.

Now showing is Georg Baselitz’s Darkness Goldness, a series that focuses on distorted representations of the hands. Here, Baselitz’s larger than life paintings and sculptures draw on his historic interest in “oversized [and]…‘monstrous’ hands”[i]. His continued interest and investigation into the subject matter is attributed to the idea that "hands are the primary means [by] which we connect with the world.”[ii] However, in the current context of global events we are reminded of the loss of physicality we have all endured. While the importance of touch seems to have inspired the series, the series now reminds viewers that our connections to the world and to other individuals are no longer tactile. Further, several prints resemble the skeletal structure of a hand, contributing a sinister impression when juxtaposed against the pandemic. This is only underscored by the dark ink backgrounds which produce a “ghostly” or heavenly aura. In summation, current analysis of the exhibition illustrates how contemporary events can color perceptions of art made under different circumstances - most of these works were created in 2013, well before the pandemic.

[i] [ii]

Josh Smith's Specter at David Zwirner

Continuing on to David Zwirner, Josh Smith's Specter was accompanied by a short artist statement commenting on his experiences and processes whilst creating the exhibition. He spoke of wandering New York streets during the strictest months of lockdown. He claimed he had never been happier. The city was clean, life was relaxing, and completing works came easier than ever before. Even knowing this, a single thought played on refrain “empty spaces echoing empty streets.” Aside from two gallery hosts and myself, there was no one else in this three story exhibition space.

As for the exhibition itself, the works portrayed the barren streets of New York City in muted dark tones. The title, Spectre - synonymous with the terms ghost, shadow, and phantom - affords an initial glum or dark connotation. In contrast with his aforementioned claims of contentedness, it seemed to me an oppressive melancholy enveloped his exhibition. Either happy is merely relative, or I clearly misread his art. To me, the empty roads and dark colors of the painting evoked a sense of loneliness that seemed to parallel the activities of London’s own once bustling, but now bare streets. A sentiment only further underscored by the somber atmosphere of the gallery itself. Nonetheless, the works were beautiful in their desolation.

Mary Weatherford’s Train Yards at Gagosian

At last I arrived at Gagosian where the gallery associates were kind enough to allow me to squeeze in a last-minute booking (you cannot book for the same day online). It was a rainy weekday, so this might not have otherwise been allowed. Now exhibiting at the Grosvenor Hill location, is Mary Weatherford’s Train Yards. Typified by her experimentation with color, gesture and light, her works are bold and dynamic. As the title suggests, the current exhibit references to mass transportation, and serves as an abstraction of the locale at night. In terms of composition, Weatherford paints her works to replicate sound, producing an artificial synesthesia if you will. The clanking of railroad work, the chirp of crickets, and the chime of bells should be visible.

Notably, the series was begun in 2016 and Weatherford has continued to produce works into 2020. As I entered the gallery, I again could not help examining the art in juxtaposition to the pandemic. The series was initially created to reflect the impact of the transcontinental railroad in America. Today, the mere idea of mass transportation recalls the early chaos in airports as travelers fled home and the enduring apprehension, with some individuals completely avoiding public transport in fear.

The Takeaway

While grateful for the opportunity to forgo “virtual viewing rooms” and at last view works in person once again, the experience left much to be desired. The atmosphere prickled with tension. Rather than the peace and calm achieved after reaching the summit of a mountain on a solo hike, it was like being alone and adrift in still waters unable to see what swims beneath you. (Disclaimer: my hobbies color my metaphors). It left me sad, uneasy and longing for a time before. 

At its very core art is the intention to communicate an idea, a message, a feeling from the artist to his audience. The arts are largely a social mechanism, from academies, to salons, to museum, studio, and gallery visits. Even an artist who works alone thrives through collaborative experience, whether it be criticism, marketing, collecting, research, etc…  After so many months of experiencing and studying art alone, I find myself eager for the return of the social art experience. 

by Isabelle Austill-Barker



bottom of page