In March, the doors to Federation University Australia’s Post Office Gallery were closed as the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic began to be felt across Australia. At the time, the gallery was presenting work by the renowned Australian artist and former student Graeme Drendel whose exhibition, The Messengers, opened on March 14 but closed just a week later.
Six months on, the work remains in the space but with no visitors allowed and the gallery likely to be closed until 2021 – the paintings will soon make their way back to the artist. The closure has become a familiar story for many in the visual and performing arts who have felt the full impact of the pandemic.
For Post Office Gallery Curator Shelley Hinton, the closure was a bitter blow, with the Drendel exhibition two years in the making and having kicked off with a packed-house opening.
She said for the artist, well-known for his paintings of groups of figures with objects and animals in the landscape, the exhibition marked a shift in his work, with empty scenes of only one or a couple of figures. Most of the work was only completed at the beginning of the year to be ready for the exhibition.
“Graeme started this new series of work in 2019. One of the main images, Trance, shows a guy walking alone within an amorphous yet turbulent landscape, so nothing else exists except the figure – a step away from what he'd previously painted. The figure is also looking quite sad and pensive, with one hand tightly clenched. I suppose you could say it's an interesting image in terms of the way in which the scenario unfolded with COVID,” Ms Hinton said.
“In another two works, the figures grip the top of cloth sheets in front of their bodies. All you can see is the fingers at the top and the feet at the bottom – you can't see the figure at all, which is even more pertinent. What’s going on behind there? Are they protecting or hiding something or frightened of us?
“It's interesting because you could say well, that's interpreting after the fact, but Graeme will readily say that he even finds it quite spooky and that he ended up creating these images that were really quite extraordinarily linked to where we're at now.”
The show’s premature end – and the cancellation of others scheduled in 2020 – meant the gallery needed to get creative for the shows to go on.
“We have been researching all manner of virtual exhibitions for some time now and the technology behind them – this includes platforms from real estate and other industries, and how we can adapt these for our exhibitions,” Ms Hinton said.
“The online exhibition format is a very different one, of course, because the whole idea of seeing works of art in a gallery space is looking at and experiencing the real thing and that divide is quite dramatic. But it does give people the opportunity to see the work in the exhibition and to see the work in situ.” Shelley Hinton
Once the platform is online, visitors are able to navigate around the virtual gallery and stop to get a closer look at each work.
The first will be an exhibition by Indigenous artists incarcerated at Langi Kal Kal Prison and Hopkins Correctional Centre who are involved in a Fed TAFE Visual Arts program – an exhibition that has been extremely popular in previous years.
“Thereafter, we’re planning for what would normally be the Arts Academy’s End of Year Exhibition or EYE – the annual student exhibition created as a virtual online show that can be viewed on the Post Office Gallery’s website. We're also planning the physical or ‘real’ exhibition of EYE for February 2021 pending restrictions being lifted but there are all sorts of unknowns,” Ms Hinton said.
And when the Gallery does reopen, it may be a very different experience for visitors. This could include limiting the way visitors orient through the space, with restrictions on numbers and complying with physical distancing regulations. Exhibition openings – a celebration of the artist – may also be put on hold.
Ms Hinton said the unexpected benefit of online platforms was the opportunity to share and ‘tour’ exhibitions with Switchback Gallery at the Arts Academy Gippsland campus, with plans underway to create exhibitions for that gallery too.
“It's really changing the landscape of what we are doing but in some ways, it allows for greater access to exhibitions for people who aren’t likely to or can’t otherwise view the work. After I saw a National Gallery of Victoria show online, I thought, ’well, there are some advantages to this’.
“While the virtual world is never going to replace the real thing, you can gain a sense of an exhibition you may have missed out on or would like to see, and at the same time do that anytime, anywhere across the globe.”