Over half of 2020 has passed in a blur. It’s starting to feel like one of those movies where the protagonist wakes up to repeat the same day, until they finally get it right. The year has already brought monstrous change; Eastern Australia endures some of the worst bushfires on record, a deadly virus forces the world into lockdown and pulls the rug off of systemic racism, and nothing is certain.
The role of the artist is essential, as we reflect upon our world and await the unforeseeable. With the temporary closure of galleries and museums around the world, institutions have moved artworks, exhibitions and programs online to engage with audiences. Slowly, but surely, the digital realm has claimed an important space. The COVID-19 Pandemic has redefined the institution, with artists establishing a newfound global identity through a shared trauma, almost entirely through the digital space.
Social media isn’t just about selfies anymore; it’s solidified its place as a news outlet, resource for self-help, a platform for activism. Although it isn’t perfect, platforms like Instagram are becoming more socially engaged, which might be why creatives and artists are choosing to share more of their ideas and work online. The COVID-19 lockdowns appear to have only escalated social media platforms as the new space for artists to share work.
Of course, this comes with its own challenges that artists are navigating for the first time ever. Does social media threaten to alter authenticity of art? Does it become art for fame or clout? Is it inherently performative? With shadow banning becoming more prominent, are certain voices being censored?
To further delve into the evolving role of the artist today, and how political art functions in the digital space, I spoke to Meanjin (Brisbane) based visual artist Amy Sargeant. Amy is a multi-disciplinary artist working across sculpture, soundscapes, and moving image installations to subvert Australian iconography and undercut the political spectacle. Having just completed her Master of Philosophy, her work has a recognisably defined aesthetic within the Brisbane art scene. Her use of piercing colour contrast and poignant textual statements like ‘It’s Time’ are glittered across public spaces, as if subliminally asking us to question ‘truth’. You might have seen her Status Unknown stickers posted throughout the CBD; or Anthem, a recently commissioned video work for the Institute of Modern Art’s Making Art Work (2020).
How important is art now?
It couldn’t be more important. When you think of any major historical event in the past, we usually think about it through the art that was made at the time. Those narratives, for us, are being shaped now. If we’re talking about the IMA’s Making Art Work, initiatives like that allow artists who have a dissenting voice to continue to produce work during a time when, for many entities, maintaining profit is key.
Do you find the making is a relief or type of escapism from the uncertainty of the world right now?
To me, it’s not about escape but about having a space where you can exert control over the factors that exist and use that to the end of seeking to portray injustice, in a way that can switch people onto it. To me it is kind of therapeutic to produce that space where you have control over that, and you can fine-tune an expression of feelings. Cause I think all our experiences of these things, of injustice and ongoing geopolitical events, is something that is very hard to put into words, so that’s where art comes in.
What is the role of the artist during times like these?
I think debating ideas with people and conversations with people can only go so far in sort of allowing them some form of understanding in circumstances you face, or circumstances you perceive. In this sort of political discussion realm, the idea of saying ‘Debate me bro’ is almost a joke because it’s such a mundane, sport-like process that really is about beating someone in a game of wordplay, as opposed to coming to an understanding. So I suppose the role of the artist, like you said, is to go beyond what those forms of communication are capable of to touch people on a deeper level.
How has the digital space transformed in this time? Personally, have you been posting more online?
Well, certainly with my work where I’m seeking to evoke the affective qualities of the spectacle of politics, a lot of those affective things don’t come across in the same way in a photograph on a small screen. Scale is a huge thing in my work, making massive things, because that’s what entities in the spectacle of politics do—making massive gestures—that has an effective quality. It’s influencing you to think about the iconography and what it signifies in a certain way.
Some big banner that I made and documented will never work the same way in an Instagram photo as it did in person. But if you are producing something that you know someone is going to view at home, on a laptop, with headphones, you can make it work in that context. So, with the IMA Making Art Work project, I made that video knowing viewers would watch that at home. They’re not going to walk into a room at the IMA and see it… I mean, maybe one day!
What are you focusing on currently in your practice?
I’m just coming to the end of my Master of Philosophy candidature, and that’s a whole body of work that has a defined aesthetic and a whole realm of context that it’s dealing with; with semiotics, and symbols and pieces of iconography, and messing with them, turning them into a new code to say new things, to undercut and disrupt the original ideas that underpin those things. But I want to do new stuff now, and I want to find a new direction that has more to do with me. Previously, as a closeted trans person, I had sought to distance myself from the work somehow, like I don’t really appear in the work, or my ‘hand’ is not physically evident in the work. At that time, my outward facing identity was very different. And I think if we’re talking about how you can communicate something through art that is felt but can’t be said through words, like issues of gender, I think there’s a lot to do there.
Lucy Nguyen-Hunt is an interdisciplinary Australian artist who is investigating and coming to terms her politicised identity. Namely, this manifests as dismantling preconceived notions of identity through the lens of a camera and the queer, biracial, female gaze. The body and self is often implicated as a material form. Her investigation of identity has developed into disassembling the structures in place which consistently others outliers to a socially constructed ‘standard’. Her practice prioritises authentic representation and visibility, and voicing lived experiences through the process of self-negotiation and preservation.
Follow her on Instagram at lucynhunt.