Art can heal emptiness, even in airports.
In the Terminal B Arrivals Hall of the Norman Mineta San Jose International Airport, the first installation of Holding the Moment, a new rotating series of artworks, occupies two glass cases. The installation features 16 out of 96 total works by 77 different artists, all to be swapped in and out over the next seven months.
The City of San Jose’s Office of Cultural Affairs (OCA) partnered with the airport to host the art exhibit, which captures local artists’ interpretations of life during the global pandemic crisis. All 77 artists are based in San Jose. Earlier this year, a call for submissions went out, inviting local artists to send in new or previously created works, as long as the work commented on the Covid-19 era.
In times of profound change, artists can help communities make sense of it all by reflecting on and interpreting the world around us, so the goal was to recognize San Jose’s creative community as one that has been economically impacted by Covid-19. Artists were awarded $2,500 per selected submission and could be selected for up to two awards. The works displayed in the airport are 24″ x 36″ reproductions of the original pieces, making the installation safer and more pragmatic during the Covid-19 era.
The winning artists also supplied short narrative-style accompaniments for their work, many of which explore themes of hope in the face of loss, emptiness, injustice and prejudice. “Preadolescencia” by Felicita M. Norris, for example, features a young figure surrounded by a surreal landscape of balloons and tiles. Its strangeness evokes feelings of exhaustion, inner turmoil, chaos and being trapped. Yet it’s also quiet, lonely, contemplative and sad.
In another case, “The Weight of the Virus” by Erika Robertson features a couple standing back to back, while holding hands and wearing masks.
“The depression and anxiety of holding up a greedy system that is built on consumption is opening our eyes to a harsh reality,” Robertson writes. “Our way of life is broken. Unhealthy. Unsustainable. Greed is a deadly pandemic and the vaccine isn’t consumption. Happiness is found in a loving and balanced life.”
For those who can’t make it to the airport, all the works are on the OCA’s website, Instagram and Facebook. The website includes the narrative material for each artwork. When I showed up to view the exhibit last Sunday afternoon, the weather was dreary and the airport was relatively desolate compared to normal times. Only a few flights’ worth of baggage came over the carousels. Everyone wore a mask and the terminal was empty enough for me to remain far away from others.
In the Terminal B arrivals area, the Starbucks was closed, as was the gift shop and the information booth. The two glass cases with the artwork were on either side of the classic Chickering piano that sits near the baggage claim. On top of the piano was an ominous yellow sign that said, “Due to current COVID conditions and to protect your health and safety, please refrain from playing the piano.”
Over the PA system, I heard awful flute-centric easy listening instrumentals, serving as a perfect counterpoint to one guy watching a football game at full volume on his tablet. The sounds of suitcase roller wheels against the flooring seemed much louder due to the emptiness of the whole place. A canned recording of Mayor Sam Liccardo’s voice came over the system, welcoming all arriving travelers to “San Jose sunshine,” while outside it was gunmetal gray and drizzling. Man, talk about symbolism.
But back to Holding the Moment.
The Iranian-American artist Pantea Karimi contributed a piece called “California Healing,” a piece resembling a mid-century travel poster that would have looked perfect in the old backwater Terminal C before the airport was remodeled. Featuring a medicinal yarrow flower, the poster stems from Karimi’s ongoing botanical research and her discoveries of plants that have healing properties pertinent to Covid-19 symptoms. “California Healing communicates a hopeful perspective on life and symbolically posits the path to recovery,” she writes.
As I left the airport, I could already feel the emptiness transforming.