Dr. Elizabeth Peña is director of the Center for the Arts & Religion at the GTU.
Troubled Times: Turning to the Arts
“Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.”
For months now, the grim daily news about COVID-19 has given us reason to feel destabilized and discouraged. Where can we seek equilibrium, considering that a simple grocery store visit is now cause for anxiety? How can we alleviate our loneliness when sheltering-in-place, distant from friends and family?
Across the globe, many have turned to the arts for comfort, understanding and hope.
Art can comfort us.
Experiencing art – looking at an artwork, listening to music, reading a poem – allows us to temporarily escape into another world, to become enveloped in beauty. Surrendering to this beauty gives our wounded psyches a much-needed break from our communal anxiety.
Art can help us understand and express our own emotions.
In the absence of our usual schedules and rituals, many of us feel unmoored, as we struggle to understand our new reality. Making art reminds us of our own agency when we feel powerless.
Art can give us hope.
The arts transcend boundaries of language, nationality, and religion, helping us see beyond ourselves and to connect with others. Singing together (though 6 ft apart) confirms our sense of community. The arts can remind us of the good and beauty of which humankind is capable.
The exhibition currently installed in the Doug Adams Gallery, AFTER/LIFE, features work by artists affected by an earlier pandemic – HIV/AIDS. Since the arrival of COVID-19, the exhibition has taken on new weight and updated resonance, despite the fact that we last welcomed visitors to the Gallery on Friday, March 13. This video allows a look behind the locked doors, with guest curator Alla Efimova providing insights into the exhibition.
Both artists featured in AFTER/LIFE —Ed Aulerich-Sugai and Mark Mitchell — were affected by HIV/AIDS during the early years of the virus, when it went unacknowledged by the U.S. government. The disease was not well understood, and no good treatments existed. Those who suffered from HIV/AIDS were stigmatized, since so many belonged to a group then de-valued in American society, gay men.
All these things, unfortunately, resonate to a certain extent to what we are enduring as COVID-19 continues to ravage the world and our country — the U.S. government response has been negligent; the virus is not well understood, and no vaccine yet exists; and, shockingly and sadly, some view sufferers’ lives as less worthy, as a sacrifice necessary to revive the economy. Because of our own, newly acquired personal experiences, the work in AFTER/LIFE resonates even more deeply than before.
Because of our own, newly acquired personal experiences,
the work in AFTER/LIFE resonates even more deeply than before.
AFTER/LIFE presents Ed Aulerich-Sugai’s Figures series, the last body of work he made before his death. In some of these paintings, with figures with cast down faces, he is remembering friends who died during the AIDS crisis. In other paintings, showing ascending bodies, he was willing himself into a healthy body through the act of painting. We can join the artist in mourning those who died, and in expressing hope and recovery for others.
The exhibition also includes Mark Mitchell’s Burial series, in which Mitchell created multi-garment death ensembles for friends. These friends are still living — in sewing these outfits, he honors their lives. We have displayed these works floating from the ceiling, showcasing their ethereal quality. It makes us think of the passage from life to death, of the importance of recognizing, thanking, honoring our friends and family while we are together on earth.
While the artwork in AFTER/LIFE concerns themes relating to death, the pale colors and graceful shapes are uplifting and life affirming. Take a moment and soak it in — or, read a book, listen to music, or watch a dance performance — and gather solace and strength for the future.