How three creatives captured the great pandemic pause in a new book
Soho House members Roya Sachs, Elizabeth Edelman and Mafalda Milles brought more than 100 artists together to create Still Here: Moments In Isolation, where they share their reflections on still life
By Osman Can Yerebakan
Little did Roya Sachs, Elizabeth Edelman and Mafalda Millies know when they launched their multidisciplinary art and live experience organisation, Triadic, that the entire world was on the cusp of an unparalleled pause. ‘We had joined forces to bring people together through experiences, but suddenly we were on hold,’ the trio says. The three creatives, however, still ‘had to tell a story’. The initial drive to launch their firm was to push the limits of combining the physical experience with the ample connectivity of the digital – and they took no time to craft a new model to revive that collectivity. The moment of stillness they found themselves in served as inspiration, so they decided to dedicate a book to still life.
Adam Charlap Hyman
The recently released Still Here: Moments In Isolation features artistic contributions from more than 100 internationally recognised names in art, music, design, anthropology, fashion, dance, food, and even science. Published by Berlin-based Distanz, the book is a testimony of connectivity across six continents, time zones, and living situations. From artists Wolfgang Tillmans, William Kentridge and Tracey Emin to designers Kulapat Yantrasast, Adam Charlap Hyman and Humberto Campana, each contributor responds to a prompt, which asks for reflection on this moment of confinement through still life.
Emin’s intimate gouache drawing of her London home captures 10 March 2020, a time around her cancer diagnosis and the immediate surgery. Berlin-based Tillmans’s day of choice is 8 April 2020, when he took a photograph of a clipped tulip in front of a yellow-washed background. Charlap Hyman chose two days after Tillmans to photograph a group of arbitrary objects at his New York City apartment, including ivory hands, a saint sculpture, and a thorny stick. ‘It was an associate process that unfolded organically with objects, some relatively forgotten and others right in front of me,’ he says.
Art and design influencer Pari Ehsan’s concoction of chains and Persian rose buds over a silver tray reflects her moment of ‘partaking in shadow work and introspection’ on 6 April 2020. ‘The spilling over of the roses symbolises the poetic juxtapositions of the human experience,’ says Ehsan, who later used the buds to garnish her Persian ice cream sandwich over the same platter. ‘That luscious assemblage is what captures my mood now.’
Sachs, Edelman and Millies instructed each name that their response could be in any medium – ‘but they had to explain when they created the work and what the inspiration was,’ they say. ‘We could not ask something too tasking during such a chaotic moment; instead, we were after something personal and instantaneous.’
Orchestrating an incredible list of the world’s leading figures posed its challenges. But the enforced abundance of time was on the organisers’ side. ‘Shows were shut down and tours were cancelled, and suddenly everyone we reached out to had the time,’ they realised.
The trio’s backgrounds in organising arts of all forms helped them to bring together a host of names that could only be described as ‘a who’s who of today’s creative leaders’. They expanded their initial circle by contacting friends of friends, as well as sending out a few cold emails. Sachs, Edelman and Millies attribute the positive response to the mutual search for immediacy and a shared vulnerability, which everyone immediately felt comfortable to share. The shared virtuosity of self-expression among all contributors – whether it’s through cooking, painting or writing – is reflected via a raw need to turn challenges into creativity.
The book, in fact, gave many the opportunity to test their own creative limits. On 20 November 2020, smell researcher Sissel Tolaas created a unique odour that replicates a baby’s first sensation of a smell right after birth. Tolaas, who owns more than 20,000 different types of smells at her Berlin studio, applied the odour onto a bookmark, which is included in every copy and is activated through touch.
Shirin Neshat may be widely known for her black and white photographs of posers with piercing expressions, but for her contribution she departed from her signature colours and even medium to immortalise decay. Neshat’s image shows two bugs slowly approaching a rotten apple from 29 March 2020. In defiance of stillness, the artist recoded a 52-second film of the bug’s march towards the dead fruit and the image can be activated with a QR code. Humour is also revived against the anxiety of a pandemic in artist Song Dong’s video of him blow-drying his plants wrapped with tiny towels for almost two minutes. Dong’s therapeutic gesture is one of the few images that comes to live through augmented reality.
Alain de Botton and John Armstrong’s 2013 book Art As Therapy was a key inspiration for Sachs, Edelman and Millies, who similarly ideated a tome on art’s potential for healing in the face of physical or emotional hardships. Performance artist Tosh Basco (formerly known as Boychild) conveyed an image of a dying flower that eventually graced the cover. ‘This beautiful plant, which Tosh looked at every day while it slowly deteriorated over time, was the reflection of a collective reality check,’ says the trio. The book showed them their capabilities both as organisers and humans throughout an unimaginable period. While they’re not sure if they’ll make something similar again, their future projects lean towards the physical, such as a music festival next autumn –just like the old days.
Still Here: Moments In Isolation is available to buy on Soho Home.