Making most of the loop: Leeds Art Gallery during COVID-19

Today I went to Leeds Art Gallery, having been in Leeds for about a month already, I decided it was time to go. As I walked down past the town hall, I thought about what I expected and upon arriving at the gallery, it was all very familiar. We queued two metres apart and scanned a track and trace. All very sensible and normal. But the longer I spent there the more things felt alien. Staged somehow. There was a man taking photographs for something, presumably some promotional material, and he told a series of people one by one to ‘act normal’ which consisted of them standing and looking at paintings in exactly the way they were before. But it was wrong now, self-conscious somehow. It was a bit like an airport, queuing one way, observed by these staff members, who feel almost like guards.

There was a general sense that I was doing something wrong by being there, the architecture of the place did not feel designed for humans and I felt like this place was slightly shocked that anyone had come at all. This was not necessarily a bad thing. Galleries at their best are a humbling experience– you are alone with all this powerful art, they are not supposed to be comfortable, this is not your living room, you are confronted with these objects that you must look at and think about. 

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However, the one-way system detracts from this experience. Being told which way round to walk, which rooms to go in and in which order to go into them removes this discomfort slightly. It is no longer just you and the art, but rather you, the art, and a bunch of arrows on the floor. There is a command now of how these paintings should be seen, some other presence in this relationship. It removes much of the interpretation, the physical choices you make are no longer important. Perhaps this allowed me to focus on the art in a way I couldn’t before, there was no point thinking about how my feet hurt, or whether I should skip this room. I was in the loop now, and I may as well make the most of it. And make the most of it I did, it would have been a shame not to, especially when the work on display was as good as this was. 

The exhibition on nature was really touching and well done. The juxtaposition of this natural artwork with the gallery’s weird, unnatural setting was powerful and unsettling. It felt deeply relevant to our times without being too on the nose about a  ‘disease’.  There was a room that consisted entirely of sketches of trees across time and from all over the world that I thought was especially well done. Just taking this normal thing and making it so significant created a discomfort that I thoroughly enjoyed. Just alone in a room full of trees, all different, all similar. I could just feel that despite all the arrows on the floor, and the mask on my face, I was experiencing art, in all its terror.

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