by Gyöngy Laky
Two invisible, yet powerful forces, now shape our lives: the Covid-19 pandemic and cyberspace. Neither of which I can see or touch. As a visual artist who makes objects to communicate with other people, this is particularly disconcerting: Without a physical component, our interactions become more cerebral, psychological and emotional.
These changes aren’t necessarily bad. In such a fraught environment in which the imagination flairs, art seems well-suited to helping us meet the demands we now face.
Art offers a place for intellectual connectivity, testing new ideas, self-awareness and self-therapy. A 2011 study by Semir Zeki, professor of neuroesthetics at the University College, London, affirms this idea. “All forms of art, from painting to dancing to music, are very personal and emotional experiences — both for the artists and the viewers. Scientists now have evidence that shows the brain reacts similarly when viewing artwork and when falling in love. New research demonstrates that viewing a beautiful work of art creates the same chemical response as love. Both experiences trigger the feel-good chemical dopamine.”
Other studies indicate that our brains can create new neural pathways throughout our lives and that mental states influence the creation of those pathways. They suggest – not surprisingly — that depressed people establish “depressed” channels while positive people create pathways resulting in greater creativity.
The late neurologist, naturalist and historian, Oliver Sacks, believed that in the brain’s ability to change and develop greater cognitive powers. His studies indicate that our experiences can shape the brain and that to some degree, we shape our own minds. The events of this unprecedented era will undoubtedly shape mine.
As many took to sheltering-in-place, I began receiving hilarious, witty, imaginative images, jokes, videos and comments from friends and acquaintances. Such fun we had with those initial exchanges! They made us laugh out loud, eased our angst and helped us cope with what lay ahead. During those first few weeks, we enjoyed an outpouring of music, songs, poetry, performances and stories – our devices throbbing with delightful, innovative offerings of all kinds. They allowed us to see each other — to talk, laugh, learn and
sing our outer and inner worlds suddenly and intensely together.
All of that creativity helped mitigate the trepidation and danger we felt controlling our lives. Norman Cousins, the late editor of The Saturday Review, who treated his own highly painful connective-tissue
disease with humor in the 1970s, came to mind. Laughter, he told us, is “a powerful drug.” Many scientists believe it boosts the immune system. One of the earliest was Henri de Mondeville, a 14th-century surgeon. It has become my drug of choice — along with red wine.
The creativity flourishing now is exhilarating. It may help our dopamine levels rise to alleviate the alarm and angst many of us are experiencing. I am wondering if this difficult time might turn out to be one of the most creative periods of our lifetimes. I have begun to refer to it as the Coronassance.
Ten weeks ago, my husband, Tom, and I realized we would have to stay at home. No more dinners, events, exhibitions, galas, parties, movie nights, hikes or restaurants only our friends, heard and viewed from afar. The reality of it left us crestfallen. We canceled all travel. Still, we are grateful to live in a comfortable, beautiful spot. We are also thankful that some thoughtful, young friends make it possible for us to get fresh food and necessities without exposing ourselves to potential infection, as many others must. I’m becoming a better cook. For the first time, I made tandoori, an Indian spice mixture (cumin, coriander, cardamom, cayenne, cinnamon, cloves, garam masala, paprika, turmeric, garlic, ginger), boosting my sagging spirits and, quite possibly, my immune system.
Early in March, an artist friend, Carter, a former student and research assistant when I chaired the UC Davis art department in the mid-1990s, emailed, asking if I was working in my studio. “I’m having trouble and don’t know why,” I replied. “In this time of death, will another sculpture help?”
Carter came from New York and stayed with us before the opening of his exhibition at Anglim Gilbert Gallery in San Francisco. Presciently and chillingly, he titled the show, Didn’t We Almost Have it All. Anglim Gilbert closed the exhibition and the gallery just days after the opening, on March 13. As an art patron friend of mine, Alan Davis, put it pithily, “Art is in deep shit.” So are artists.
I sent the last work I completed before the lockdown to browngrotta arts in Connecticut for an upcoming exhibition (now postponed to September). I set out to create in wood, as is my practice, the word “OK.” But soon after I started, it morphed into OY, which seemed better suited to the barrage of bad news.
Recently, my friend, artist Parthiv Shah, founder of Centre for Media and Alternative Communication, in New Delhi, a non–profit working on social justice, public interest and environmental causes, invited me to submit a photo for a new project called Self Portrait in the Time of Social Distancing. Since I am a sculptor and not a photographer, this presented a challenge. Could I create something without relying on my usual tools — drills, pliers, saws, screws, nails, wood and wire? And if so, what might such a photo look like? Would it have meaning for me and others?
Self-doubt urged me on. Every morning I looked out my window north and west over the Bay and out past the Golden Gate Bridge. This habit is a meditation that nurtures, sustains and, now, comforts me. It provides a sense of well-being, strengthening me to face each day. It is now my salvation and my inspiration, living in this strange parallel universe — isolated, deeply private, intensely and uncomfortably alone in my studio while the virus storm rages: minuscule and monstrous.
My art is not self-focused; it includes no self-portraits or autobiographical pieces. Even the word selfie makes me recoil a bit. However, I must admit that the request enticed me and motivated me to re-enter my art practice. Nature helped, too. An enormous, fiercely green ficus tree stands outside my window. When a breeze kicks up, it seems as if the tree is breathing. I breathe with it – something I’ve been doing for most of my adult life.
In my early 20’s, my parents owned an art gallery in Carmel, where they exhibited early California artists they unearthed from attics, basements and backrooms in the early 1960s. In the mid-1960s, they also opened an art gallery in Ghirardelli Square, exhibiting contemporary Chinese painting. I staffed the gallery for the first year and lived in a small apartment at the end of Green Street atop Telegraph Hill. I gazed in awe at the Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge from the second-floor gallery which was located next to the Sea Witch Bar. Back then, North Beach was a thriving post-Beat, free-speech, topless-dancing, hippie and bohemian neighborhood with the flavor of foreign countries imparted by immigrants of Italian and Chinese descent. I shopped daily at a grocery store at 543 Columbus Avenue. The Chinese owners spoke fluent Italian. I studied Mandarin for a while and attained some competency, but never became fluent. Caffe Trieste and Mario’s Bohemian Cigar Store Cafe were my favorite hangouts.
Later, after joining the anti-war marches and myriad demonstrations at UC Berkeley during the late 1960s, I began to call myself an environmentalist. Not only did I start using tree branches in my work, I also learned more about sustainability, recycling and the dangers inherent in damaging the environment, encroaching on habitats and depleting natural resources.
Several scientific inquiries into the origin of Covid-19 suggest that our destruction of natural habitats may have awakened once-dormant viruses, enabling them to find and infect humans. I marvel at this one’s stealth and tenacity, so much so that I’ve begun referring to its “intelligence.” It can be contagious for five days or more before one has any symptoms. It can attack various internal organs, as well as the brain, skin and even toes. It can survive on surfaces for days. It can piggyback on clothing and then glide off, unsuspected, onto another surface. A recent study found that talking can release virus droplets suspended in the air for up to 14 minutes. It can float airborne for surprising distances. The virus in a sneeze can travel up to 200 miles per hour. What a skilled and strategic survivor.
My growing environmentalism and interest in sustainability paralleled my art-making and went hand-in-hand with my anti-war sentiments. Paying close attention to the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, I found numerous instances of wanton environmental destruction, tying together for me again, those same two themes, exactly as happened during the Viet Nam war.
In the late 1990s, I established courses at UC Davis that directly addressed sustainability under the rubric, Critical Issues in Design and Art: Environmental Consciousness. Since I retired, my concerns about the environment have only multiplied, and in my ongoing language series, consisting of sign- and symbol-based sculptures, I address many environmental issues.
As I re-engage, I wonder what words, symbols or signs will emerge as subject matter. In this inquiry, I draw on my knowledge of English, French, German, Spanish, Italian, and my native language, Hungarian, of which I remember too little. From this foundation, I confront the current predicament. I became curious about the word virus. Is it the plural of viri? I consulted my Latin dictionary and, to my surprise, found that viri means “man.” Of course! Virile. Virulent. Virtuous?
Hearing, reading, saying, thinking the word, virus daily, I am now working on a virus sculpture.
When I was a student at UC Berkeley, I took courses in cultural anthropology, focused on Mexico’s and California’s Native American cultures and their relationship to nature. I learned much about construction techniques and how native people worked inventively with materials harvested from nature. I subsequently applied that knowledge to my artwork, which I believe reflects the importance of respecting, protecting, loving and living with nature.
In a 2017 speech, Prophecy of the 7th Fire: Choosing the Path that is Green, Winona LaDuke (Ojibwa, Northern Minnesota), founder of Honor the Earth and, who, at 18, was the youngest to address the United Nations before Greta Thunberg, spoke of an ancient prophecy of the Anishinaabe. It predicts a time when we must choose between two paths – “one green and lush or the other well-worn but scorched.” That choice has been staring us in the face for decades. This pandemic, curiously, may allow us to make the right choice.
The air has become startlingly clear and clean. On sunny days I can see terrain 60 to 70 miles away that was never visible from our home on Telegraph Hill. The abhorrent situation brought on by a virus is, paradoxically, giving Mother Nature a respite from the destructive force of 7.8 billion humans. Can there now be any doubt that humans are destroying the environment?
The unexpected resurgence of nature is exhilarating and gives me hope amid despair and fear. Politico’s Mark Grunwald said: “The clean skies over Los Angeles are a reminder that pollution, like social distancing, is a choice, and that individuals can make it better or worse. The virus has taught us that in an emergency, we can change our behaviors in ways we never imagined possible—not just by telecommuting and foregoing business travel…but by uprooting our lives to save others.”
Other positive effects stemming from the pandemic offer glimmers of hope for the future. Tiffany Shlain, the founder of the Webby Awards, put it well in her recent newsletter: “It feels like the world is grabbing us all by the shoulders, asking us to think about how we’re living our lives, and to think about what matters most.”
So many people are reaching out to help one another. More and more, I hear and read, “We’re all in this together.” The “we” encompasses the entire globe — all of us. The kindness and generosity of both friends and strangers is heartwarming. I am particularly touched by a remarkable event that hit the news. One hundred seventy-three years ago, during the Irish potato famine, the Choctaw Nation sent $170 from
Oklahoma to that country’s starving people. Irish donors recently returned the gift. They gave $1.8 million to the Navajo and Hopi tribes of the Southwest to help them struggle with the coronavirus. As a footnote to this remarkable act of reciprocal giving, a friend sent us an image of the sculpture in Midleton, County Cork, built to commemorate the Choctaw gift.
I have long believed that there is a strong affinity between art and science. I am pleased that science is getting a boost as many doubters now realize its importance. Scientists are exploring creative ways to address the pandemic. They are enlisting dogs to help sniff out and detect the virus. I am a dog lover and know that our canine friends have already made headlines by successfully detecting cancers. Dogs, according to a 2012 segment that aired on NOVA, “possess up to 300 million olfactory receptors in their noses, compared to about six million in humans.” Meaning, the portion of the dog’s brain devoted to analyzing smells is 40 times greater than ours.
I recently read that Manu Prakash, a MacArthur Fellow at Stanford University, and his students, are attempting to make face masks with cotton candy machinery. “These are open projects anyone can join, help, replicate,” reads the invitation on Prakash’s web site. Scientists, often in competition, are now sharing information and working together. Open-source research is flourishing. Erin Bromage, a biology and immunology professor at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, recently wrote: “…if you don’t solve the biology, the economy won’t recover.” He reinforced for me the inescapable connection between this pandemic, the environment and our economy.
The virus is like a magnifying glass revealing the fictions, frailties and failures of our society and our federal government. Inexperienced people continue to be appointed to fill critical positions. America is failing in its leadership role, and the country that helped defeat fascism in Europe 75 years ago this month is slipping toward fascism today (Fintan O’Toole). Calling the efforts to defeat the coronavirus a “war” grates on my anti-militarist ears as an inappropriate and not very useful analogy for our collective response. Arundhati Roy, speaking to 60 Minutes on May 17, commented on the irony of this characterization. “The world has spent so much time guarding its borders against the ‘outsider’…” Yet all of our sophisticated weapons are powerless to defend against an invader that has “…attacked the most powerful countries in the world, in the most tragically powerful way. If it were a war, then nobody would be better prepared than the US.” However, this is not a war. Nor are we prepared.
Suzanne P. Clark, president of the US Chamber of Commerce, speaking on the PBS NewsHour on April 4, made me smile when she stated: “Mr. Rogers said, ‘Look for the helpers,’ and I think we also look for the innovators, the scientists, the doctors, but also, the business leaders and how they can innovate.” Then she added, “Whenever there’s a great time of disruption, there’s also a big period of innovation.”
The importance of healthcare for all is now glaringly obvious. Thanks to safety measures, many areas were able to “flatten the curve,” reducing infections and deaths. “We’re all in this together.” “Essential” workers are finally receiving the recognition that they are essential. Nature’s quick recovery has shown that humans are responsible for rapid climate change, but, also, that we can take steps to reverse the damage. We can flatten that graph, too. The incredible pace of changes we are witnessing demonstrates that with a strong will, determination and widespread participation, we might, more quickly than we previously thought, be able to recover economically as well. Si, se puede!
In The Shock of the New, the 1980 documentary television series, the late art critic/historian, Robert Hughes, while discussing the surrealists, used the phrase “preparing for the unexpected.” The phrase immediately struck a chord. It seemed to fit my process. I have used the phrase often in discussions about my art. With each new sculpture, I plunge into an exploration to create something I have not yet made, not yet figured out and not yet understood. I have, however, developed a large cache of skills honed over the years. My studio houses a cherished collection of hand tools, and I always have a large accumulation of materials harvested from natural, commercial and industrial sources. I am prepared for the unknowns and inventions ahead.
Now, locked in the coronasphere, I suddenly feel foolish about my playful engagement in the oxymoron of “preparing for the unexpected.” Even when scientists and medical experts warned of such a pandemic, our government failed to prepare.
I can no longer revel in the delight of what “preparing for the unexpected” might bring to my art. We will undoubtedly be wrestling with this virus for a long time to come, and there’s no telling how long that might be. If I need to sequester myself until 2024, I will be 80 years old. Will I be able to feel the exhilarating sensation of being a free U.S. citizen that I felt when I first set foot on American soil as an immigrant child? Well, if the artist Marilee Shapiro Asher, at 107, could survive a second pandemic, I can surely go on for a few more years with a sense of hope. As David Orr of Oberlin College put it, “Hope is a verb with its sleeves rolled up.” I am more committed than ever to rolling up my sleeves and lifting my dopamine level.
My heart aches for those now plunged into dire situations. I can’t imagine how horrible this is for many in less-privileged circumstances than mine. It’s especially tough for many in communities of color and low-income families who are particularly hard-hit by the pandemic. So many are suffering from the devastation wreaked on the economy, and yet so many bravely go to work.
May 16. We watched and were moved by Graduate Together: Honoring the Class of 2020 ceremonies on CNN. The performance of the national anthem by a splendidly diverse group of high school seniors was another internet wonder. As the last line, “…and the home of the brave,” rang in the air, my husband turned to me and said, “They will have to be very brave.”
We’re still binge-watching the news — and binge-hoping.
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Read previous installments of the Shelter-in-Place series.
P.S.: A Hungarian physician pioneered hand-washing. Amidst a devastating epidemic in 1846 of childbed fever, Ignác P. Semmelweis (1818-1865) recommended that physicians wash their hands after discovering that the deadly disease was being spread to healthy mothers by the unclean hands of their own doctors.