The New Abnormal
Written by Carlomar Arcangel Daoana
The pandemic—which has no sign of letting up with the cases of infection surging again—has transformed life in ways we have never imagined. Wearing face masks and shields, having our temperatures checked, and getting tested for the presence of the virus in our bodies are all features of the so-called new normal, presenting new ways in which we navigate the world. Artists, as chroniclers of our environment, inevitably engage with the current reality as they find ways to understand and render meaning to it.
In his solo exhibition, Kontak Treysing, Mark Martinez chooses to frame the reality of the pandemic within the frame of art, specifically the storied and recognizable paintings of the Western canon. These are the images that constitute another world, in which the Mona Lisa and the Girl with the Pearl Earring, for instance, are just some of the more iconic figures. In the show, they are juxtaposed against established institutions—a Jollibee outlet and the Neo-Classical architecture of the Manila City Hall—their noses and mouths covered with the now ubiquitous face masks, bearing the (disinfecting) alcohol of their choice, infrared temperature scans trained on their foreheads.
The wit of the works lies on the seemingly incompatibilities of the elements finding themselves in individual paintings, with the pandemic-connected objects suddenly rendering the regal stature of the two most popular women of art a tone of banality, that even they—in their seemingly rarefied realm—are not even safe in the encroachment of the virus that has stopped the world on its tracks. And they were not safe as there were fewer people, because of the closure of museums in the initial months of the pandemic, who were able to see their enigmatic smile and magnetic gaze.
The burdensome diagnostic of finding out infection with the coronavirus, swab testing has become part of the new normal as well, especially for those who need to go elsewhere, with the negative result offering as some kind of safe passage. Caravaggio’s work, Doubting Thomas, becomes the background on which this form of medical procedure is set against. The wound of Christ coincides with the nostril through which the Q-tip is inserted, as Christ himself, as well as the other disciples, look on. James Whistler’s Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1 offers the same scenario as well, except that the medical practitioner is from a distance, as the old woman, known to be as Whistler’s mother, waits in earnest for the swab test to transpire.
Kontak Treysing is a continuation of Martinez’s appropriative style from his first exhibition, Lokal, which featured Renaissance imagery. This show differs in how it focuses on a specific global phenomenon, which has also affected the art world in more ways than one. Shows were either postponed or canceled (with some migrating online), museums and galleries were closed, and artists suddenly had to confront a changing art market as well as art audience. The masks, the infrared thermometers, the bottles of alcohol are symbols of how the pandemic has irrevocably shifted things around, which Kontak Treysing presents as enduring images of our contemporary dilemma.