500 words written during a baby’s nap

A couple of years ago a man borrowed my coat. I hoped he wouldn’t stretch the shoulders. Now my concerns about this simple and slightly whimsical social exchange would be threaded with anxiety about a virus that has re-drawn our lives. A coat borrowed could mean a contaminated surface, a step too close to another human being, a risk to the ‘R number’. Andrew Gannon’s Borrowed Coat (2017–) is the wearing of another’s skin, shuffling around inside someone else’s identity for a bit, seeing if it fits. And maybe that’s what we all feel we’re doing these days, living another life, parallel to the one we left behind.

I find myself thinking about Andrew’s work because it is about the human body, and the way that bodies interact in social space. And also because of the tension it holds between isolation and exchange, between humour and straight-faced sincerity, between balance and failure. These are tensions that have become all too apparent in a world ruled by Covid-19; a world on edge like the performer in Balancing Work (2011–). When all this began, the news made me physically sick, yet I was still compelled to watch it or read it. I find my nose buried in the news to the extent that I don’t see it any more. I am reminded of Andrew’s prone figure with his head covered by a newspaper in Work with Newspaper (2013–), collapsed from over-exposure to the world’s woes, perhaps.

Art that is all about social exchange – from small gestures and acts to collective performance – seems both naive and urgent just now. We are all living in our bubbles, yet at the same time feel more connected than ever through shared experience. Andrew’s work measures distances between people, as in Chair Work (Span) (2015–), and it also makes those distances resonant. In Bottles, a work made with breathing (2018–), a group of people stood scattered around the gallery blowing across the tops of glass bottles, making an eerie continuous note. Each person stood alone, isolated, yet connected to the others through this note, which weaved its way from person to person. The breath contains droplets, something we have all now learned to fear (or at least be wary of), yet the breath is what fuels life and what connects us, and the note in Bottles.

While Andrew’s work makes me long to be in a gallery again, with other bodies, it also reminds me of the art in the everyday – in that chewing gum I insist on chewing on my daily walk, or in the way I sidestep strangers to remain two metres from them as if performing some kind of ‘60s instruction work. And while I also long to hold my baby daughter up in front of a work of art and watch her wide eyes scan over its surface, I am also reminded that she might gaze at the roof light with equal fascination. She knows the everyday is wonderful. And she’s woken up.

Ruth Bretherick

May 2020