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  • Mohamed Sadik

The Artistic Freedom of Virtual Galleries

Art galleries, like so many other businesses, had to pivot online during a year of lockdowns. But Mohamed Sadik turns his focus to a gallery that always operated online: GATE.

Virtual Gallery
Illustration: The Pittsburgher / Images: Unsplash

This past year has changed the way we experience so much, including how we experience art, technology, and where they intersect. When thinking about art installations, one usually envisions a physical space, four walls that act as a storyteller of sorts in the artist’s narrative. In physical spaces, there is a feeling of tradition when walking on that polished gallery floor. There is a wonder and excitement that fills the air as a meticulously curated room engulfs viewers, taking them on journeys that the artist may or may not have intended. We have seen such physical galleries move their collections online during the pandemic. However, there are some galleries that exist exclusively online, utilizing the digital space to create an entirely new art-viewing experience.

GATE is an online gallery created and curated by Sofia Caetano. Originally from Ponta Delgada, Portugal, Caetano is a filmmaker and installation artist who moved to Pittsburgh with her husband and collaborator, Elliot Sheedy, and co-founded a production company, The Spectacular House. Through its website, one can access a platform where artists create and exhibit their work on a virtual canvas. To audiences, GATE is an internet gallery. To artists, it is a space that encourages experimentation, interaction, and total artistic freedom. Fittingly, I had a virtual meeting with Caetano, who is currently living in Portugal, to speak about GATE. While living in Pittsburgh, Caetano said she wanted to create a space to support the new artists she was meeting as well as ones from back home. This atmosphere of support is an essential pillar on which GATE is built. One of the reasons Caetano fell in love with Pittsburgh was its flourishing and inviting experimental art scene – except without all the chaos that cities like Los Angeles and New York tend to feel overwhelmed by.

With GATE, Caetano was able to do away with what she considered to be the constraints of physical galleries. In those physical spaces, there is an assumed etiquette: not wearing squeaky shoes, not hovering in front of the art, talking quietly. Typically there is a looming eye watching over the guests in the form of gallery employees or even the artists themselves, maintaining the social order of the space. Rather than being distanced from the art, Caetano stresses that virtual galleries can offer a more intimate experience for viewers. The interaction with the art is private and uninterrupted, while also existing within the comfort of the viewer’s home. Rather than having the artist define the space in which their art is viewed, the viewer now holds that power.

GATE’s current exhibition is Deconstruction Time by Portuguese artist Tiago Mourão. As described on GATE, Mourão’s artistic process “consists of collecting images on a weekly basis, which will eventually trigger ideas that will materialize into paintings.” During the artist’s residency, viewers will be able to see the turning of photographs into oil on canvas. Mourão’s art highlights the stillness in everyday objects – an Adirondack chair waiting to be used, a door waiting to be pushed open. The kind of static, potential energy that Mourão has captured in his photography seems especially poignant in our current context. Items that are waiting to be used are photographed by an artist waiting to paint them so that they can be viewed (virtually) by people waiting to be free of social distancing restrictions and lockdowns – the very same people that will one day go out and use those items.

I reached out to Mourão to learn more about the process of using a virtual gallery. He told me that even though he prefers showing his art in a physical space, such as a studio or gallery, his nerves were calmed by the amount of freedom he received from GATE: “Other online exhibitions and galleries have a lot of guidelines you must follow – not in this case.” Mourão also highlighted the value he placed on the communication aspect of Caetano’s gallery. This relates back to the founding of GATE itself. Caetano, having worked at Emerson College as an adjunct professor, expressed that critique was hard to come by outside of an educational setting – there is no peer review, no teacher to assess or advise. GATE prides itself on giving artists that experience through hosting virtual Q&As, and maintaining a community through the network it has built of past and present artists-in-residence. With this, every artist gets the chance to be part of a larger group, to receive support, and to make connections.

The road to becoming an artist is inherently bumpy, and a global pandemic is not making it any easier. Virtual galleries can be viewed as something of a light at the end of the tunnel, due to their accessibility and creative freedom. An artist is not hindered by having to search for a location, raise enough money to meet a budget, or find enough crew to help out. That is the appeal of it all: only the artist and the limit of their imagination. As for viewers, art from all around the world is just a click away. It is something that is often taken for granted, that one’s art can be viewed from a different continent. At the end of the day art is for everyone, and the goal of most artists is to connect with as many people as possible. Due to the turbulent year and a half the world has just gone through, connecting to one another, albeit virtually, is something we need to get back to. And, hey, what's better than connecting with people through art? ▲

Mohamed Sadik is an Emerson College graduate with a degree in Visual Media Arts. On his quest to one day be a show-runner, he is often distracted by literally anything related to space.

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