When Will the Present Begin Again?¹


We start 2021 on the green grass that haunted our dreams for most of last year. This is when it was all supposed to be over, and all about to happen. The cultural and social repression of the past year would spill out into the crowded streets, into exhibition spaces, concert halls, theatres, pubs and bars. This would be the rejoinder of our previous lives before they were cruelly interrupted, only this time it would be even better, simultaneously slower, kinder, and more enriched. 

The postponement of so much of last year’s cultural activity, taken with all the ad hoc confidence that 2020 had available, now has 2021 cornered with dawning realities of a virus that continues to mutate and thwart our best efforts to contain it. We look back at a cultural year that has been marked by pronouncements of deferral, postponement, cancellation and plea, only to look ahead at a year that looks shaky at best.

In March, the Liverpool Biennial – the UK’s largest festival of contemporary visual art – is due to open, following a decision made in April last year to delay its original opening date of July 2020. In a statement that accompanied the news of its postponement, the organisers outlined their intentions to deliver the biennial “as originally conceived but responsive to the new context”. Those words must have seemed so comfortably open and non-committal when they were written over nine months ago, but now seem tragically ill-fated. It seems impossible that the Liverpool Biennial can deliver much of its original plan, when so much preparatory time has been lost to public health restrictions and public venues remain closed. Further north in the UK, Glasgow International – Scotland’s biennial festival of contemporary art – might be a shade luckier, having deferred their 2020 edition entirely to open in June this year. Liverpool, Glasgow, here in Ireland, and further afield, the gamble of last year’s decisions to postpone and defer are beginning to return their results with nerve-wracking uncertainty. 

There’s a paradox of choosing between the limits of now and the possibility of later that has been (and continues to be) faced by many organisations afforded the choice. In some cases, this same paradox is being faced by artists themselves. Should they reorientate their plans for current conditions? Remote engagement, outdoor public access, bookable arts experiences for micro-audience pods were some of the workaround examples that we saw happen under Level 2 and 3. Or should they postpone until the world is ready to receive their original proposals? Should they defer further and further into the fantasy future, in the hope that it will eventually arrive? Or should they face the world as it currently exists and not postpone at all, even if it means fundamental changes to artistic and curatorial plans and the downscaling of public impacts and engagements? 

Although compromise is the most likely answer, this paradox of now or later (deferring the present to be redeemed in the future) is increasingly profound, as we fall further and further out-of-sync with the time and place of art’s intended proposal. This is especially important if we’re to believe that art should seek its relation to the world as it actually occurs – a ‘con-temporary’ art in the most literal sense. If we’re to believe in that principle, then we also have to accept that artworks and artistic programmes that were developed pre-pandemic are going to land very differently by the time they reach an exhausted post-pandemic public in the latter part of 2021 or beyond. Some things will land with extra poignancy.  In other cases, artwork will meet its public with new and unsuspecting irrelevance, unable to speak to our new circumstances or accurately depict our relations. In some cases, and worst of all, I worry that things will circulate among our arts institutions with unacknowledged anachronism, self-satisfied with being locked within the horizon of a different time entirely. In the midst of the historical event of the pandemic that could well shape the rest of our lives, there is a risk of contemporary art becoming less and less contemporary at a time when its contemporaneity has never mattered more. 

In 2018, I visited the National Archaeological Museum in Naples, where the Gabinetto Segreto (Secret Cabinet) is housed. It contains a collection of erotic art and artefacts from Pompeii and Herculaneum that predated the catastrophic eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79AD. First discovered in excavations by archaeologists in the 18th century, the art and artefacts were kept hidden from public view for almost 200 years; briefly made accessible to public viewers in the sexually liberal 1960s, before being locked down again until finally (finally?) re-opened to the public in the year 2000. It’s fascinating to consider the calculation of those 18th-century archaeologists, who sought to protect their findings from the censure of the time; their faith in some future moment when the public value of the material would be redeemed in a society less reactionary than their own. The example of the Gabinetto Segreto attests to the different historical speeds that traffic the visibility of art and cultural material, from original display, through catastrophe, excavation and all stages of mediated visibility in a gallery or museum. 

In the first months of 2021, as various artistic programmes and projects slip forward and forward again in time, we need to be mindful about what is being erased in the process and what cultural contemporaneity might really mean. As organisations and as individuals, and as difficult as that may be, the future might depend on it. 

Matt Packer is the Director of EVA International.


¹Peter Osborne, ‘Every other Year Is Always This Year – Contemporaneity and the Biennial Form’, in Making Biennials in Contemporary Times: Essays from the World Biennial Forum No. 2, (Brazil: Fundação Bienal São Paulo, 2015) p35.