The Student
On a black background there are a series of colourful green, yellow and blue circular shapes
Review
Art created in a Global Pandemic: The strange comfort and empowering call-to-action of ‘The Normal’
by Emily Moffett, 1/06/21

You know the feeling of relief after seeing the face of a loved one you haven’t seen in months? That was the feeling I felt when I walked into Talbot Rice Gallery. I felt as if I could finally breathe again, as if a weight had been lifted off my shoulders. It was good to be in a gallery, to have the freedom to walk into a public place full of art and expression. It was even better to examine art that expressly reflects the unprecedented era in which we live, the era that closed down galleries and shut down society. Art grounded in the real, in the ubiquitous struggles of the pandemic, is exactly what I needed. The new exhibition, ‘The Normal,’ did not disappoint. 

The exhibit is acutely aware of the pandemic, and offers not an escape from reality but a strangely comforting sense of solidarity. Each work has an interesting, although not always obvious, connection to lived experiences during Covid-19. For instance, Femke Herregraven’s piece on the plague, Corrupted Air, and Tonya McMullan’s piece on pandemic bee-keeping, The lure of tomorrow’s harvests, are fittingly topical. Walking through the gallery and examining the works of art, all of which were curated in real time, is an eye-opening experience. With strong activist roots, the exhibition offers hope and beauty while also spreading awareness for pressing social issues. The artists tackle subjects such as environmental issues, racial divides, sexual violence, relationships between humans and wildlife, and the inequity of capitalism. 

Gabrielle Goliath This Song is For… Flow.
Courtesy of TRG photograph by Sally Jubb

The first room, presenting the first artwork out of 21, is affecting and somber. Gabrielle Goliath’s This Song is For… shares the stories of women impacted by sexual violence and highlights the increase in domestic violence caused by the pandemic. With each displayed essay chronicalling a woman’s narrative of rape, there is a chosen song. Then, on an adjacent wall, two projected screens display creative performances of these pieces. The spacious room with its high ceilings is an excellent space to display the piece; the songs echo clearly through the room and the essays are granted the respect and space they seem to deserve. I visited the gallery on two different days, and each experience was almost spiritual. The song is different depending on the day, and the focus on different women’s stories is heartbreaking. I would recommend spending at least 20 minutes in this room, to hear the entirety of the day’s song and properly read each survivor’s essay. 

As the exhibition continues, there are many artwork pieces that reflect present day struggles. Solution for Normality presents a unique set-up of eight tv screens surrounding an entanglement of wires. The set-up metaphorically matches the content of the piece: the entanglement of humans and animals. The screens captivatingly blink and shift, showing an array of different videos filmed pre-pandemic. A wolf seems to howl opera, human feet and the talons of birds seem to dance, and the interspecies connections in our environment are creatively and clearly displayed. Corrupted Air- by Femke Herregraven references the bubonic plague across different time periods showing how it continues today and examining how the first Pandemic Bond was established in 2017. Herregraven highlights the surprising yet undeniable relationship between capitalism and the bubonic plague through three lightboxes. Although this piece is smaller in scale and display space, the research that Femke Herregraven has shared is comprehensive and deserves to be carefully inspected. Detention (Series) is an interesting and powerful piece not confined to one exhibition space but rather spread throughout the different gallery spaces. Larry Achiampong critiques society’s shallow, performative anti-racism by writing repeating lessons on a blackboard-esque style canvas. By spreading these pieces throughout, the importance of these lessons in all times and places is emphasized. Racism is not just a confined topic for instagram, or a single conversation piece for a class; rather it is a lived reality. 

One of the strongest, most absorbing pieces in the exhibition is BLKNWS. Kahlil Joseph presents a broadcast on two screens that highlights Black lives, Black creativity, and triumphs Black pride. It is easy to let the minutes pass by watching this extensive and constantly updating artistic newstream. Incredibly, each day the broadcast can be different; the montage is constantly updated with new and modern content. As I sat on the bench, engrossed in the broadcast, I watched a Black Tinkerbell twirl, Black basketball players perform a dance routine, and a newscaster present news of another unjustifiable Black murder. Alternating between joyful portrayals of Black culture and somber experiences of racism, the piece is captivating and rages against perceptions of largely-white broadcasts as ‘normal.’ 

‘The Normal’ is refreshing, innovative, contemporary, and eye-opening. The 21 pieces exhibited are thoughtfully chosen and displayed, all with lessons to teach. We have collectively lived through the harsh realities of a global pandemic, and the artwork displayed is relevant, comforting yet disconcerting, and a call to action. The artists call upon exhibition viewers to examine social and environmental issues, and insist upon change. Talbot Rice Gallery’s new exhibition is well worth a visit.

Image- Tonya McMullan The Lure of Tomorrow’s Harvest
Image Courtesy of the artist and Talbot Rice Gallery