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Newsletter 324

Published February 11, 2020
The coronavirus. Are we panicking yet?

Just when the rest of the world has decided to stay home and wear a face mask I’m in the middle of a travel binge – back from India and now off to Bangladesh for the Dhaka Art Summit. The upside is that it’s suddenly easier to get a good seat on an international flight. The downside is the spooky sensation of seeing everyone at Hong Kong airport wearing a face mask. There’s no points for being the only non-conformist, so I’m carrying one as well.

Without wanting to tempt fate, I can’t help thinking the global panic induced by the coronavirus is getting out of hand. It’s the unknown factors that are making everyone tense: the origins of the virus, the alleged two-week incubation period, the ease of infection. The illness may be no more virulent than any other flu but it’s put the planet on red alert. Alas, there’s no mask that offers protection from the Stupidity virus that has already engulfed most countries.

There was scarcely a face mask in sight at the India Art Fair in New Delhi, which is the subject of this week’s art column. This is somewhat ironic because Delhi’s air quality alone should have the entire population in masks.

As a proudly provincial event the IAF provides an excellent overview of the Indian contemporary art scene – and there’s a lot to see. Although there were few works that commanded the really big prices the uber galleries exact in the major fairs, sales seemed to be healthy, with collectors coming from all over the world. An influx of private money which has funded new museums and foundations, is transforming the Indian cultural landscape. The more I saw, the more people I met, I felt as if I were watching a wave that had not yet begun to break.

The movie being reviewed this week is a sombre affair. Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life may be one of the more gruelling experiences you’ll have at the cinema this year but it’s a film of quality. If I’m not entirely convinced of its overrarching profundity that’s because it seems to strive so self-consciously towards this state. One almost expects alerts to pop up on screen: “Grandeur of Nature # 3”, “Deep Conversation about the Meaning of Life # 5”. Malick gives us plenty of time to ponder his intentions as the movie is almost three hours long, but feels much longer.

A Hidden Life is a film about standing up for one’s convictions in the face of manifest evil and injustice. It’s not exactly a popular position nowadays, although we love to pay homage to those poor suckers who stuck to their guns in the past. When the dust has settled on our own era one wonders who will stand out as a hero of conscience. Benevolent Pope Francis? Cranky Greta Thunberg? Not many of today’s politicians will make the cut.