Essential through their absence: the arts and Covid-19

We should not ‘return to normal,’ this is a moment to imagine our world anew and find ways to make it happen

Rita Duffy, an artist in residence at the Trinity Long Room Hub Arts and Humanities Institute. Picture: Stanislav Nikolov

This was the year when the arts proved they are essential through their absence. No crass campaign was needed to prove value for money, and we experienced the arts as human necessity required to make life liveable.

Without a fully functioning arts world we were thrown back on ourselves and into other forms of creativity. Bread-making has been recognised as an art form of sorts and it certainly sustains, but the essence of art, as Rilke described it — change, transition and transmutation — is the real nourishment we need to get through difficult times and the tough days ahead.

I don’t want a return to normal, it honours better the experience we have all been through to address the issues that prevent us from living improved lives, in creative cities that make available affordable space for artists. This is a moment to imagine our world anew and get to work building partnerships and finding ways to make it happen.

In lockdown, no travelling out was permitted. Gradually I came to realise what I was doing was an instinctive journey inwards, all doors of escape had closed, no cheap flights that cost the earth were available.

I recall a conversation with Brian Keenan, the former hostage, after his release from so many years of captivity in Beirut. In horror at my most basic comprehension of this, I asked him how he had found the strength to keep his mind together in the darkness? I wasn't completely surprised when he told me he covered the walls of his mind entirely with “pictures” and moved around “the room” remembering them.

My artist-in-residency the Trinity Long Room Hub Arts and Humanities Research Institute was planned as a period of creative disruption and like everyone else on the planet the pandemic forced me to think again and then some more.

Covid-19 blasted in from nowhere, gathering pace as it whipped around the globe and smashed all our doors closed in its deadly draft. Disruption came full circle and Dublin overnight was transformed into a picture of 1970s bomb-scare Belfast. Having committed to the residency I decided to stay and work through the experience. Methodically, I began making a series of anatomical drawings, hearts and lungs, describing the physical vulnerability of being human, watching the work gradually evolve and fuse with images of the spring flowers that floated in through the garden window. Drawing has my trust, it has always sustained me in tough times. I stay focused, the work gathers me in and reassures me.

Through the summer months my drawings continued; a resilient brain wears a daisy chain crown, supporting the thought — we will survive this pandemic and live to tell the tale. Lungs appear like gossiping women wearing west of Ireland shawls. Finally, as we approached the darkness of winter, challenged by the hardest part of our collective struggle, I arrive at a point where the drawings segue, one into another, hope and fear colliding, and the Anatomy of Hope animation began.

The hearts constant pulsing, pumping out life through vessels and hedgerow tangle, colour creeps across the page, Covid-19 blackberries sprouting, lungs inhaling. Teeth clench and threatening thorny briars encroach, the raven-beaked plague doctor nods to past experience, talisman as vaccine to keep us safe is tied to a branch. Discarded blue gloves tumble like autumn leaves, a language of fingers and natures blossoms promise to carry us through, imaging ourselves better.

The robust heartfelt kindness experienced in Irish communities reassures me, all will be well. Ourselves alone, the ghost of a memory flits through my head. Superstitious ribbons and St Bridget's red rags impaled on thorns, suffering on, offering it up, enduring at all costs. I reached back to the ageless rituals of Bridget, the cloak that gathers us, safe in its shelter, wishing trees and holy wells and cures, dark shadowy places filled with magic and hope. The Anatomy of Hope began, and with the assistance of three young animators we brought it into being.

Keeping the door closed is not a long-term strategy. We are being forced to break with the past and required to find a new path. It was a year of global humbling, a moment when the confident certainties of what we knew as normal disappeared, and now more than ever we need to spiritual force of art to lead us forward. Art is the suitcase of history carrying the essentials, art is the lifebuoy, art is seed, art is memory, art is vaccine.

Rita Duffy is an artist in residence at the Trinity Long Room Hub Arts and Humanities Institute. She was elected to Aosdana in 2017 and is one of Northern Ireland's groundbreaking artists