COVIDecameron: 19 Artists from the MOMENTUM Collection

COVIDecameron 19 Artists from the MOMENTUM Collection

Online Exhibition Starting 12 May 2020

On the occasion of MOMENTUM’s 10th Anniversary

Shaarbek Amankul, Nezaket Ekici, Thomas Eller, Theo Eshetu, Doug Fishbone, Mariana Hahn, Gülsün Karamustafa, David Krippendorff, Janet Laurence, Sarah Lüdemann, Map Office, Kate McMillan, Tracey Moffatt, Anxiong Qiu, Nina E. Schönefeld, Varvara Shavrova, Sumugan Sivanesan, Mariana Vassileva, Shingo Yoshida

Curated by Rachel Rits-Volloch & Emilio Rapanà


Varvara Shavrova The Opera. Three Transformations.  2010-2016. HD video with sound. MOMENTUM Collection, Berlin

With the eyes and hearts of the world locked onto the threat and aftermath of COVID-19, MOMENTUM gathers 19 exceptional artists from its Collection, and invites you to come see their stories on our website. In our newly post-viral world, where we have come to see that we have been moving too fast and maybe moving too much, COVIDecameron asks us to slow down and retreat from the constant barrage of the now, from the oversaturation of events, invitations and offers, from the instant gratification of unending empty entertainments. This exhibition of art from elsewhere is a retreat from which to safely contemplate the world, a way of travelling without traveling. Moving images move us. On the occasion of its 10th birthday, MOMENTUM, the Global Platform for Time-based Art, is proud to share 25 exceptional works from its Collection, re-contextualized here through the prism of life at the time of Corona. COVIDecameron is a thank you to the artists who have entrusted their work to us, and a tribute to all the exceptional artists we have worked with over the years, as well as to our audiences around the globe. We wish you all good health in these precarious times.

Addressing the viral times we live in, COVIDecameron takes its title from Boccaccio’s literary classic, The Decameron. We follow in this author’s the fabled footsteps, whose ten storytellers flee the plague in Florence; escaping the dangers of disease in the city, they retreat to the countryside to regale each other with tales of their times. Escaping from the world at large, they instead bring the outside world to life in seclusion through the artistry of their storytelling. Six-hundred-and-seventy years later, at the dawn of a new decade, we find ourselves in the midst of a global pandemic. With one country after another having closed their borders, and with social distancing continuing to be measured in meters, countries, and continents, we are instructed to seek safety in seclusion from the world and from one another. So, like its medieval namesake, and with a defiant wink in the face of COVID-19, COVIDecameron gathers together the ‘visual stories’ of video works by 19 artists from around the globe, for an exhibition online. These artists from Australia, Bulgaria, China, Ethiopia, Germany, Italy, Japan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Turkey, the UK, and the US address, each in their own way, a broad array of topics which we have related to the unprecedented anomalies of life in the time of Corona. With social distancing, masks as fashion items, the bizarre phenomenon of global toilet paper shortages, and bad medical advice from politicians having rapidly become our new normal – and with death tolls continuing to rise in many countries, we all hope will never approach normal – MOMENTUM has combed through its Collection to bring together a selection of works reflecting on the poetry of the day-to-day as it relates to the changing world we inhabit: life leading up to and during COVID-19. Through many voices from many places comes a celebration of otherness; an opening up of the world in these viral times of retreat, a place of safety in which to contemplate the vulnerabilities we all share, and the numerous ways of overcoming them together.



The video works assembled for this exhibition celebrate new acquisitions to the MOMENTUM Collection, as well as works with which MOMENTUM has grown during its first 10 years. In an exhibition of art from elsewhere, celebrating otherness and taking place amidst a global pandemic, what better way to open COVIDecameron than with Tracey Moffatt – the first artist to have launched the MOMENTUM Collection in 2010 – with two works from her Hollywood Montages series made together with Gary Hillberg. Doomed (2007) and Other (2010), both beautifully collaged from clips of popular films, are, in turn, comically rousing celebrations of our fascination with global disaster and the perilous attractions of otherness. With no disrespect intended to the countless many who are suffering at the hands of Corona, nevertheless, it has been a global phenomenon to laugh in the face of the outbreak. Making light of even the greatest darkness is a better survival mechanism than despair, and in that sense, Doug Fishbone’s Artificial Intelligence (2018) also paints an oddly prescient portrait of our times, assembled from images found online. From food shortages in shops, to wildlife taking over our city streets, to a wilful denial of our own mortality in the face of all evidence to the contrary, we all hope that this is not how the Corona pandemic will end. But perhaps Mariana Vassileva’s Morning Mood (2010) is how it all began – if we are to believe that the virus originated from bats. Shot in Sydney, Australia, during the very days that MOMENTUM drew its first breaths with its inaugural event in Sydney, this portrait of the city’s remarkable bats already makes the jump between species, inverting the animal to show his inherently human characteristics.

Jumping ahead to the present day, Thomas Eller’s THE virus – SELBST (C0vid-20Recovered) (2020), is his most recent work, made during the Corona lockdown while in selfisolation in China. As so much of Eller’s work, a self-portrait, it is at the same time an intimate portrait of the virus, as Eller recites, in a visually layered palimpsest, the complete genetic code of one of the first strains of the SARS-CoV2 virus from Wuhan, where the COVID-19 outbreak began. Nina E. Schönefeld’s N.O.R.O.C.2.3 (2020), also made during the Corona lockdown, but in Berlin, is a dark depiction of our current pandemic times, cast in the guise of dystopian science fiction. Drawing on excerpts from her previous work, together with historical quotations, passages from novels, television series, films, political speeches, stock footage, video portraits and media reports from different periods of history, N.O.R.O.C.2.3 is a narrative video collage that takes the pulse of a pandemic in the digital age. Moving on from Schönefeld’s sci-fi is Shingo Yoshida’s stark – but equally dystopian – reality. Heathrow Airport: Corona Diary (2020) was shot at the end of April, while the artist was en-route to his native Japan, when many countries worldwide were still in lockdown. Traversing endless escalators and moving walkways from one empty hall to another, the artist glimpses birds flying through deserted terminals, safety announcements made for no one, advertising posters rendered oddly inappropriate in a time of social distancing. This record of an unprecedented present is shown alongside The Summit (2020), another of Yoshida’s recent works. Yoshida’s ghostly journey through an abandoned monument to globalization, is set in contrast to an intergenerational journey to the peak of Japan’s monument to nationhood, as Yoshida brings to life his father’s and grandfather’s dream to place an engraved haiku atop Mount Fuji.

The Hong Kong artist duo Map Office embark upon a different kind of personal journey in the midst of this century’s first major viral outbreak, SARS. In Viral Operation (2003), the artists, having flown to Berlin from a Hong Kong still ravaged by the SARS epidemic, proceed on a road trip with the aim of crossing as many European land borders as possible on their way to Italy to show their work in the Venice Biennale. Wearing masks throughout the journey, they are treated continuously as suspect Others, potential contaminants. The mask, in Asia often worn as a social nicety, here becomes a dangerous symbol of contagion. And now, 17 years down the line, when we are all wearing masks and boarders between countries remain closed, we look back at Viral Operation as a social experiment, prefiguring what was to come. While in Runscape (2010), Map Office chronicle the kind of freedom of movement which, under our current pandemic conditions, has been denied to many around the globe who have been restricted to lockdown in the interests of public health. The narration describing the body as ‘a bullet which needs no gun’, assumes a newly dark undertone in view of today’s repeated warnings of the deadly spread of the virus from person to person. Running the city to map its portrait and redefine its uses of public space, could equally be an elegy to physical communication through space, a right which most of us took for granted before Corona.

In her own elegy for the freedoms of travel, On The Way Safety and Luck (2016), Nezaket Ekici reimagines a farewell ritual which was once commonly practiced in Turkey and many Balkan countries, where friends and family gather to throw water after the vehicles of the departed, so that their journey may flow as smoothly as water. Ekici’s radical re-enactment of this custom, when seen through the lens of Corona-times, implies a purification more physical than spiritual, as people around the globe are instructed to soak and scrub to disinfect themselves after every journey outdoors. Ekici’s Veiling and Reveiling (2010) can equally be read through the prism of our strange times. Does a burka become the ultimate form of safety gear? In this video performance, Ekici meticulously dresses herself in lingerie and make-up, donned on top of the burka she is wearing. Inverting private and public, she subverts the normative function of the burka, to comic effect. But, if viral ticking time bombs are indeed walking our streets, this practice may start to look like a good idea for everyone.

While western medicine has so far failed to find a viable vaccine or cure, it is perhaps time to turn to the ancient shamanistic traditions of other cultures. In Duba (2006) and Sham (2007), Kyrgyz artist Shaarbek Amankul gives us an intimate portrait of cleansing rituals performed by shamans, with the trances, incantations, cries, and grunts that seem so alien to most of us. Yet in cultures where many still do not trust in science, it can be hoped that faith in alternative forms of healing will safeguard against the ravages of our viral times. Faith is equally the subject of Theo Eshetu’s Festival of Sacrifice (2012), depicting another ancient cultural tradition, the celebration of Eid-ul-Adha, the Islamic Festival of Sacrifice. Turning the ritual itself into a trance, the video recreates, through its multiplication of images, the kaleidoscopic patterns that highlight the spiritual aspect of the event. Just as Eshetu manages to create aesthetic beauty from images of ritual slaughter, Mariana Hahn conceives her own beautiful ritual of personal sacrifice. In her video performance Burn My Love, Burn (2013), the artist confronts the death of a loved one through a ritual of mourning, consuming the ashes of burnt poetry, numbing her suffering on the frozen ice. The tragic reality of our pandemic times is that countless people around the globe are in mourning for loved ones unfairly taken from them by an invisible killer, as yet poorly understood. Kate McMillan’s Paradise Falls I & II (2011/2012) is a different kind of tribute to the disappeared, to the forgotten sites of distant traumas, to the frailty of personal and historic memory. Drawing parallels between physical and psychological landscapes, McMillan has created moving paintings where ghost-like people flicker in and out of existence, as symbols of fractured and partial histories that disappear from focus, yet can continue in our collective psyche as dark and haunting traumas. Seen now, from the epicenter of our present global viral crisis, this begs the question of how, eventually, will we look back upon the time of Corona? But while we remain in its midst, Gulsun Karamustafa’s 4-channel video installation and soundscape, Personal Time Quartet (2000), intended as a portrait of the artist’s childhood, instead now paints a picture of how many of us have felt during lockdown, stuck indoors and perpetually repeating the same domestic tasks. While Stefano Cagol’s National Pride (2009) turns a clip from Virus, a 1980 apocalyptic sci-fi film, into an audiovisual parable for our times. Transforming the filmic pandemic of the Italian Flu into a wider reflection on influenza, influence, and borders, this capricious work fits firmly into Cagol’s ongoing series of FLU projects; a body of work dating back to 1998 and the first Bird Flu outbreak in Asia in 1997.

Equally capricious is Sumugan Sivanesan’s A Children’s Book of War (2010), which uses the lighthearted visual languages of animation, computer games, and digital media in a jarring conjunction to address the serious topics of war, sovereignty, and violence. As the experience of the outside world has been for many, during lockdown, restricted to their computer screens, Sivanesan’s dense visual collage of cultural references and Australian colonial history becomes that much more topical in view of Australia having closed its borders for at least another year in order to safeguard itself from the virus. Herein lies the beauty of distance in pandemic times. In another multi-faceted animated work, Qiu Anxiong’s Cake (2014), combines painting, drawing and clay with a discordant soundtrack of mechanical noises to offer a timeless and exquisitely crafted contemplation of the past, the present, and the relationship between the two. With heart-rate monitors, sirens, and police radio scanners running throughout the soundtrack, and images of wrestlers rendered in a variety of media, this work can be read as particularly emblematic of the struggles of our viral times.

As an artistic analogy for the dramas of our global crisis, the artform of opera can perhaps best capture the heartaches, the soaring emotions, the uncertainties of daily life, both the lack and the overabundance of information, families torn asunder, jobs in peril, relationships strained, nerves fraying, heroines dying alone in attics, and yes, also the joyous moments, the times of calm, the space for contemplation as the world slows down and the music grows softer. Just as Varvara Shavrova’s The Opera. Three Transformations (2010-2016) takes an intimate look at the performers behind the spectacle and the masque of Chinese opera, so too does David Krippendorff’s Nothing Escapes My Eyes (2015) take us on an intimate journey through identity and history. Krippendorff’s time-warping tribute to a changing world poses a fitting way to round off this exhibition, as a would-be Aida, to a moving soundtrack from the eponymous opera, sheds tears for a place and time that no longer exist. COVID-19 has changed our world forever. It has left gaping holes in the hearts of all those who have lost loved ones. It has impoverished those who have been prevented from working, or who have had to pay for medical care. Yet it has also witnessed a remarkable outpouring of creativity, good will, and good humor as people around the world try to cope, both in their own ways and communally, with the changing world in the time of Corona.  What will be our new normal in post-pandemic times? COVIDecameron ends with the meditative soundtrack of deep breathing, snuffling, purring, rumbling, accompanied visually by close-ups of various animals as they inhale…exhale…inhale…exhale. Its not just us humans – the animal kingdom is also at risk from this pan-species pandemic. Janet Laurence’s  Vanishing (2009/10) reminds us what COVID-19 has made so strikingly manifest – the most important thing is to keep breathing.

 [Rachel Rits-Volloch]



Varvara Shavrova


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