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If the public can’t come to the art exhibition, bring the exhibition to the public

Photo of John Fireman filming "The House of the Soul" exhibition at UNE's Art Gallery

April 17, 2020

“The COVID-19 crisis has made questions of medicine, the body, and how we envision our own embodiment urgent in an unexpected wa
“The COVID-19 crisis has made questions of medicine, the body, and how we envision our own embodiment urgent in an unexpected way,” says Hilary Irons, UNE Art Gallery and exhibitions director. “The narrative of the show has grown to encompass our growing awareness of our bodies’ vulnerability and resilience in this strange and unsettling time.”
Local filmmaker John Fireman shooting video of "The House of the Soul," the current art exhibit at UNE’s Art Gallery
Local filmmaker John Fireman shooting video of "The House of the Soul," the current art exhibit at UNE’s Art Gallery

On Sunday, April 5, University of New England Gallery and Exhibitions Director Hilary Irons and acclaimed Portland-based filmmaker John Fireman (currently teaching in the New Media department at the Maine College of Art) donned their personal protective equipment and rendezvoused at the currently shuttered Art Gallery on UNE’s Portland Campus. Upon arrival, they were greeted by Security Officer Larry Pritchard, who unlocked the door and ushered them inside the building.

Their mission? To document the gallery’s current exhibit, "The House of the Soul," on video to make it available for visitors online. Irons plans to do the same for "SANCTUARY," the show currently on display in the Biddeford Art Gallery, and all subsequent UNE art exhibitions for as long as isolation and social distancing measures remain in effect.

“It’s a way for us to have video content on our website that captures what's happening in the show and allows some accessibility even without physical access,” says Irons. “I am excited to work with John Fireman because I think that he has a great sense of moving through space, even within a limited timeframe—and we want these videos to be around three minutes. Doing this was a new experience for me, but for John it was part of what he normally does. So, I think between the two of us, we have a good kind of vision for it.”

Irons says she was not particularly nervous entering the Art Gallery during the lockdown because of the superb job UNE’s facilities team is doing. She explains, “I went to the gallery the previous Monday to take some photographs for my Instagram, and it was sealed up. It had been sterilized, and there was a note that said ‘Call John with questions.’ So, I spoke to [Facilities Manager] John Reid, and I found out that he was open to my going into the building if I wore sterile gloves and a mask. And any time we need to go in there to film, he'll just re-sterilize the building afterwards. He's very flexible and understanding—and super respectful of the artwork.”

"The House of the Soul" is a group show featuring ten visual artists, and the work is divided between anatomical and medical illustration and contemporary work that uses the body as a starting place for the artist's process of questioning. Due to the quasi-medical theme, the exhibition is suddenly more relevant than Irons could possibly have anticipated when she was planning the show months ago.  

“I never, never could have predicted,” says Irons, shaking her head. “I was seeing it as more of a way of honoring UNE’s medical tradition and forming an intersection that would be meaningful to people engaged in that field. Little did I know it would become something much, much bigger, with a bigger void to look into for all of us.”

The coronavirus pandemic has necessitated the closing of theaters, cafes, clubs, bookstores, libraries, performance spaces, art galleries, and other gathering places across the U.S. and around the world, bringing much of our cultural life to a screeching halt. It has sparked endless debate over what activities are deemed essential to a functioning society.  We asked Irons whether art still matters at a time when people are overwhelmed with life-or-death questions of health, economic security, and adapting to an almost unimaginable “new normal.” 

Unsurprisingly, she answers the question with a resounding “yes.” To Irons, art not only matters in times of crisis—it plays an essential role.

“Art allows us to address things that are overwhelming or frightening or that exist outside of our normal framework for confronting problems and experiences,” she says. “In a situation like this, we need all of the different avenues that we can get our hands on to really live through this experience and bring meaning to it.”

Irons clearly sees this function as part of UNE’s larger mission. She says, “In the era of the COVID-19 threat, we can feel proud of our connection to an institution with such a strong medical tradition; we can also look to the visual artwork in the Art Galleries as a mirror image of that tradition, allowing us to accept and confront the challenge of embodied experience with creativity, spirit, and courage.”

Watch the video of the exhibition

Groups audience: