Editor’s note: In addition to interviewing Aaron Rosen, Dan Drage also reviewed the Home Alone Together exhibition hosted by Image. You may find his review here.
Although Aaron Rosen is the Visual Arts Editor for the journal Image, he is also quite a lot more: as well as being Professor of Religion & Visual Culture and Director of the Henry Luce III Center for the Arts & Religion at Wesley Theological Seminary, he has been Visiting Professor of Sacred Traditions & the Arts at King’s College London. His publications include Art & Religion in the 21st Century, Imagining Jewish Art, and Brushes with Faith. Aaron was kind enough to engage with all of my questions regarding the Home Alone Together exhibition, and his thoughts are well worth sharing here in full.
DD: First, as the artists are from all around the world and in various career stages, did you have criteria or a unifying theme in finding the particular artists for this show, and if so, what were those?
AR: It felt urgent to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic as it unfolded. That meant a really accelerated curatorial process. My co-curator Billie and I shared ideas of artists we admire, and tried to identify artists whose practice or personalities seemed to lend themselves to the kind of introspection we thought was important. Amidst so much chaos in the early weeks of the pandemic, we wanted to share the voices, and images, of artists who had a gift for locating quiet revelation. We drew largely on our existing networks of friends, colleagues, and other contacts which allowed us to get works out there quickly, rather than engaging in extended vetting and sifting. We asked artists whose empathy and acuity made them natural fits for this kind of collaborative ‘working-through.’
DD: What kind of guidelines were the artists given?
AR: As we got going we quickly realized that many artists, especially in places like London or New York City, had studio apartments or something similar. And in a time which has made economic and social inequalities (and their intersection) so glaring, we wanted to make sure submissions were driven by artists’ real experiences and circumstances, whatever those were. So if someone had a single room that was kitchen/living/studio/bedroom, then that’s what viewers needed to see. We also realized that while asking people to focus on different spaces (or aspects of those spaces) added variety, the exigencies of this moment meant that some people felt compelled to stay with a certain space longer conceptually. If the kitchen brought people some amount of control and peace (and it did for many), then it was important to give them that freedom rather than say we need more living room or studio shots. Finally, we imagined at first that quarantine would be so strict that people wouldn’t even be allowed on the streets. But the events of the past couple weeks have shown the social urgency of protest, and so it made sense to open the doors, so to speak, to experiences outside the home. Two existential threats, one new and one depressingly enduring—the pandemic and systemic racism—have collided. And artists will be a part of how we collectively process this moment and learn from it.
DD: You mention Bachelard— how much has his phenomenological perspective been a guide to your decisions, and are there other significant influences in your curation?
AR: Billie and I have both alighted on Bachelard at different times in our work, and he was a natural touchstone. After all, no one understood corners, nests, and the poetics of small things and spaces better than him.
DD: In thinking about your phrase, ‘what we see has become limited, but not how we see’, I get stuck with the mode of the exhibition—online, virtual—as a ‘how’. Life online is in many ways a necessity at the moment, but viewing works of art online is usually thought of as subordinate to an in-person experience. Would you be willing to say more about how we see images and/or works of art online, and what you hope this show might cultivate in us as viewers, or as digital viewers vs. embodied viewers?
AR: Honestly, the Internet grosses me out sometimes! I don’t use social media and I have the most basic list of bookmarks. But it was clear I needed to get over my hang-ups as my multiple worlds, art-religion-education, are all shifting online, maybe even decisively so for the future. What’s important in any exhibition is that the medium and the concept meet the moment. And what has surprised me about art world offerings generally in this period is that they are mainly trying to reproduce an in-person experience. That’s simply not possible or effective, and if anything it risks diminishing the real, sui generis value of in-person encounters for the future. We need to lean into what digital technology can do, and do even better than traditional spaces. What Billie and I talked about early on was the need for the show to shift according to how viewers want to experience it. That is to say, if they want to look by artist they can do that, or by room (e.g. want to see how artists have experienced bathrooms in a pandemic?), or by time (e.g. do any of us remember what week 3 of quarantine was like?). Online spaces are adaptable, and algorithmically driven, in ways traditional brick and mortar spaces simply cannot be. Moreover, most exhibitions are static once they are developed (which can take years). And online exhibitions can of course ‘refresh’ fairly quickly. So while we are in this cultural moment we need to explore art the best way we can. And since our experience is so digitally driven these days, it makes sense to explore it digitally as well.
DD: Related, I think photography, more than most other art forms, lends itself to online or digital viewing; what reasons did you have for shaping this exhibition around photography (I see some of the artists also work in other media)?
AR: I know there is some great Net Art, VR, AR, and other digital art forms out there already, for instance, with a community that has been engaged in this sphere for decades. In this exhibition, we are not delving into that domain as much as asking how a now ‘traditional’ art form like photography can have fresh relevance through a relatively new curatorial platform. Billie and I thought of just inviting photographers to join this exhibition, and that would have made a lot of sense. But while we knew we wanted the product to be photographic, we thought it’d also be really interesting to see through the eyes of artists who normally work in various other media. During the pandemic, many artists are cut off from their studios and normal materials, so photographs (in some cases taken just through a mobile) allow many more artists to record and process their experiences creatively. Actually, installation artists, painters, and sculptors were often less worried about taking photos for this project as they conceive of it as something apart from their normal practice, which involves less pressure. Photographers—especially those used to carefully staging works, and shooting over the course of weeks, if not months—were often much more worried about their submissions!
DD: Transcendence in the mundane is a topic dear to me and to a number of us here at ITIA. Your framework—both spatially, around rooms and spaces, and temporally, with a weekly addition of material, as well as the third factor of the different artists themselves—effectively places us as viewers into the mundane. I realize much could be said about how the arts have potential to mediate the transcendent, so I don’t mean to put the weight of that on you here! But I would love to hear any thoughts you are willing to share on that dialogue, between the so-called ordinary and the numinous, and art’s role in that conversation.
AR: The artists I love the most are those who dwell in this space. I often think about how Philip Guston insisted painting was about pushing colored dirt around the canvas. That’s where the miracle happens. Or to put it in Jewish terms, ‘Torah is not in heaven!’
Banner Image: Yola Monakhov Stockton, ‘Untitled Buffalo New York’, May 29, 2020.