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From Studio to Soup Kitchen: Conceptualising the Covid Situation

From Studio to Soup Kitchen: Conceptualising the Covid Situation

For a lot of us, lockdown has been a period of isolation which has pushed us to greater levels of self-reflection than ever before. It hasn’t been the easiest couple of months, and not everyone has had the best or safest place to wait out the Covid pandemic. With the UK having been on lockdown since the 23rd March, daily routines have been diminished to a sort of Groundhog Day situation: wake up, sit at home, eat, stare longingly out the window, sleep, and repeat the next day. Maybe try out that exercise video you have saved on YouTube if you’re feeling extra adventurous.

It’s not a small thing to say that the presence of social media in our everyday lives has been somewhat of a lifeline, keeping us grounded within the wider world and preventing the disconnection that can come easily. From news, online events, messaging and sharing platforms, social media has demonstrated our ability to reach out to each other and maintain a sense of community in a time where we are most familiar with the four walls of our home. However, when we consider those who don’t even have the safety or comfort they should at home, it puts into perspective how much some depend on the support of their community to keep them going. We, as a society, have been pushed to really consider what is important, what we should value, and how we can help each other.

Artists all across the world are taking these issues in stride, using their platforms to support, comfort and raise awareness for those who need it most. London-based multi-media visual artist, Josef O’Connor, is no exception to this rule. I had the opportunity to speak with the artist recently following the completion of his most recent project, Face Valued, where he opened up about his practices, influences, and the importance of audience participation in his work.

Meet the Artist: Josef O’ Connor

Josef O’Connor’s work is largely a response to experiences and events which impact current society. With Face Valued, O’Connor reflects on the Coronavirus situation in the UK whilst exploring the themes of accessibility, community, and the democratisation of art. As with his previous projects, O’Connor emphasises the idea or concept of his work over its physical products, in particular how these meanings intertwine with a sense of value and personal attachment; in other words, what makes something valuable to the public and the art market. On asking about the conceptual basis of his work, O’Connor said: “My work is geared towards finding new ways for artists and creatives to express themselves and create platforms which bridge the gap between audience and artist. But I just like to make work that inspires people and is layered with thoughts and meanings.”

Face Valued

Face Valued is a series of one hundred red canvases which, when together, form one large square. On the matte red surface of each canvas is monetary value, ranging from £1 to £100, which has been painted in gloss. As the light catches on the surface, the price of each canvas is revealed, drawing attention to the theme of value running throughout the project.

The role of concept in O’Connor’s work is prominent, with the artist keen to build on the ideas of renowned conceptual artists. Quoting Yohji Yamamoto, O’Connor iterated: “Copy copy copy until you find your own signature… It’s perfectly acceptable to lean on an artist’s architecture, because nothing is original today. Everything has been done before.” The main pillars of influence in Face Valued, therefore, were Yves Klein and On Kawara, key figures in the development of 20th century conceptualism. Speaking of Klein’s Zone de Sensibilité Picturale Immatérielle in particular, O’Connor emphasised the placing of value on something immaterial so that only the concept survived and retained meaning: “He created invisibility, which was fucking genius.” Following these examples, O’Connor wanted Face Valued to communicate this sense of cherished invisibility, which could make people think and consider what they deemed important.

This notion is something which resonates when considering the impact of Coronavirus, which as O’Connor said has continued to upend society’s ideas of freedom and responsibility as well as expose areas of inequality. For many, the current situation has been a test which has completely changed our way of living and made us question what we believe to be valuable. Additionally, with our economy sliding further and further into a precarious situation and consumer society somewhat put on hold for the time being, the very concept of capital has been put into question.

As indicated, Face Valued is comprised of one hundred painted canvases which O’Connor painted over a period of seven days. With each canvas displaying a price from £1 to £100, the artist emphasised the selling of his works for their face value; exactly what is shown on the surface. Playing with the notion of value in sequence, O’Connor explained how the numbered values of canvases came about:

“What I love the most about this is that, in terms of it being Face Valued, it raises really fun questions about, well, they’re two identical canvases, but one just has a different price tag painted on it. Are they the same? Are they different? It brings up base theories on Marxism, labour… you know, is it because it has more letters- one, zero, zero- that it is actually worth more? The fact that someone actually paid more for it? Or does the £1 actually become worth more because it was the first I painted? I’m super fascinated with how objects attain value.”

Josef O’Connor

What sticks out visually with O’Connor’s canvases is the vibrant red paint. It channels a myriad of implications, “from blood and danger, communism and capitalism, to the suitcase the chancellor of the exchequer carries”. The colour of the canvases, like their monetary value, invites its audience to affix meaning and further explore the theme of value.

However, it was only once all of the canvases were sold that the artwork was completed, as O’Connor emphasised how the “accumulated acts of purchase complete the work as a social sculpture.” By highlighting the importance of the audience in fulfilling the artwork, Face Valued demonstrates the breaking down of the barrier between artist and audience. O’Connor pushed this as one of the defining factors of his project, going as far as to live stream the entire process of creating the canvases. By doing so, O’Connor enabled his audience to engage with and see the process as it came to fruition in his studio. As a process-based thinker, the emphasis of making was just as important (if not more so) than the final product. O’Connor was therefore constantly preoccupied with how people ascribed meaning to his work and how they aided the completion of Face Valued:

“The attachment that an individual will have to the canvas will be connected to their memory of lockdown, and that to me is more precious than them buying something for the sake of investment or visual desire… Face Valued was meant to make people consider how the virus was encouraging us to collectively reassess our shared values as a society.”

Josef O’Connor

Conceptual Art in Practice

For those who aren’t sure of what conceptual art is exactly, or why it forms such a large part of O’Connor’s work, here is a quick run-down of some prominent conceptual artworks from the past century. In these works, value and meaning are placed more on the idea- the CONCEPT- of what the artist is trying to express or encourage in the audience.

On Kawara (1932-2014), The Today Series

Spanning over four decades, The Today Series (1966-2013) was a series of paintings documenting the day each canvas was created with the date. Setting himself a strict time-frame for the completion of each work, if the artist did not finish a canvas by the end of the day he destroyed it. Becoming a documentation of several days of his life, the canvases were adjusted based on where the artist was when he created them; for example, if in France, he used the French months and the European date format.

The use of a date promoted the symbolic significance of each canvas, with importance being attached to the meaning of each date rather than just the craftsmanship of the artwork. The attachment of such importance, however, was subjective; both artist and audience could project meaning onto the artwork and its specific date.

On Kawara, Canvases from the Today Series, 1966-2014.

Yves Klein (1928-1962), Zone de Sensibilité Picturale Immatérielle

Building his practice around immateriality and value, Klein’s Zone de Sensibilité Picturale Immatérielle (1959-1962) was an art performance in which empty space (signified by a cheque or certificate) was sold in exchange for gold. The performance was completed with an elaborate display of the buyer burning the cheque and Klein throwing half the gold in the Seine. The proceedings were always conducted in front of an audience (hence the work being a performance) of an art critic or dealer, an art museum director and at least two other witnesses. It was only through the collaboration between artist and audience that the artwork could be realised.

With all physical evidence of the artwork destroyed, the only existing facet was what was retained in the minds of the buyer, seller, and witnesses. As such, Klein was responsible for creating an artwork whose value and legacy lay purely in its concept.

Soup Kitchen London

“Some people have passions which mean that they can spend so much time by themselves. Other people struggle, so for them this time is really difficult. That was sort of my reason for wanting to give the money to charity.”

In the initial stages of the project, O’Connor had considered joining the Artist Support Pledge. The Pledge, which was started by fellow artist Matthew Burrows, saw artists buying a £200 work from one of their peers whenever they reached £1000 from selling their own work. In doing so, artists were supporting each other in a way that promoted a sense of community.

However, as the effects of the pandemic grew beyond our expectations, and became a wider economic issue, O’Connor took the time to think more carefully about where the £5050 he was set to raise would be going and, more importantly, to who. He explored various charities, including big household names, but was hesitant for the donation to be “swallowed up by a big marketing budget in a big charity.”

O’Connor eventually chose to make the donation to Soup Kitchen London, after discovering more about the charity through Instagram. In our conversation, O’Connor was very passionate about the support provided by Soup Kitchen London, saying:

“It’s an amazing, amazing organisation in the heart of London, and they’ve basically adjusted their practice so that they’re able to provide one hot meal everyday as a takeaway for people living on the streets. But not just people living on the streets, there is a lot of poverty in the UK. There are more foodbanks in the UK than there are McDonald’s. There is a huge inequality issue that is only going to get worse.”

“Yes, I’m giving a small amount of money to a small charity, but for me what was more important was also bringing that awareness to the charity so that there could be wider donations or just wider awareness. The Soup Kitchen relies on people volunteering their time to go in and to help and to keep the wheels in motion. So, I really wanted to consider where I could make the most impact and choose an organisation that really mattered.”

When I congratulated O’Connor on his work, he was quick to say that credit could not fall solely on him. Rather, Face Valued was a collaborative effort. Without a lot of people coming together, a hundred people collectively buying into the project, it would not have worked. This was the point where O’Connor really stressed the role of the audience in producing the final artwork, commenting: “I think the future is going to rely on people coming together and collaborating.”

Future Plans

O’Connor has indicated that he would like to continue the series in the future, with another set of canvases ranging in price from £101 to £200. But rather than keep with the statement red of his first series, the artist was adamant on not repeating the same colour and instead wanted to give each instalment of the series its own definitive identity. This emphasis of difference will be made all the more prominent by the increasing price tag, bringing the new set of canvases to a total of £15,050 once sold. This increase in price will set the series on a progressively interesting journey, as with the increase in monetary value of the series there will also be an increase of collective ownership. As O’Connor indicated: “It’s exciting to have a hundred new collectors owning your work.” With the growth of the Face Valued series, there will be a growing community of owners taking part in its journey.

Josef O’Connor’s work is a reassuring illustration of the strength of communities and our ability to reach out to one another in times of uncertainty. It drives home the point that art is incredibly important in our current climate, allowing forms of expressions, connecting people, keeping the world updated, and inspiring happiness.


I would like to say a big thank you to Josef O’Connor for taking the time to chat and answer my questions. If you would like to see more of Josef’s work, please visit his website or Instagram page:

If you would like to donate to Soup Kitchen London, or see how the proceedings of Face Valued have helped, please visit https://soupkitchenlondon.org/


Check out Josef’s current project, CIRCA 2020, here.

About The Author

Charlie Colville

I’m Charlie, a recent History of Art graduate and Cindy Sherman enthusiast. An introvert at heart, I'm using the current pandemic as an excuse to focus on my writing and put off any and all social interaction.

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