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Pandemic as muse? Artists on their art in a year of lockdowns

Colm McGuirk asks three Dublin-based artists how their work has been shaped by events of the last year
Alan James Burns in his studio. Photo courtesy of Trevor Whelan

Alan James Burns

“I’ve had to move a lot of work online, which is quite interesting because it’s something that I never thought would be possible,” says Cavan-born visual artist Alan James Burns. “I usually create large events with up to 50 people attending, so that went completely out the window. Moving online has opened me up to be able to work from my bedroom, or work with international partners because you kind of break down the idea of having to be in the studio together.”

Burns says he “can’t work now without putting in the context of the pandemic somehow.”

“When I’m writing up my ideas and developing new works, it’s all with the context and background of this last year.

“Everyone’s gone a lot more digital now, and the idea of the human machine – the digital world and our interconnectedness with that – has started feeding into a lot of new works I’m creating. I’m working with brain computer interfaces – looking at the idea of the human machine and what possible futures are like when we become more integrated with technology, which the pandemic has forced us all into.”

Along with Sinead McCann, Burns is currently collaborating with users of intellectual disability services at St John of God Hospital in Dublin, as part of an artist in the community project. Participants are receiving training in audio recording and editing, and the piece they’ll create together will be exhibited on Culture Night in September.

“That came about because of the pandemic. With everyone being at home, we decided to create a work, and the one medium we could think of that people would have access to tools, like a phone and stuff, was sound. So we’re all recording sounds and editing them together remotely online.”

Tonally, Burns says his latest output has been “actually more hopeful than what it probably had been before the pandemic. The works that I’m creating have more joy within the production and also within what they’re trying to achieve for an audience when they do engage with it. So rather than looking negatively outward, they’re looking positively outward.”

Burns says the Irish government’s Pandemic Unemployment Payment (PUP) has been a lifeline in compensating for cancelled projects.

“Actually, I’m better off [than before the pandemic] thanks to the PUP. As an artist, you have no regular income, you live on minimal amounts of money, so the PUP was the first time many of us got a living wage that you could rely on.”

Upcoming work: “Open Mind, Closed System”, Carlow Arts Festival, Co Carlow (June 2021)

Ella Bertilsson

Ella Bertilsson. Photo by Ella Bertilsson

For Swedish multidisciplinary artist Ella Bertilsson, the initial lockdown last March was a case of life imitating art.

“In the month before lockdown,” she tells The City, “I was working on a piece where I did a performance from inside a cardboard box, which was all about being trapped in a domestic space. That opening was I think two weeks before [the first] lockdown. So that was a super-odd coincidence.”

In terms of concepts, Bertilsson feels the pandemic “will probably feed into my art at some point, but I think at the moment I find it hard to tell.”

In terms of practice, however, her studio’s closure forced a rethink, as her workspace became “a tiny sewing machine table in a tiny room” at home.

“I was like, ‘What do I do now?’ So, that was nice because it really brought me back into drawing a lot. I ended up illustrating a book cover and went back and sold a lot of prints, and I did a lot of photography. So the circumstances had an impact on my practice. It definitely had a creative impact. I’m now working with 35mm photographs I took around my neighbourhood every day for six months, and I’m turning them into digital collages with written text. That will be in my solo exhibition in Ballina next year.

LOOPING SQUIRREL by Ella Bertilsson, music by Economusic

“I hadn’t been doing drawings since my BA really,” continues Bertilsson, who’s been based in Ireland for the better part of two decades. “Now I’m drawing, and I’m printing and I’m doing things that I would have done a long time ago, so I think that’s kind of nice because I’ve done a bit of a circle and now it’s part of my practice again.”

Bertilsson says she has “really enjoyed” the slower pace of the last year, in which she’s had “time to reflect on the work, and not have the pressure of exhibitions”.

She counts herself fortunate to have been funded by the Arts Council for a number of projects in the lead up to and during the pandemic.

“I think I was kind of lucky that I had that time to apply for awards,” she says, “and didn’t really have to use the PUP at all.”

Upcoming works: Solo Exhibition, Ballina Art Centre, Co Mayo (2022),  Solo Exhibition, The Complex, Co Dublin (2022)

Marcel Vidal

Marcel Vidal. Photo by Marta Faye

Sculptor and painter Marcel Vidal came into 2020 having picked up three prestigious awards in the previous year and landed a partnership with a commercial gallery.

“I was in the midst of making work for a solo show,” Vidal says, “so that work had been established and the ideas were in place of how that might manifest itself. In a way, the work, as it’s developed, it’s changed in terms of what the overall show might have or potentially could have appeared like. It has a lighter tone. 

“Some of my work would be large-scale cultural installations that are predominantly black, with paintings hung around the sculptural objects, whereas now the show is going to take on a lighter tone. The weight of [the work he is known for], its energy, is at this time unnecessary. So that all left my brain, and then it became about being in the studio [to focus on painting].

“But it’s also maybe just that, as an artist,” continues the Wicklow native, “you find a way to manage the work. So for me, painting has been the easiest form to work in, in terms of just the practicalities of getting into the studio and being motivated. So in that way, [the pandemic] has influenced my art, in that I haven’t thought about sculpture, or that overall idea of making sculpture. But in conceptual or thematic elements, it wouldn’t play in that way. The type of art I make is never trying to speak on current or topical issues in that way.”

The possibility of exhibiting Vidal’s show online was mooted, which he found “quite difficult, because it’s imagery that has a materiality, a physicality and a present. If it goes digital, the viewer is not having their own personal experience with it in a space. 

“You come to a gallery or exhibition space with a set of criteria or a set of expectations as a viewer. And for me, the image and how it’s displayed and how you navigate that space – that brings out something else and that’s personal to that viewer. But if it goes into a digital format, you lose that context and it becomes something that could be viewed in distraction while doing something else. The subtlety of the work would be diminished and it could be misrepresented too.”

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