The Daily Heller: Graphic Distancing

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The long-term impact that COVID-19 will have on culture in general, and art and design specifically, is an interesting question. We’ve already seen dozens, hundreds and thousands of graphic, visual and performance artists and designers as well as curators, directors and interaction conceptualists who have variously overcome, bypassed and hacked the limits, protocols and restrictions. I’m not just referring to the multitudes of cautionary, advocacy and protest images that have appeared over the past few months on PRINT and other online platforms. Now, as the novelty of “novel coronavirus” drags into the abnormally normal phase, the art and design influenced by, inspired by and responding to the pandemic and its consequences are becoming personal with greater frequency.

Echoing the shockwave of Expressionism in the aftermath of World War I, we are beginning to see art that exposes the inner artists. While posters and illustrations addressing COVID-19 have underscored rules, celebrated heroes and encouraged optimism—and otherwise put a practical face on the idea that “we’re all in this together”—the next phase is more introspective art that reflects the depths of feeling through craft and imagination. As people begin to come out of their quarantines and emerge into the daylight, so too will a wave of art and design that delves below the shell of self-isolation and into the interior self.

Mirko Ilic has worked to help communicate the reality of social distancing through self-financed cautionary posters hung in cities throughout the world. Now he’s looking inward through wordless, emotionally charged pictorial sequences. Ilic began his career making stark comic strips; today he returns to the medium for a narrative strength that enables him to cope. Here are three recent investigations of his sequential art, along with a brief discussion on how they took shape.

You more or less began your career in Serbia/Croatia doing comic strips of great intensity. What brings you back to the multi-panel form in this time of COVID? Is there a direct connection?At the beginning of my career in ex-Yugoslavia (at 16 years old), I didn’t have many assignments and because of that, I had a lot of free time. I felt the need to produce something, so comics were perfect.

I decided to do one-page comics. They did not require a big time commitment, which allowed me to work on other projects as well. One-page comics did not require continuation of style, which allowed me to adjust my style to the subject of that comic or my personal need to experiment. A similar thing is happening now. I cannot say assignments are pouring in.

Five months ago I bought myself an iPad, and I haven’t had a chance to work on it. I am not a person who can sit and draw something without an assignment, especially if in the process I must wrestle with a new medium and technology. That’s the reason I decided to again do one-page comics, which allowed me to change style and try different techniques.

There is a very cinematic, noir quality to this work in terms of the starkness of light and limitation of color. What is motivating this direction?Every comic needs to have a story of some kind. I was thinking about the kind of story I can tell after sitting for days on end in my apartment. How much motion can I produce moving from one room to another? That is what determined this simple palette and minimal motion.

Frankly, I’m spellbound by the sadness of these pieces. Is there a personal and universal angst? It would be silly to ask why, but I would like to know how you feel this work is unique compared to your earlier work?Except being fresher at that time, this work has a little similarity to my early comics in my early work. The ex-Yugoslavia was a communist country which produced in all of us collectively a certain amount of depression. This pandemic is doing exactly the same thing.

Are there more to come?I think so, because I don’t think this pandemic will be over very soon.

About Steven Heller

Steven Heller is the co-chair of the SVA MFA Designer /Designer as Author + Entrepreneur program, writes frequently for Wired and Design Observer. He is also the author of over 170 books on design and visual culture. He received the 1999 AIGA Medal and is the 2011 recipient of the Smithsonian National Design Award.View all posts by Steven Heller →