You know those escape rooms that seem to be cropping up all over the place? There are a few in Philadelphia. They have various themes such as the eighties, tropical places, preventing a crime, defusing a bomb. There is even one, so I hear, in Rittenhouse Square that puts you inside a nuclear power plant only to find out the supervisor is missing. They say that one is for experienced escapists. So why even talk about escape rooms? Two reasons- one is obvious. The escape room is a thinly veiled metaphor for our predicament. We are all stuck in the midst of this viral nightmare and need to find the way out. Honestly, though, I’ve become fixated on the idea of Escape in general. And who isn’t? Who wouldn’t love to escape to New Zealand right now, or to an uninhabited, virus-free island (that can accommodate friends and family), outer space, or even a horror flick that presents a reality that’s even scarier and darker than ours? Or anyplace where we have complete agency like we would in that artificially concocted escape room. Secondly, the escape room is about collaboration in the name of group success. The idea is to go with a group of people to find a way to escape the unnatural surroundings using collective ideas and creativity. It forces you to harness the power of connection. It’s a group task waiting to be solved so that each person can bring their particular skills to help find a solution. Like a gathering of disparate musical instruments plopped into the same room and ultimately spawning a harmonious orchestral debut, the result can be unexpectedly powerful. It occurred to me that in some ways, the coronavirus pandemic is like a colossal, cosmically tragic, global escape room on high dose steroids. We are trapped in a historic moment, a space from which we as a human race must find means of escape. We are stuck inside this putrid metaphorical place, as well as the actual space of our homes, unless we can hunker down, work together, and locate that trap door, that hidden answer. It may not be one magic bullet, but maybe it’s about laying out a roadmap and actually sticking to that plan that will get us out. Just like the teamwork required for the escape room, we need each other to help solve this problem.
While it seems easy to dismiss art as irrelevant in the height of crisis, in my view, art plays a vital role in clarifying and distilling periods of history. We need visual art right now, not only because it can soothe, distract, and bring us joy, but because like the other arts it can reflect back a collective consciousness. Art also has the capacity to show us facets of our world in a new light, capturing the irony and metaphor and beauty that may allow us to forge a deeper understanding of it. It might expand our understanding of our problems, or even reveal ways to approach solutions. Art has the potential to visualize for us this moment in history. It might not only visually reveal the confining walls of this escape room, that metaphorical space where we presently reside, but it can also tantalize us with images of what escape might look like. And remarkably, art doesn’t just have to reveal the physicality of a space, but it can also capture a potentially transformative state of mind underlying our journey within the four walls and ultimately, out to freedom.
InLiquid artist Ross Carlisle seems to make visual this idea of discovering a new perspective, a transformative state of mind. The painting Monolith III juxtaposes a seemingly manmade mammoth block with natural mountainous surroundings. The perfectly smooth, geometric monolith stands in contrast to the jagged, asymmetrical peaks behind it. Here both the geometric block and the mountains appear equally awe-inspiring, yet entirely different. Similarly, Monolith I presents a rust-colored monolith ensconced in a verdant field. Here we see the rolling green hills unexpectedly abutting a brown monolith, which stands in defiance of the clouds and the verdant land. It blocks the view of part of a hillside and may cast deep shadows as the sun moves across the sky. As the artist states: “In the information overload of today’s society, it is all too easy to be inundated with data that only supports our own preconceived notions of the world around us…Now, more than ever, we live in a time when an individual must actively work to see things from a new perspective. By placing imposing blocks of color incongruously amidst the reality of natural forms, I aim to explore an individual’s struggle to see beyond one’s self and one’s perspective to a more informed point of view. These monoliths, just as our own thoughts and actions, don’t simply obscure our view, but change the landscape of our realities.” This seems to capture the idea of perceiving reality and ourselves through a fresh, imaginative lens, one that might allow for more creativity and authenticity and connection in our lives. And perhaps, in the process, better equip us to cope with adversity.
Perhaps in part the message in Carlisle’s mysterious monoliths is that we aren’t tied to one way of looking at ourselves and the world; an open mind may allow for alternate ways of seeing. And what better way is there for figuratively cracking open the mind, than a profound crisis like a global pandemic? Though the artistic intention was not about the pandemic, it stands to reason that the crisis may be the perfect catalyst to open up perception of self and the world to new alternatives. This shift may involve radical changes in ways of looking at oneself and the world that could ultimately aid with coping in the midst of a crisis. It’s like looking at yourself and the world through a new lens. Perhaps it’s as simple as finding yourself in a healthy exercise and diet routine in quarantine and thus radically changing your perception of yourself, or as profound as shifting your worldview from one which dictates that we have unlimited power to one that views the earth and humans and all creatures within it as fragile, requiring protection and appreciation. There are of course other interpretations of these works, including an intriguing one by Brooke Lanier Fine Art noting that the works are about “the human egotistical need to claim the natural landscape as our own via monuments.”  There is also a nod to Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 sci-fi film, 2001. And yet, to me these works speak to the idea of perceiving the reality in front of us in a radical new way.
In contrast to Carlisle’s glimpses of the power of perceptual transformation, InLiquid artist Julianna Foster’s photographs illuminate the physical space in which transformation occurs. Her series of photographs entitled Portals are arresting and jarring, kind of like a punch in the gut. These photographs seem to convey the inside of that escape room, the inside of our four walls of quarantine, or even the inside of our metaphorical space stuck inside those walls trying to defuse that escape room bomb, or the pandemic. Foster’s two works, Portals Sky and Portals Stars show us a hole punched in a bland wall or the inside of a cave or concrete structure, revealing the beauty of the daytime sky or the stars on the other side. The view of the inside is stark and unadorned, a very plain plaster wall or an impermeable rockface, making the almost poetic beauty outside of it seem all the more alluring and inaccessible. It’s a powerful contrast between two worlds, two states of being, made all the more potent by their photographic juxtaposition. It’s like showing a prisoner miniscule glimpses of sunshine, freedom, and connection, the very things he longs for but can’t have. These images seem to be all about the idea of escape, about dreaming of another world, one that’s out there, beyond the confines of our quarantined existence. To me, they’re about the contrast between lockdowns and fearless freedom; in that contrast we might come to appreciate the simple joys of freedom as never before. And we might dream of transcending those walls to a virus-free existence.
Foster’s portal photographs also illustrate the idea of being between worlds, stuck in a space between four walls and freedom. There is a route out to freedom in these photos, a known escape route, so we aren’t really trapped. Perhaps we can’t fit through that enticing hole in the wall, or perhaps it’s too high, or perhaps it’s just a captivating dream. We are not wholly trapped, but we are not really free. We seem to be between worlds, just we are between worlds in this pandemic reality. We are stuck in a liminal space. Our current reality lies in a space between a known, comfortable past and an unknown future; it’s a scary place, and yet liminal, unsettled spaces are often sites of transformation. Counsellors that specialize in transition expound on this notion: “Life’s most turbulent moments are where the best and most enduring transformation occurs. Immense growth happens here. If you learn how to listen to your life.” Foster articulates the idea that even the medium of photography can become untethered from its boundaries, depicting those improbable spaces that that lie between worlds—they exist beyond the limits of photographic space, between photography and storybook making, or perhaps between living freely and the imprisonment of the virus. She states: “By exploring how the individual image can transcend its own limits, and by association, provide the opportunity for a pictorial narrative to unfold each story forms something of a larger narrative that continues to reveal itself in a variety of forms like an artist book, or photographic series.” These photographs seem to me to be very relatable and timely images right now, as we all want to punch a hole in the reality of this miserable pandemic and get to the other side, to freedom.
So let’s pretend we make it out of our escape room, er… I mean out from under the shadow of the virus. What then? Perhaps our everyday internal and external landscape will contain unrecognizable elements, as in Carlisle’s Monolith I and Monolith III. We will perhaps be seeing ourselves and the world through novel lenses, made possible by the fact that our world was turned upside down by a pandemic. Both the world and each of us individually might have changed, in part because we may have already experienced a new outlook, and in part because healing in and of itself may involve transformation. Actually, healing is also a liminal, in between space, between health and illness. And transformation may involve a shift in perception of our world, our roles in it, or even our very identity. As noted by Jeffrey Rediger, M.D., a psychiatrist who explores spontaneous healing: “Radical change- and perhaps, radical healing- can only come when we’re able to see and understand ourselves in a completely new light. Perhaps this is why humans have been coming up with ritual, cultural ways of interrupting our default mode networks for millennia- everything from prayer to meditation, from dance to travel to art, can do it.” Our country, like a body ravaged with sickness, will need healing when this is over. And that may necessitate visualizing a new reality, one that may seem unimaginable currently. Maybe all business meetings will be conducted over Zoom, maybe working in an office will become a thing of the past, and maybe we’ll appreciate the power of human connection like never before. Like Carlisle’s painting of the monolith in the grassy field, we may be surprised and taken aback by the incongruity of our perception as the world eventually heals following the pandemic. We may be different, and no doubt the world around us will change. We may not see monoliths in fields, but something, maybe something we can’t even put our finger on, will be different in that landscape. Perhaps it’s a change in our viewing lens, a new vision of our world, that Carlisle was able to deftly and powerfully capture in his paintings. Perhaps it will be a permanent change that could make the world a better place. And perhaps we will have learned something important in that terrifying escape room.
There is no question that this defusing bomb stuff is not easy. I can’t be sure, since I have never tried an escape room, but I think I get what yearning for escape feels like. We are living in an unprecedented period in history, where our reality approaches an ersatz escape room of unfathomable proportions. This one is most definitely best handled by the most experienced escapists. And yet there is a lot we can do, both individually and collectively. Perhaps we can get out of our usual ruts and relate to the world in new, expanded ways, whether that means working on a political campaign, handing out food to those who can’t afford it, or helping out as a contact tracer. Just like the teamwork required for the escape room, we need each other to help solve this problem. We of course need to combat the virus as a unified country rather than as divisive states forced to compete with each other. It’s par for the course that we need to replace this divisive president. (Now you know which campaign I would work for.) We should encourage ongoing collaboration between global and national experts to study the virus and work together on treatment and finding a vaccine. And of course, every single one of us should do our part in wearing masks, staying socially distant, washing hands, avoiding unneeded contact. The last part is easy. The rest is easier said than done. But doable. If we can do that, perhaps soon we can then breathe the fresh air and freedom that’s waiting for us on the other side of this existential moment.