Arts & Entertainment

“INCIPIT – COVID-19” exhibition is a jarring reminder of the past

Photographer Michel Huneault’s latest exhibition, INCIPIT — COVID-19, was commissioned by the McCord Stewart Museum at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. On Sept. 16, over two years later, the display finally opened to the public. The exhibition features 30 photographs and three projections of over 150 videos and photos that capture quotidian early-stage pandemic life. To create an eye-catching multimedia aspect, Huneault collected anonymously handwritten notes from the chain of subjects he photographed. Huneault used this word-of-mouth chain of subjects to evade isolation-induced creative myopia. INCIPIT is a beautifully raw collection of photographs showcasing diverse perspectives of the people impacted by the first wave of the pandemic. 

The exhibition does not stray from its core purpose: To showcase a series of photographs and videos captured during the beginning of the global pandemic. Though the content can feel predictable, Huneault’s hauntingly nostalgic snapshots of places, experiences, and people at this point in time do not disappoint. The exhibition’s name translates from Latin to “here begins,” reflecting the inception of the health crisis that globally changed lives. The photographs range from makeshift hospital rooms, to abandoned streets, to an upside-down cart, and to a delineated, socially-distanced Costco line-up (a personal favourite). They capture a reality that now—with society desperate to return to a pre-pandemic “normal”—seems a thing of the past, jarring and almost absurd.

Huneault was granted carte blanche by the McCord Stewart Museum and exclusive access to many healthcare facilities, which allowed him to pull back the curtain and reveal things that people might be aware of, but haven’t seen firsthand. These moments create an intimacy between the viewer and the photograph, mimicking the isolative mindset of the early pandemic. So similar to the period of desperation felt at the beginning of the pandemic, viewers of these photographs feel as if they are secret observers of often uncomfortably vivid perspectives. Many of the subjects make direct eye contact with the viewer, their gaze challenging one to face their own past.The most compelling part of the collection is the handwritten letters. Feeling himself slip into creative complacency, Huneault decided to do a series of portraits where his next subject was recommended to him by the previous one. He asked each of them a question: What’s on your mind? Twelve endearing scrawls of worries, fears, joys, and even drawings remind the viewer that the pandemic and the prevalence of quarantine resulted in fragmented perspectives where individualism reigned. Huneault pieces together each person’s experiences to delve into how different states of mind developed at the beginning of the pandemic. 

Though a myriad of struggles are portrayed, there is a somewhat confusing lack of adolescent representation. Only one photograph of the main 30 centrally features a child. As school shutdowns and province-wide restrictions affected the lives of every Montrealer, the viewer is left wanting more. Including photographs of younger people from the thousands of Huneault’s un-exhibited photographs would help shift the focus away from the adult experience.

Huneault’s exhibition focuses on the healthcare system and everyday life, and all of his photos are accompanied by commentary that straddles the line between satire and seriousness. A photo of a lone, masked biker on an empty road reminds viewers of the paranoia surrounding the lack of medical information given to the public. After having lived through it, we see some humour in hindsight, but Huneault does an excellent job of reminding us of the real fear that permeated throughout society.

The exhibition is open to the public on Sept. 16 and will run until Jan. 22, 2023. Tickets are available for purchase online. On the first Sunday of every month, admission is free for all Quebec residents.

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