Last August, artist Christopher Langton opened his exhibition Colony at Melbourne’s Tolarno Galleries – a whole gallery installation of steroid-sized viruses and bacteria. Who knew it would be a prophecy for what was to follow – a pandemic that would shut down the world, and spur xenophobia.
Two years in the making, and inspired by Langton’s own experiences of life-threatening disease and infection, Colony has become much more than a month-long exhibition.
‘The entire installation was bought by Chinese art collector Charlie Xiao – a serendipitous occurrence given COVID-19 originated in the town of Wuhan where Charlie has family and is one of the cities where Colony may soon be exhibited,’ said Langton.
Originally from Beijing, the now Melbourne-based collector and curator acquired Colony, shipping it to China in late December 2019 with the intention of showing it in Tank Shanghai, and then touring it to Beijing, Changsha and Wuhan.
It arrived in China mid-January, the time when news began emerging of a viral outbreak in Wuhan, where it remains still remains in quarantine.
The project, however, has taken on another life.
Through the exhibition, Xiao met Theodore Wohng, the CEO and founder of ZOME AR. Wohng saw Colony as an ideal vehicle for ZOME – a free Augmented Reality messenger and social network.
Through the ZOME AR app, gallery visitors access interactive multimedia to enhance the 43 individual objects in Colony which are real and imagined viruses, bacteria and fungi as well as asteroids, meteorites and other celestial bodies.
It was the trigger for Xiao in what was to become #spreadartnotviruses - a creative Instagram campaign in response to the impact of coronavirus COVID-19.
#spreadartnotviruses is an open invitation to artists, writers and other creatives to contribute to the movement online via Instagram and ZOME AR.
‘During the time of the Coronavirus/COVID-19 outbreak, many are experiencing social isolation and loneliness, since humans and our societies thrive on interaction. It has been a great psychological challenge for those who are staying indoors and working from home,’ said Wohng.
#spreadartnotviruses project, together with the use of ZOME AR, is about inspiring new ways to interact with each other without the need to leave your home or studio.
‘Essentially this is what art and innovative technology is all about and should be doing, especially during times like this – bringing people together in more meaningful ways and inspiring others to see the world from fresh new perspectives,’ added Wohng.
‘Hopefully, as a result of this project, when the virus passes, there will be many heartening artworks and stories to be discovered when you walk past the streets and at other unexpected places,’ he added.
The project gains traction as Hong Kong Art Basel App replaces viewing at the popular art fair and the ART Power HK, a new platform including around 60 of the city’s galleries, museums, and auction houses, uses the momentum of the work already in play for HK Art Week events, reallocating resources to the online alternative.
Read: How some museums are combating COVID-19 closures
Christopher Langton, Colony 2019, installation Tolarno Galleries. Photo: Andrew Curtis.
ARTWORK to TOUR China SPREADING TOLERANCE, NOT VIRUSes
Xiao was introduced to Langton’s Colony
through social media, so it is uncanny that it is given renewed life through an online platform.
‘It was everywhere online – on Instagram, on Wechat, Weibo and Red, where people would dress up in their spectacular fashion outfits and pose in the gallery with the scaled-up virus forms, it was not to be missed,’ Xiao said.
The gallery described Langton as a pop sculptor and installation artist who creates gigantic plastic blow-up ‘toys’ of frightening proportions. Stepping into Colony is like entering a contaminated cyberspace, the zone of a video game or that of a B-grade horror movie.
Xiao was quick to purchase the installation upon experiencing it. Racing against the Christmas shipping rush to get the artwork to China, Xiao had no idea his planned tour of his latest purchase was soon to be put on hold.
‘Now, the whole world continues to scramble with the situation, plans are all altered, and we start to see all kinds of things echoed from the pandemic, the frustration and hurtful things we hear and see from anti-Asian prejudices and other misinformation, fake news and hate speech, he said in a gallery statement.’
‘It really made us question – although we are in a multicultural world, do all communities really come together to support one another? If the languages or the differences in cultures are the barriers that are dividing us, maybe finding another medium would be great to show positivity. Art is powerful in this case, we can use art as a communication tool to engage with the community,’ he continued.
Xiao said he decided to initiate this movement #spreadartnotviruses as those biases grew.
‘When everything goes back to normal in China, I hope I can go back to visit my family and friends, and to unpack Colony
– it’s currently in crates sitting inside a warehouse in an industrialised town near Shanghai. When it’s shown to the public again, with the colours, the imaginary forms, the application of augmented reality, we will know this great body of work will reflect on the reality of coexistence with COVID-19 and we can focus on moving forward,’ Xiao concluded.