Melbourne-based artist Shaun Wilson is Fremantle Arts Centre’s first ever Online Artist-In-Residence. The program was created as a response to creating art during the time of border restrictions and social distancing — providing virtual space for artists to explore and create digital art, to build online communities, and to have dedicated time and space for experimenting on something new.
An artist, film maker, academic and curator working with themes of memory, place and scale through painting, miniatures and video art, Shaun is using the online residency to develop a project called Revisiting the Decameron, part of a wider investigation ‘Winter Light’ examining the beauty and horror of plague through contemporary art.
‘Revisiting the Decameron’ deconstructs ‘The Decameron’, a series of novellas written by medieval author Giovanni Boccaccio around 1348. These stores digress seven young people sheltering in quarantine at an abandoned villa outside of Florence during the Black Death pandemic. The new works will situate the ten days of stories into a suite of ten works contextualising the backdrops of the Black Death and COVID-19.
Your online residency deconstructs ‘The Decameron’, a series of novellas written by medieval author Giovanni Boccaccio around 1348. How did you come across the Decameron text?
I’ve investigated the notion of place in my practice for almost two decades. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, I felt compelled to explore how our connection to place had been ruptured, so I made a whole list of seminal books I wanted to get through which referenced plagues throughout history such as The Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe and Dante’s writings, and that research led me to a series of books that I’d never heard of before, including The Decameron.
What was it about The Decameron that resonated with you?
Well, the book is about ten wealthy young adults who flee Florence for the countryside during the Black Death. They hide in a villa outside of the city for two weeks and quarantine there, doing what normal young people would do in the middle of a disaster: entertaining themselves. There are stories of sex, romance and power. Reading this, you realise that perhaps we as humans perhaps haven’t changed all that much.
What I find really interesting about the text is that it is not unlike what is happening today. In Florence at the time of The Decameron, they shut the gates of the city and only the wealthy were allowed out, while the lower-class citizens bore the brunt of the disease entrapped in the walls of the city. I’m reminded of the social inequalities today of essential service workers where the low paid casualised workforce ploughed on through the pandemic while the lucky ones worked from home – like me – serviced by those who stayed in the front lines. Where is the social celebration of these people who supported the likes of me having the luxury of working from home? The Decameron makes this point loud and clear inasmuch as it does about the separation of places from which I normally would travel and move through.
The Black Death killed one in two people globally, but most of those people were those who were stranded in these gated communities. From this and others, there is a real class structure that has gone on throughout pandemics, and you see it even today in Victoria – with huge outbreaks happening in the city’s western and northern suburbs and these are often the places of industries which support the rest of us. It really makes me mad from a utilitarian point of view. The general populace is used as sponges to soak up pestilence and I wish there would be more attention on celebrating those in the front lines, from ICU wards to supermarket workers. They’re the unsung heroes who are always in the back of my mind when I paint these pictures of places from the book simply because the absence of those stranded in Black Death era Florence are also absent from the landscapes that I’m trying to capture as the silent characters in both the book and my paintings.
Why were you drawn to the online space as a place to explore these ideas as opposed to presenting a regular exhibition or a traditional residency?
I think doing an online residency during lockdown is really important because it’s the only way we can stay connected while isolated from one another. Also, I think it allows me to get in the right headspace to connect with the subject matter. We’ve all been living the last 18 months like the characters in the Decameron in some way or another.
I don’t think I could understand what that book meant until I knew what the characters were going through. It’s the best way to do it – conceptually and philosophically. It adds an honesty and an authenticity to making these paintings which on the surface may look like landscape paintings but conceptually, they’re loaded with the fact that I want to travel to places like those in the paintings but I can’t at the moment. So, it’s obvious that I’d make landscape the focus in lockdown, as we’re all dreaming of those landscapes that we can’t yet travel to. Place then becomes the central experience of lockdown secondary to health.
What have been some of the key challenges of the online residency?
I come from 20 years of cinematic art and video practice, but I didn’t want to resort to my usual bag of tricks in terms of how I was going to respond to this book, I just thought that’s too easy, I need something that’s hard. I’ve already had to teach myself and relearn everything I once employed about painting that I’d almost forgotten. It’s all flooded back rather quickly.
I haven’t explored 2D like I have this year, I’ve just gone bananas. The house looks like an art gallery! There’s been a lot of drafts and works in progress that haven’t even made it online. For every work you see I find it takes about three false starts before I get my visual language back together and into a rhythm again. The residency has mostly been about failure but at the same time, victory in small accidents.
What are you hoping the audience will take away from Revisiting the Decameron?
I guess there are two things, one of them being that I would like more artists to engage with innovative ways of making work and engaging with an audience during a lockdown. The pandemic has forced us to adapt our ways of working, and the visual arts is no exception. The online space offers so much flexibility and visibility which I hope more artists will take advantage of.
And secondly, I’d like the work to prompt people to think about how the pandemic is impacting not only themselves but at all levels of society through place. Who is being exploited or marginalised? Who is gaining an unfair advantage in this pandemic? What has changed between now and the Black Death? Every major pandemic has prompted a socialist revolution in some capacity about five or 10 years after the fact – we see this with the peasant revolt after the Black Death which then evolved through enlightenment to the early Modern period paving the way for the Renaissance; we see this in the 1665 plague of London with the burning of London and the reordering of enlightenment thinking through town planning in the restoration of London, we saw it in the rapid social transformations in the 1920s after the Spanish Flu propagating strengths of feminism and medical advances, and so forth. And we’ll see it happen after COVID-19 is over.
It’s an opportunity for us to reflect on the roles we play, individually and collectively to make our society, and from this, ourselves more intrinsic to the new world which we have the opportunity, warts and all, to rewrite. Again. But what I find is the most valuable and also the most painful of all is our relation to landscape and to our sense of place. Perhaps our experiences of the pandemic will allow us to reconsider place so invaluable that our lives need each other inasmuch as we need the connections to the places we dwell in, through our communities, through our lives, and of course, through the power and immediacy of art.
View Shaun Wilson: Revisiting the Decameron via studio.fac.org.au