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The Art of Isolation

Today's post has been written by my colleague Amber Hoque, reflecting on life in isolation - from the perspective of a gallery. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I did.


Image: Amber Hoque, Untitled, 2020

Do you smile to tempt a lover, Mona Lisa?

Or is this your way to hide a broken heart?

Many dreams have been brought to your doorstep.

They just lie there and they die there.

Are you warm, are you real, Mona Lisa?

Or just a cold and lonely, lovely work of art?

Nat King Cole

Being at home has enabled us to indulge in some of the quirkier things we might not usually have the opportunity to do.

Today I tried to watch Tim. As I stream live footage from the Mona gallery, located in Tasmania Australia, a simple typed sign is perched on the plinth where Tim usually sits. It reads: “Tim has gone home for the day - back at 10am”. I feel a little disappointed and a little silly not to realise the vast time difference between here and Australia, but for some reason I feel captivated by the empty room, and continue to watch the live stream whilst nothing goes on.

There’s a certain voyeuristic pleasure in watching nothing happen, or perhaps it is the anticipation that something might happen, the kind of things we’re not meant to see, an unexpected peak into the secret void.

It reminds me of a favourite hobby I had as a kid, on discovering the internet I quickly learnt that you could watch live streams of Times Square in New York, watch the waves lapping on a beach somewhere in California, I found myself regularly watching an empty chapel in Las Vegas, in hope I would be a witness to someone’s Elvis themed wedding.

I find myself imagining where Tim has gone - what home means to him. I’ve never visited Australia, and imagine Tasmania to be rich with red ochre; a haven with moody sunlight and clean air.

Tim is a work of art by Wim Delvoye. He’s an actual human being who has been tattooed by the artist. He’s been sitting in galleries to exhibit his back as a work of art, and his skin will be removed and framed when he departs this world.

It’s all too easy to forget sometimes that works of art contain real people, and not just these performances but paintings - whether a model muse staged to recreate the artists fantasy, or an unassuming bystander painted with L.S. Lowry’s simple curiosity.

The Mona Lisa is one of, if not the most famous artwork in the world. The mysterious sitter is protected by the bullet resistant glass of a climate controlling vitrine and attracts around 30,000 visitors a day - when the gallery is open. But now, during these extraordinary times, the Mona Lisa is in social isolation along with the rest of us, and perhaps more to the extreme than any of us can imagine.

Great swathes of admirers surround her in a usual day, resting only in her own company at night, but right now she has been in relative isolation since March. I imagine what it must be like to look through her eyes, to see what she sees, with the endless streams of mobile phones waving in front of her, the thousands of instagram Monaramas; the occasional glare of an illicit camera flash.

Through these lenses, our personal filters, did we really see the Mona Lisa? We might have missed her half smile in person but remember it from the postcard, t-shirt, key-ring from the shop. Her smile hints at the cool waters that ripple beneath the materiality of the painting- of the material world altogether. The quiet recognition that in the apparent emptiness of solitude, the entire potential of creation lurks in expectancy. Perhaps Lisa isn’t about looking out at all. Her still and reserved quietness alludes to a deeper meaning of solitude, a perfect embodiment of oneliness.

Thursday 30th April 2020 will see BBC Arts celebrate the wonderful, creative and innovative voices of museums, galleries and archives with their initiative #MuseumFromHome highlighting the work of our cherished institutions online in times of isolation. Now that their doors have closed, we have been invited into the homes of curators, artists and many others in the field to talk from an exceptionally personal and improvised point of view, reinforcing the shared experience of humanity in which we find ourselves.

A home is the place where we have the opportunity to express our inner essence - but a home is not just the bricks and mortar in which we find ourselves tied into during lock-down.

It reminds me of a quote I read in an interview with writer Brian Keenan:

“I think everybody has a place inside themselves that you alone can go to. You know how to get there because you've got a key. When you go there it can be deeply enriching- it can also be a bit disturbing because it forces you to look at yourself. That's what aloneness is to me.” -

Brian Keenan

Keenan spent four and a half years incarcerated as a hostage in Lebanon, and found a world beyond his chains in the infinitude of his mind- his work “An Evil Cradling” is testament to the liberating power of a home inside ourselves.

It is from this home that artists create. This sanctuary, be it happy or tumultuous, is the secret sketchbook of the artist - desires to be writ large in works, or ideas us onlookers will never see.

I’ve continued to watch the room Tim sits in the whole time I have been writing, and there’s not been a stir. He’s continued to sit throughout lock-down, and with no visitors to the gallery he’s engaging with the same social distancing that the Mona Lisa is feeling.

So through this social isolation, the artwork returns once again to the space from where they came - that luminous cavity of the artist’s soul- whose light we glimpse in the artworks that make it out, to spark the torch of inspiration and hope within us all.

Since writing this post, Tim has taken a break from sitting. I guess I just wasn't meant to see him - yet.

The Arts Society Heritage Volunteers have been giving their time in cultural institutions across the country for many years. Join the converstaion here


Thank you Amber for this beautiful piece of writing.

This blog is composed by Florian Schweizer, CEO of The Arts Society, and made up of contributions by him and invited guest bloggers.

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Muriel Lowe
Muriel Lowe
Jun 12, 2020

An interesting subject, so wonderfully expressed. How enriching it has been.


Liz Woods
Liz Woods
Apr 30, 2020

Another lovely post Amber. I’m really struck by what it must be like in the great galleries and museums of the world now - just a maze of empty corridors and silent spaces.

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