"We live to work": The artist on finding space to feel amid art-world demands for constant output

The one thing that I was sure of when this pandemic began, which was actually long before the WHO finally called it by its name on March 11th, was that this was no longer the era of “business as usual.”  Sure, in time we will learn how to adapt to the unwelcome visitor who has descended upon us en masse. It will likely become as ubiquitous as the seasonal flu; and once the global peak has passed we’ll argue about whether or not we had sufficient forewarning to save the countless lives that were unnecessarily lost (and who to blame for that). Within the US we’ll investigate the dysfunction of the federal government, and assess the competency of our incompetent president; we will point fingers to find out who is most responsible for the lack of testing and PPE and seek justice for the ills done to those on the front lines who needed assistance most. Many world leaders and governments will be brought to task for their gross mismanagement and their mixed, often dangerous messaging; ingesting bleach is never a good idea, but then again, good luck if you can find any. Above all, the parties most guilty of willful inaction will be forced to reckon with their extraordinary lack of preparedness in the wake of the inevitable health crisis that finally hit.

I began hearing about COVID-19 at the end of the year. An apathetic news watcher, I primarily received my updates regarding Wuhan from my father via our family group chat. To be frank, in the beginning I didn’t think much of it—I had just returned from Naples, was en route to Merida, and had an exhaustive travel itinerary in the coming months to plan. Don’t get me wrong, I was empathetic for the people of Wuhan, but it felt so far away and there was so much work to be done. The Armory Show was around the corner, and I was preparing for two exhibitions. My mind couldn’t compute a virus halting life as we know it in the midst of what seemed so important. Yes, in hindsight it was naïve and foolhardy, a wishful perspective given the way we live today. We were all guilty of this, I’m sure—so consumed with our daily activities to stop and think about what may actually happen.

Then, on February 21, I heard about the first known cases in Italy’s Lombardy region. The figures about the rate of contagion, the symptoms, and the populations most affected proved to be a moving target, and not aligned with the official story. In disbelief of the sheer fact that I could actually be living through a global pandemic, I did silly and predictable things like rewatching Contagion (multiple times), because that is unquestionably the perfect film to watch when trying to quell one’s anxieties. I read Albert Camus’ La Peste (The Plague). It seemed fitting given the collective apathy, exacerbated by the superiority complex of Europe and the US when confronted with prescient signs which were glaringly clear. The UK prematurely talked about herd immunity, which would slow the spread eventually, still the implications of this Darwinian social experiment were alarming. Looking back, most of us were remiss to acknowledge that Italy was a harbinger of things to come. 

En Archē en Khaos (In the Beginning was Chaos), 2020

In March I found myself in what became the epicenter of the entire world—“New York, New York.” I read stories of rich city dwellers running for the hills in their private jets, and listened to friends vehemently deny the gravity of what was coming—that it was “overblown” and “not that big a deal—it’s just like the flu.” Not so ironically, some of the naysayers were the first to flee days later. I wasn’t supposed to be here. I had planned to be in Guadalajara to begin new works, but my anxiety surrounding my asthma and a spreading respiratory virus had me go into early quarantine following The Armory Show. In retrospect, attending the fair, albeit only for the final hour of the opening day, was probably not the best idea. Attendance was comparatively low. People seemed jittery, nervous, but resilient like its host city. New York had its first official case on March 1, I attended Armory on March 5, and I began to feel unwell on March 15.

My unwell didn’t include a fever (as far as I could tell), or a cough, or most of the other symptoms. I simply couldn’t breathe properly. As a person who has had asthma since birth, that was not scary as a concept, but the actual experience was terrifying. On the worst days, I felt a massive, dense pressure, like an immovable weight sitting at the base of my lungs; an extreme heaviness making my airways feel like they had shrunk to quarter capacity. I wheezed, but not like normal. If healthy lungs were a sponge with a variety of larger holes through which air could travel, mine were a sponge with tightly packed, tiny holes that were calcifying. My diaphragm was painfully tired from the constant labored breathing, my ribcage was sore, my muscles from the neck straight down to my shoulders were unbearably stiff; on some days I could barely move from exhaustion and severe shortness of breath.

I never went to the hospital because by that time New York’s frontline was a war zone, and in the off-chance that I did not have the virus, I would most definitely return home with it. Imagine living in a time where going to the hospital when unwell is the most frightening prospect. I video-chatted with doctors, got prescribed new inhalers which I found myself using every half-hour on some days. Until that point, I had barely used my inhaler in years, preferring to control my symptoms naturally. The fear I had been secretly harboring since February became my reality. Suddenly, my prized solitude and sought-after hermitage no longer brought peace but deep anxiety. To be sick and utterly alone is terrifying. Every person I spoke to abroad who had friends or family in New York told me they had tested positive. That is the nature of the city—from public transportation, to our closely stacked apartments and workspaces—we live in high density providing endless opportunity for quick transmission.

New York became dormant and ominous. From my apartment in Williamsburg, sirens blared, and red ambulance lights danced on my walls at all hours of the day and night. After living here for 14 years, you grow accustomed to the sirens—most New Yorkers barely notice them anymore. But now, the shuttered stores and empty streets—coupled with a surreal quiet—made the ring of sirens deafening. On one night I heard the shrill sounds of over ten ambulances fly past my window in the space of three hours. I knew that everyone in the city was experiencing the same anxiety—the tension was palpable. I sought solace speaking with family and friends who kept me calm and helped me to breathe. I meditated, overloaded on vitamins, rested, and tried to focus on feeling better, filling my lungs with air, the Wim Hof method: breathing in, breathing out. In all that time, I only once begrudged myself for not working—not producing, not making the art that I know some were waiting for, and feeling little if no motivation to create something new.

Yes, I was sick, but that was not actually the issue. As a kid, I foolishly never stayed home or took medicine when I was unwell. I thought it gave me resilience and helped my immunity to battle the elements. I persevered in situations where others would be bedridden ’cause it made me feel strong, like a conqueror. Nothing has changed about my obstinance, rather, I simply felt that this was a different time, and thus should be treated accordingly. With all this illness, fear, and the unknown before us, and with pretty much the entire world forced to stay home, a unique and overdue silver lining was presented: the opportunity for collective stillness and rest—a pause.

It is common knowledge in the West that we live to work, that we have lost all perspective of balance. We are caught up in the rat race. We work to accumulate money, spend that money on things we think will make us happy, only to feel unfulfilled by those things, and need to work more just to replenish our reserve, all in the pursuit of the next thing we think will fill that gaping hole. It is a wheel that spins, showing us how much we have lost touch with who we are.

“It is common knowledge in the West that we live to work, that we have lost all perspective of balance.”

I remember, at some point in April, watching a video that Tracey Emin made from her bed. She was unpolished and sincere, speaking about her inability to move from that place, the inertia that had gripped her, the fact that she was feeling unwell and scared to leave her house. She was hoping that in the coming days she would finally have the will to get to her studio. It resonated and touched me deeply. In a New York Times article, Lorna Simpson spoke of the mental energy required from us right now simply to look out for one another. I never felt so relieved as in that moment to know that other artists I respected were also overcome by their circumstances, and allowed themselves to feel it. It is an unspoken expectation, born of a certain romanticism, that in times of turmoil and adversity artists continue, even thrive. Yes, I am the first to believe that artists are the barometers of society. We take its pulse, reveal the hidden, traverse the difficult terrain of human consciousness, and reflect society back to itself in all its glory and ugliness. “An artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times…,” said Nina Simone. And I have always agreed, but “not now” is my response.

“It is an unspoken expectation, born of a certain romanticism, that in times of turmoil and adversity artists continue, even thrive.”

Since April 12 I have felt better.  I have begun to produce some work, but very slowly. When collectors and art-world friends tell me how I must be so inspired by this time, following up with the dreaded question, “What are you working on?” I simply reply, “Working on keeping myself healthy, and that is enough.” This time has helped me learn to make that my number one priority. If you are an artist who finds that forced solitude has made you productive, kudos to you. And I mean that. If you are an artist who can only process this time through the act of creation, that is commendable, and sometimes I even envy you. However, the unromantic reality of the art market is such that many artists produce simply to keep up with demand and expectation. I write to the artists who are more like myself; those who have struggled through this time to a point of near-paralysis, because that is okay too. There will be a time to release the valve.

There remain only a few brave souls who have experienced a pandemic at this scale, outliving the Spanish Flu of 1918. The end of the Spanish Flu immediately preceded the end of World War I, and that ushered in new art and cultural movementsDada, Surrealism, and Expressionism to name but a few in the West. What will come after the age of Corona? There will inevitably be a reaction, and I can only guess that it will be a visceral one, given the ideas and colors that have been formulating in my mind during this time. A Post-Corona artan answer to these turbulent times, is needed—and we artists as always will offer our perspectives, along with ways for us all to digest this tragedy. Great art made by a class of great artists will be born out of this time. But first we must feel, and we must find the space to feel, because the psychological and emotional toll this period has taken on us is immeasurable. We are only now beginning to process what it means for our lives moving forward, individually and together.

Across the pond in London, my parents haven’t spent time with their grandchildren who live in an apartment on the same floor as them in over two months. These are the times in which we find ourselves. We’re all trying to cope with the compounding aftermath of a virus that is still not done wreaking havoc. And though we are reeling, let us remind ourselves that as it has before, this too shall pass. We will recover and the buzzworthy term “new normal” will slowly morph into “normal” as we accommodate the realities of living alongside a novel, highly contagious virus. That day when this “brave new world” will be fully absorbed and will inevitably propel us into a new chapter in human history will come. However, that day is not today. For now, our futures are still far too uncertain.