This post also appeared on the Website of the Environmental Humanities Center. I wrote it while taking part in the seminar ‘Environmental Humanities’ at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, taught by staff of the Environmental Humanities Center.
What kind of imaginaries of the virus are visual artists offering?
Artists are sharing their artistic responses to this crisis in times when museums and galleries are closed. On their websites, social media channels and in the public realm I have encountered a lot of artistic representations of face masks, physical distancing and the virus particle. This very brief article strives to better understand and explore the manifestation of Coronavirus in (examples from) the visual arts.
Imaginaries play an important role within the Environmental Humanities because they add conceptual sensitivity to the scholarly field – to a ‘thicker notion’. Furthermore, such imaginaries can also be explored in “artistic practices” (Neimanis et al., 2015, p. 82), as has been done, for instance, by Yusoff and Gabrys (2011), Hawkins & Kanngieser (2017) and others for (audio-)visual artworks addressing the climate, and which I am doing now for artworks addressing the virus.
Many of the encountered artworks addressing Corona give attention to social and sociocultural imaginaries and the present. They include currently widely demanded practices, such as wearing face masks and hand washing (see, for example, here and here). Particularly the face mask appears to be the epitome of the current crisis in artistic (and non-artistic) representations. Many artworks also depict how people relate to others, for instance making physical distancing a subject of discussion (see, for instance, here). Artists want to inform about the situation, to remedy the alienation, to normalize the otherwise abnormal practices of wearing masks and keeping distance, and to visualize the currently widely hidden occurrences of painful isolation, loneliness and domestic violence.
A virus is not a societal phenomenon alone but entangled with nature and science (Lowe, 2014; Lowe, 2015). Indeed, I have encountered numerous artworks creatively visualizing the virus particle (see, for instance, some illustrations of street art here). This underlines one of artistic imagination’s powers to bring absence into presence, rendering the invisible tangible in everyday life, combining science and art (Yusoff & Gabrys, 2011).
Next to the virus itself as other-than-human species, I have seen (so far, in April) few visual artworks that deal with the multispecies mesh – the interconnectedness of living and non-living beings. Some artworks include the environment in the sense of longing for nature in Corona times, particularly in urban environments (see, for example, here). This reminded me of climate related art that attempts to decrease the human-nature gap (Hawkins & Kanngieser, 2017), a topic that I am currently investigating in my PhD.
A few other artists (and non-artists) relate the Corona crisis to (seemingly) positive environmental impact. However, such hasty connections of the virus’ impact on the environment might be questionable. From the Humanities perspective, it risks instrumentalizing the virus and works against the thick notion of the Environmental Humanities. Moreover, according to scientists the lasting impact of the current situation on the environment is currently unknown. Without profound systems changes to our economic model, we will return to pre-Corona pollution levels rather quickly.
- Astrida Neimanis, Cecilia Åsberg, Johan Hedrén, “Four Problems, Four Directions for Environmental Humanities. Toward Critical Posthumanities for the Anthropocene”, Ethics & The Environment, 20:1 (2015), 68-97.
- Celia Lowe: Infection. Environmental Humanities (2014) 5 (1): 301–305.
- Video: Celia Lowe, “Avian Influenza: Multi Species Approach,” Rachel Carson Center
- Galafassi, Diego, et al. “‘Raising the temperature’: the arts on a warming planet.” Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability 31 (2018): 71-79.
- Hawkins, Harriet, and Anja Kanngieser. “Artful climate change communication: overcoming abstractions, insensibilities, and distances.” Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change 8.5 (2017): e472.
- Yusoff, Kathryn, and Jennifer Gabrys. “Climate change and the imagination.” Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change 2.4 (2011): 516-534.