Art as essential activity: an inquiry

TWMA-Jasphy-Zheng-Stories-from-the-Room-2020-(detail)From the depths of Melbourne’s COVID-19 Stage 4 lockdown, TarraWarra Museum of Art has commissioned a new series of artistic inquiries that explore the role of art in a global pandemic. The series, titled Art as essential activity: an inquiry, is conceived and curated by Melbourne-based independent curator Biljana Ciric.

Ciric says the pandemic has shown we need to develop new modes of connection and exploration. As we have discovered, the internet will never be a substitute for a physical encounter because physicality is crucial for our wellbeing.

Art as essential activity will look at new ways to practice international collaboration in this time of limited mobility. Some of the questions being posed include: What is the role of art in times of a global pandemic? Can art be considered as an essential service and, if so, how can institutions perform that essential service? Can they be used in the cause of emotional health and how?

The first project in the series is NY / China-based Chinese-American artist Jasphy Zheng with Stories from the Room – a participatory work that collects personal writings about the shared experience of living through the COVID-19 pandemic.

The artist now invites everyone to permanently contribute their reflections, journals, or memos to help build a living archive that documents this unique moment in history. Once lockdown is lifted, this archive will be assembled for public viewing at TarraWarra Museum of Art, in a COVID-safe manner, as a monument to the contributors’ stories and voices.

“Through this long-term project, I am rethinking the gap between on and offline worlds as a new territory that defines, questions, and challenges the distance between sociality and solidarity at a time like this,” said Zheng.

“Through a collective act, this project simulates a physical gathering of text by collecting paralleled realities from participants and displaying them in a public space. We nourish outpouring to oneself in the form of a community regardless of distance.”

Earlier this year, Stories from the Room was staged at the Center for Contemporary Art, Kitakyushu, Japan, where it received submissions from people living through the pandemic from across Japan and further afield, including Wuhan, China, and the USA.

To participate in Stories from the Room, simply:

  • Document your reflections on living through the COVID-19 pandemic through letters, emails, personal writing, journals or memos, at any length and in any language you prefer;
  • Write as often as you wish; multiple submissions over time are welcome and each contributor will have a dedicated folder in the archive; and
  • Send your writings to or by post to Stories from the Room, c/- TarraWarra Museum of Art, PO Box 310, Healesville VIC 3777, Australia.

Please ensure your communication is dated, with your name and location only. Do not include any private details (such as street address, telephone or email) in the letter, which may be exhibited at the Museum. Anonymous quotes may be published online or used for promotional purposes.

All submissions received will be saved in an archive as physical copies, and each contributor will have a dedicated folder for recurring contributions. Submissions will not be returned to the sender, will remain as part of the artwork; and are welcome at any time – there is no closing date for this open call.

Living between the US and China, Jasphy Zheng is an interdisciplinary artist whose recent practice explores the inevitable failure of communication at interpersonal and collective levels.

With social installations, unannounced performance, sculptural objects, and artist’s books, Zheng constructs situations as public interventions that aim to raise awareness of our social and cultural environment in and out of the context of contemporary art.

For more information about Art as essential activity: an inquiry, visit: for details.

Image: Jasphy Zheng, Stories from the Room, 2020 (detail). Center for Contemporary Art, Kitakyushu, Japan. Courtesy the artist – photo by Ken’ichi Miura