What is happening at the moment is undeniably a great tragedy. We are also uniquely given a pause. An opportunity. When confinement is over, we will all have the choice of what to remember and resurrect. What to change. How to reengage.
Like many people who are not working directly at the front line, I first found myself in a strange state of not knowing what to do, think or imagine. I became an observer of events as they unfolded, but also an observer of my own state.
Like most, I'm uncertain about the future, and about my own career and livelihood. The art world will be stripped bare and reinvented like many sectors. Rather than fear this I'm curious and open to it. A career of being an artist is already a life of uncertainty. Of adaptation. Of retooling and learning new skills.
We are not going to just suddenly return to normal. New habits and norms are being established. We’ve got used to living in a largely calm and under populated apocalypse movie. Reality and fiction are strangely indistinguishable - helped all the more by the extra time spent on Netflix! The internet has become our lifeline. We also observe that certain essential workers have been even more engaged than usual. Food suppliers, shop assistants, health workers are heroes… Our value system has been turned upside down. What is important, essential, valuable and what is disposable? What’s curious is how quickly we can change if we need to. I broke my initial paralysis because I was moved by two articles - the first on Korean and the other on Italian nurses and doctors at the end of their long shifts, exhausted and faces marked by their masks. The photographs themselves were incredibly moving testaments to their work; but it struck me that the brief time they paused and stood against a wall for the picture, was also a momentary recognition by someone of their work. The photographer, in bearing witness and recording the moment, was saying thank you.
This leads to my latest series of work The New Battle Dress
The mask has become the new battle dress. Usually associated with impersonality, the mask has begun to mean something different. It not only protects us, it protects others and so has become a symbol of universal care. Factory-made, custom-made or homemade from whatever is available in the house, it has developed a universal currency and meaning.
This series began because after my original sense of distance from the front line, I was incredibly moved by photos of health workers worldwide, their faces marked with temporary body scarifications after hours of wearing masks. The disassociation I had felt between my isolation and the chaos I was seeing in the media in hospitals melted. It felt real and human and close.
Initially I started painting from photographs found online, but as this series develops I'm now in direct contact with critical care nurses. I’ve asked them to send me photographs of themselves at work and from this material I am painting their portraits. This direct contact highlights the huge difference between our professions and work environments and has made me much more emotionally involved with my subjects.
Today, not one designer, artist, cartoonist or brand has not adapted some take on the mask theme. It seems done - hackneyed - trite subject matter. And yet, it is still poignant.. because it is still unfolding and still our reality.
I often question the value of art, particularly in difficult times. With what should we engage and how?
This questioning is like sieving daily experiences for nuggets of gold to melt and transform into something of value, meaning and beauty.