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Zooming In and Out
Tongji Philip Qian (MFA PR 2020)


Ernst Ludwig Kirchner painting on the Neue Galerie website. Screenshot by the author.

I once discussed with a curator the nature of being an artist and a critic, and we thought the difference lies in the definition of an artistic practice and a creative one. Art might rely on a physical studio, whereas creativity does not. Also, studio visits happen frequently for artists, but critics rarely stay in their space to be critiqued. Improvement, although faint in both cases and sensible at best after-the-fact, is more desired and treasured for artists. Critics are relatively exempt from critique; as long as they believe what they say and stand by it, their view flies, no matter how turgid or off-base their prose may be.

This was the debate that preoccupied me for the past two years as I developed my thesis. But things have changed. Under the peculiar social and political environments brought forth by the coronavirus, such discussions become irrelevant. They are not essential. They do little to combat against the virus and the dreadful deterioration of humanity. As people celebrate styles of social distancing at Prospect Park in Brooklyn and appreciate the artistry embedded in hand-made masks, are we taking this moment seriously enough? The pandemic is not yet a rupture—as this term implies an eventual return to the norm—and it is far from historical, as we are still in it.

But let’s look ahead. It will be a privilege, in some way, to come out of this troubling time. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner did. He survived World War I and the Spanish Flu, and managed to continue his painting and printmaking endeavors. Such global events, however, left irreducible marks on his mind, which crystalized in renewed subject matters and color palettes. He no longer showed desire to wander the streets of Berlin, painting flamboyant prostitutes, but instead moved to the bucolic Swiss mountain town of Davos to ameliorate his trauma. Urban scenes departed, and natural scenery entered his canvas. Kirchner’s uncanny life events paralleled his miraculously painted psychological landscapes, and his suicide at the age of fifty-eight left a tremendous artistic “package”—one with an undeniable accent of tragedy and, of course, a profound story.

It is curious to notice how artistic information becomes accessible during this pandemic. Museums open and expand their virtual collections for free, and conversations with curators and critics, because of Zoom, have never been so easy. Museums are no longer ceremonial spaces due to the ambiguous demarcation of their boundaries. New York City might not be as charming a place to live anymore, because the whole world shares access to its vibrant art collection.

As physical travel gives way to psychological deriving, one thing stays the same. It is the power of a story. Numerous Kirchner paintings across the globe can be viewed online, but the story is ever more robust because we can suddenly feel his struggle. His world becomes closer to ours now, and his use of the color pink to outline forests no longer bothers us. Instead, it gives us pleasure. In this sense, art-historical, third-person narration joins forces with our first-person perspective, and we are granted immediate access to his story, only to compare it with our own. It is like wearing a pair of Kirchner glasses—we start to steal the cigarette from the dancers in Berlin and slide down the blue slopes in the Swiss Alps. Fiction and reality begin to merge, and one day it becomes zeitgeist.

In my first art history class in college, I learned not to use the word “interesting.” It is vague, ephemeral, and even ethereal. But I kind of like it now, because we live in an interesting time.



  1. Call for Submissions
  2. 3.29.20 Irina V. Wang
  3. Let Yourself Be Lifted Jackie Scott
  4. Art Is Everything Jen Liese
  5. Two Poems Ella Rosenblatt
  6. Living Room Dance Party Ariel Wills
  7. On Walking When Walking Is Advised Against Keavy Handley-Byrne
  8. Untitled Cita Devlin
  9. Ads in Corona Hannah Oatman
  10. COVID-19 and Communitas Elaine Lopez
  11. A Time for Pie Elizabeth Burmann
  12. How to Stay Motivated When You’re Stuck at Home Clarisse Angkasa
  13. Coerced Harmony (A Tour) Hammad Abid
  14. Zooming In and Out Tongji Philip Qian
  15. [Form] Ciara Carlyle
  16. Hi.txt Dan Luo
  17. A poem about boredom, a composite Maixx Culver-Hagins
  18. Eyewitness News Tristram Lansdowne
  19. Distance Maps Marcus Peabody
  20. Therapeutic Suggestion Maria Aliberti Lubertazzi
  21. Keep Your Heart Six Feet Away From Mine (and other moments) Arielle Eisen
  22. Twenty Instructions for COVID-19 Charlott Isobel Dazan
  23. Cuerno 1 y 2 Yan Diego Estrella Wilson
  24. A Monolith of Grief Regarding the Absence of Touches, or Letter to a Future Lover García Sinclair
  25. Coronavirus by the Thousands Drew Dodge
  26. Two Poems Kathryn Li
  27. Beds Are Burning Aleks Dawson
  28. Still Lifes Yidan Wang
  29. Fragments of Seva Jagdeep Raina
  30. Packing Up and Staying Woojin Kim
  31. Chronic Pain and Fermentation Ralph Davis
  32. Quarantine Letters Hannah Moore
  33. Sounds of Silence: An Isolation Soundscape Dara Benno
  34. 14 Day Detox for Designers Erica Silver

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