Artist Christina Read and gallery manager Grace Ridley-Smith had almost finished hanging a new exhibition when the news of the nationwide Covid-19 Alert Level Four lockdown was announced. Francesca Emms asked them why they kept going.
When artist Christina Read started preparing a new body of work she had no way of knowing how fitting the exhibition title, Time After Time (A Subverted Plan), would be. Based on drawings and doodles Read made while ‘pondering unfulfilled plans and time running out’, the works take feelings of worry and turn them into playful forms while also acknowledging ‘the queasiness of personal uncertainty.’
Grace Ridley-Smith, manager of McLeavey Gallery where Read’s exhibition was set to open, says the 15 brightly coloured collages speak of ‘the universal truth that life doesn’t unfold the way you expect.’ She says Read encourages us to reframe our relationship with failure. ‘To make peace or perhaps even befriend it. To find joy in the unknown or unachieved.’
On 23 March the pair were at the Wellington gallery preparing for the exhibition opening. Read had spoken with her siblings in the UK and Canada the night before, and the seriousness of the pandemic was hitting home. Ridley-Smith describes feeling as if they were ‘racing against a looming and uncertain future.’ With only a few remaining works still to be hung, they listened to the live broadcast announcing that the country would enter a nationwide lockdown in two day’s time. Read was impressed with the decisive action taken by our government but a little panicked as she needed to get back home to Auckland. Ridley-Smith was relieved to be given a firm directive – that the gallery must close.
But physical closure doesn’t mean intellectual closure. Ridley-Smith and Read decided to finish the installation and go ahead and launch the exhibition online. ‘Christina’s work felt like exactly the right tone for the moment. It wouldn't have felt right, for example, to launch a dark, macabre exhibition at such a difficult and uncertain time.When everything in the world is completely changed I wouldn't have wanted to just soldier on as we had intended unless I felt we were genuinely improving and adding to people's lives – whether that be intellectual stimulation or light relief.’
McLeavey Gallery hosted an online exhibition launch with a video, newsletter, website and social media content. ‘This was a radical leap for a gallery that only recently ceased use of the typewriter,’ says Ridley-Smith. Nearly 3,000 people watched the exhibition video on Instagram, 2,000 on Facebook and 200 on YouTube. ‘We have no way of knowing who those people are or where they come from? Some will be long-time friends of the gallery and some will have discovered us for the first time.’
Ridley-Smith is sceptical of Instagram and Facebook live broadcasts, saying, ‘it can be a mistake to simply replicate the offline world. Lifting something from the real world and assuming it will work online denies that the digital experience is different from the physical. Time feels longer online. Attention spans are shorter. Competition is fierce. You can’t rely on physical chemistry or ambience.’ But for the time being she will continue to curate McLeavey’s online presence in the same way as a gallery space. ‘At the heart of the gallery is a desire to remain connected to its congregation. We don’t yet know what the future holds but this experience has given us more tools for ensuring that the door remains open.’
Read is grateful that she got to see the exhibition installed. ‘I worked on the show very intensely the months before lockdown, long hours, no time for socialising. I was looking forward to rectifying the social aspect, so it did feel a bit odd to come back home and spend even more time alone.’ From lockdown in central Auckland Read is working on a new series of artworks with another fitting title: Using Things Up.
Christina Read, Time After Time (A Subverted Plan), McLeavey Gallery, Wellington.
View the online exhibition here: mcleaveygallery.com
Christina Read, Time After Time (A Subverted Plan), installation view. Photography by Russell Kleyn. All images courtesy of McLeavey Gallery.