Covid U-Turns

For Artist Profile 56, Michael Young spoke with seven artists whose practice is ordinarily split between residences in Australia and overseas. In this essay, Young explores how the immediate, material challenges that the COVID-19 pandemic has brought have spurred new ways of thinking and making for these artists, as "odd corners of domestic living spaces, spare bedrooms, and garden sheds have all been commandeered as makeshift spaces."

In 2012 in Bali and Java, Australian–Indonesian artist Jumaadi began collecting small one hundred–year–old vernacular timber houses. Some were decorated with ornate carvings; others were lightly ornamented with painted panels that had gradually faded in the damp Indonesian climate. His mission was to rescue the decaying houses and move them to his compound in Surabaya where they would be rebuilt and renovated. Now he has about ten, although he is not quite sure.  Over the years the compound has become a de facto art space, somewhere for locals to gather and children to hang out. The houses also serve as a studio and home for when Jumaadi and his Australian family are in Indonesia, which now, because of COVID-19 and the travel restrictions imposed by the Australian Government, is no longer possible. Previously he would visit the compound several times annually from his home on Sydney’s Lower North Shore. Jumaadi, whose practice embraces naïve-like miniature paintings, puppetry, as well as several–metre–long paintings on specially prepared cloth, has had to rent an office space in an industrial zone in Sydney’s Brookvale in an effort to continue working.

The Covid pandemic has forced a cohort of other Australian artists – who live for several months annually in Australia, but who work for the rest of the year in studios overseas – to make mid-career U-turns and recalibrate their art making practice. Some have kept their overseas studios ticking over for ideological reasons while trapped by lockdowns in Australia. Others, who have for many years enjoyed the economic benefits of cheap assistants, cheap studio spaces and cheap  fabrication facilities overseas, now find themselves working out of spare bedrooms, garages, odd corners of domestic living spaces and garden sheds. They have learnt to adopt new working practices to accommodate the pandemic’s relentless onslaught. 

Khadim Ali is a Hazara from Afghanistan, though was born in Quetta in Pakistan, where his family lived in exile. He moved to Australia on a Distinguished Talent visa in 2009, but still keeps a studio in Kabul as much for sentimental as ideological reasons – where security concerns remain an active threat as the resurgent Taliban gain ground in the wake of the US withdrawal. Pre-Covid, Ali would visit Kabul several times annually to work on his huge tapestries with iconography inspired as much by Persian miniatures as it is by the politically charged language of conflict.  His assistants in Kabul facilitate the day-to-day studio business and liaise with the Hazara outworkers who do the actual weaving. Their manual dexterity is way beyond anything that could be achieved in Australia, plus the cultural dimension they bring to the finished product is priceless. Ethnic Hazaras have for centuries been persecuted in Afghanistan and are dismissed derogatively as “ rat eaters,” Ali has previously told me. “If the Taliban take control and I where to return to Kabul I will be killed,” he said. Ali now works out of a spare bedroom at home in Doonside which mitigates against almost anything larger than a small painting. Then, by chance watching his son using an iPad, Ali saw the potential to take that U-turn and to make art, and even animation, on the device. Using new technologically advanced apps, he has returned to his earlier Mughal-inspired miniature style of paintings, which glow on a computer screen with a beguiling back-lit iridescence.

Chinese Australian artist Ah Xian has for years worked out of a studio in Beijing while living for half the year with his family north of Sydney. His early reputation was predicated on highly refined award-winning life-size porcelain busts that utilised the fabrication expertise of artisans in China’s historic porcelain capital, Jingdezhen. Two years ago, he also began sharing a space in Anhui where he has been working on terracotta brick carving. Eighteen months ago, while visiting Australia he found himself locked down with no studio in Sydney to speak of. Having become accustomed to copious amounts of studio space he was forced into a tiny room at home which now serves as a de facto studio and his attention has turned to delicate painting on scroll-shaped rice paper. When I visited recently there was barely space in the room for the two of us. However, Ah Xian remains stoic, and sees the disruption as an opportunity to refocus his career trajectory. 

Australian artist Guan Wei, in recent years, has occupied three immense studios in Beijing, each one eventually falling victim to China’s pre-emptive bureaucracy with its passion for unannounced redevelopment. Some time ago, I visited one of the studios thirty kilometres west of central Beijing and was astonished to find an expansive compound with a gargantuan studio on one side and a two-storey accommodation block for workers on the other. In the centre of the compound was an orchard oozing with peach, pear and apple trees. Three days after my visit, Wei heard that the studio was to be razed. He had just a few days to shift everything out. These days his Beijing studio is a substantial 450 square metres located just fifteen minutes from the now-legendary 798 Art Zone. Now unable to leave Sydney after coming here in January 2020 for a group show at Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre, he is ensconced in a small house in Glenfield in Southwest Sydney, where he utilises a double garage as a studio. Talking to Wei, I could sense that the psychological impact of being confined in a garage is acute. 

Danelle Bergstrom is an Australian portrait and landscape painter who divides her time between Åland – an archipelago of approximately 6,500 islands that lies equidistant between Sweden and Finland in the Baltic Sea – and a studio at Hill End in New South Wales. “My studio is part of a large old building that was part of a disused mental hospital. I renovated a third of the ground floor (three stories and an attic). It is by a large lake in the middle of the main Åland island, twenty minutes from town,” Bergstrom said via email. Last December she went there to work on two commissioned portraits: that of Ulrika Wolf-Knuts, Chancel-lor of Åbo University, and Tarja Halonen, former Finnish president, before discovering she was locked out of Australia as the country’s international borders closed. Several times she booked flights out of Åland only to have them cancelled at the last minute. Tickets “more than doubled in price,” Bergstrom said. In the meantime, not knowing when she will be able to return, she twiddles her thumbs in Åland and is resigned to the fact that she will miss, for the second time in a year, the opening of an exhibition of her work at Arthouse Gallery in Sydney. 

Australian artist Nike Savvas experienced similar problems to Bergstrom. Even though living in Sydney with her husband, Savvas commutes regularly between Sydney and a studio in London, and has done so for many years. “I find the creative mix in London exciting and my work feeds on this. I react to the energy of others, and the energy of engagement and activity that opens my work to invention. Living in London has become part of my process. I spend between three to four months a year, there,” she said. Last year she headed to London for a working visit that would last just several weeks, or so she thought. Ten months later she was still there, trapped in a country where the borders had slammed shut and where the Covid death rate was escalating exponentially, and with a health service was on the verge of imploding. “Infection rates were soaring. The body count was extreme; one in five had had Covid and one in five hundred were dead because of it,” she said. “The NHS [National Health Service] was operating to full capacity . . . without enough stores of PPE [Personal Protective Equipment] gear to protect them. Hundreds of troops were deployed to help out in the hospitals. The mortuaries were overwhelmed. For the most part, social distancing protocols were ignored. Many people routinely didn’t wear masks.”

Despite the grim UK statistics, there were several emotional positives for Savvas.  “The community in my street made sure the vulnerable were looked after. We delivered food parcels and medicines for each other when isolating or sheltering, [and] the NHS was publicly applauded every week,” she told me.

But on the work front, things took a dive. Savvas, known globally for her huge immersive installations with dazzling strands of colour hanging in shimmering curtains, had to accept the fact that three planned commissions would not happen. “Commissions in the US, China and Australia were never realised due to Covid,” she said. But the changed circumstances presented Savvas with an opportunity to recalibrate her thinking through art if she was going to realise achievable outcomes. Having eventually returned to Sydney via a twenty-four hour delay at Doha airport in Qatar, she is back at work in her home studio on a series of small to medium size works which conceptually couldn’t be further from the dazzling cascades of colour that have previously formed her practice. “I’m focusing on a body of work about the black ocean . . . consisting of diamond dust or glitter caught on paper to reveal an open ocean. This body of work also incorporates reflective shimmering foil on canvas that articulates a pointillist stormy sea, and also suspended kinetic screens of calm waters. I love working exclusively on this smaller scale and Covid afforded me the opportunity,” Savvas said.

For Savvas, one of the hard things about being stranded in London was the isolation. “Contrary to popular mythologies about artists and the art making process, living in isolation for extended periods is not healthy for creative output.”

Not by any stretch of the imagination has Savvas had to endure working in a confined space. Her Sydney studio, while not large, is more than ample for her needs. Working in a confined space isn’t something that UK/Indian artist Desmond Lazaro has had to endure either. Lazaro is an installation artist and painter of large two-dimensional works. He is UK-born and has lived in Pondicherry on India’s east coast for twenty-eight years, but personal circumstances led him to migrate with his family to Australia in 2018. He had barely settled here before the jaws of Covid closed around him, trapping him among the frosty landscape of Daylesford in Victoria. A crucial ingredient of his practice is mixing his own colours from Indian minerals and utilising the expertise of Pondicherry artisans to dye cloth and canvases to his specific and demanding criteria. His studio in India – which he has kept manned by one assistant – is a five–metre–high by fourteen–metre–across space.  His studio in Kyneton is an old butter factory, that is “fiercely cold,” something he finds challenging after the lush warmth of Pondicherry. But one of the greatest challenges for Lazaro is not being able to travel. “Work tends to come via art fairs, which helps in maintaining an international profile. For example, if I am visiting China, I might well drop into India on my way back to Australia to talk to my assistants, and visit Chemould Prescott Road gallery.”

While COVID-19 restrictions have hardly impacted Lazaro’s actual practice, other artists have not fared so well. They have had to adapt to the new Covid world as they have found themselves trapped in Australia because of shuttered international borders, that have separated them from their overseas studios. Odd corners of domestic living spaces, spare bedrooms and garden sheds, have all been commandeered as makeshift spaces in which they can work. The new circumstances that this has presented has seen them recalibrate their practices as well as developing and exploring new visual languages.

This essay was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 56, 2021.

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