The Pandemic Closed Art Galleries' Doors. But Who Said a Gallery Needs Four Walls and a Ceiling?

BY: ANNA PURNA KAMBHAMPATY 

JUNE 11, 2020 8:57 AM EDT, Article reposted for Time.com

The traditional art gallery—the sterile, windowless viewing room aptly labeled the “white cube” by artist and critic Brian O’Doherty in 1976—has dominated the art world for decades as the primary way to display works. The white cube, which has been compared to an operating room as well as a burial vault, has been championed as a way to maintain neutrality while viewing artworks. “The outside world must not come in, so windows are usually sealed off. Walls are painted white. The ceiling becomes the source of light. The wooden floor is polished so that you click along clinically, or carpeted so that you pad soundlessly, resting the feet while the eyes have at the wall. The art is free, as the saying used to go, ‘to take on its own life,'” O’Doherty wrote in Artforum.

But its eerie, clinical neutrality comes at a price. The cube creates something artificial about the way the viewer interacts with art, removing both from the outside world, and from anyone who doesn’t seek out or stumble upon that room. The cube has been perceived as a symbol of elitism: if you didn’t dress the right way or frequent certain neighborhoods, the cube and its contents were not for you. And if you didn’t know the right people, the chances of your work being displayed there were even slimmer.

Now the pandemic has made the gallery even more inaccessible, at least temporarily, inspiring curators and creators to reimagine how art might be shared. But while today’s circumstances are new, artists’ efforts to think beyond such restrictions are not. In the 1960s, members of the Fluxus movement created works that blurred the distinction between art and life and denounced the gallery’s formalities. Everyday acts could be works of art, and many of the works could not be restaged or reproduced in full. Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece, in which the artist sat on a stage with a pair of scissors and invited audience members to take turns cutting off her clothing, blurred the relationship between the viewer and the art, and threw into question any sort of neutrality.

The land-art movement of the ’60s and ’70s saw artists sculpt the earth to create large-scale works, like Robert Smithson’s 1,500-ft.-long Spiral Jetty made of salt crystals, water, and basalt rock on Utah’s Great Salt Lake, that inherently held their creators’ anti-commercial politics: other than in photographs, there was no way for the massive pieces to exist within four walls. The “earthworks” made during this period were the antithesis of what the white cube represented; rather than existing in a void that nullified the outside world, these works were the outside world.

As galleries have shuttered during social distancing and stay-at-home orders, this spirit of creativity, if not outright anti-establishment thinking, has informed new relationships between art and viewers. From video games to snail mail, the examples below are just a few of the ways artists and museums have seized upon this difficult moment to prove, yet again, that possibilities for interacting with art are as wide open as a room is closed.

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In a “Drive-by-Art” show in New York, Toni Ross and Sara Salaway exhibited When, a social-­isolation “calendar” of jumbled chairs with date-related words Courtesy of Toni Ross and Sara Salaway