Summer Exhibition 2020 | Royal Academy

The Royal Academy has been pretty conservative with its COVID response, tightening capacity by 80% and making pre-booking compulsory for everyone, members included. It seems tighter than Tate (whose Bruce Nauman show, which I also visited this week, was pretty full). Or maybe it’s the nature of its Summer Exhibition, delayed by lockdown, with over 1,000 works crowding the walls of the main galleries, that makes the relative paucity of the crowds stand out still more.

It was quite miserably empty, near-silent, on the grey October afternoon I visited, pre-booked ticket loaded on my phone. As I entered the courtyard of Burlington House, I passed a noisy protest outside from laid off staff. Apparently 40% are to lose their jobs, maybe more by the time a vaccine is found. Life-ruining.

grayson perry - the american dream The American Dream

Last year’s summer show contained many works responding to Brexit, the worst crisis many British people could have imagined in 2019 - lucky them. This year, there were a few, but not many, participants who explicitly referenced the pandemic. I liked John Smith’s Twice, a video of the veteran artist washing his hands and repeatedly singing ‘Happy Birthday’, as our prime minister advised back in the early days of the crisis. Meanwhile Grayson Perry’s The American Dream, complete with devilish overlord Mark Zuckerberg, was as clunkily topical as usual.

For sheer chutzpah, it’s hard to beat a poster from Norman Foster’s globe-spanning architectural practice, enumerating the impact of the crisis as if he hasn’t been benefitting from precisely the opposite trends for decades: ‘TRADE WILL BE MORE LOCAL LESS GLOBAL’, ‘WORK WILL BE AT HOME’ and the like.

And then there were the works thrown into a different perspective by the onset of the pandemic: Xenia Busalova struck one match a day from January 1st this year to late March, and arranged them all in a neat grid. One match looked much the same as all the others, when collected together like that. The last struck in a much different world to the first. But then, looking closer at the catalogue, I found out that they were all made of porcelain. Maybe the unchanging look of the matches, in changing times, is the whole point.

xenia busalova - one day one match One Day - One Match

Other artists are stuck on the same idea, where they really ought to change. What possessed Wolfgang Tillmans to submit a photo of sunlit ease in Italy? He shows us a prettily skinny wrist, clutching a citrus fruit, half eaten and backlit by golden sun. A peach perches in the background.

wolfgang tillmans - sicily morning Sicily Morning

It’s a photo that made me wistful, the likelihood of another lockdown growing with each minute. Rich UK-based artists probably have the option of sheltering in place in nice houses in Italy. Or, more likely, the photo was taken before all of this happened, when this exhibition was scheduled for a hot bustling summer and not for an echoingly empty room in early winter, with viewers clammily breathing into masks.

That was when Tillmans’ aesthetic made more sense. He shouldn’t have reminded us.

Summer Exhibition 2020 is at the Royal Academy (London). 06 October 2020 - 03 January 2021