Morgan Everhart discusses the state of the world of artists and everyone around us during COVID-19 with fellow artist Xiaofu Wang.
I haven’t painted since NYC’s shelter-in-place order. In the past few weeks, our world has turned inside out and I’ve only binge-watched the news, cooked, and checked in on loved ones. Many of us are immobilized by what’s happening and we’re all having difficulties processing COVID-19. James B. Stewart, in his recent New York “Times” article, “I Became a Disciplined Investor Over 40 Years. The Virus Broke Me in 40 Days,” describes himself as paralyzed, “Whipsawed between optimism and despair as the bad news mounted and my daily life was upended, I’ve let emotions influence my decisions. I’m doing it again this morning.” So, here we are, having another day inside full of struggles for motivation.
There are plenty of projections for how long the COVID-19 outbreak will last, depending on what safety precautions we take. However, all we know now is that we’re on lockdown for at least another month. Our normal everyday routine is upended with all galleries, museums and work for artists completely shut down. For those of us that are lucky enough to work from home, our deadlines and projects are pushed back. Most importantly, our health, safety and future is at risk.
During the beginning of China’s outbreak, we reached out to Xiaofu Wang—who was born in Wuhan and currently lives in Shanghai—to provide context as an artist on what is happening. I had no idea at the time that this would spread so severely and significantly throughout the world. Our conversation is prescient to our life now and in the coming weeks.
“On January 23 at 2 a.m., the Chinese government announced that, for the prevention of an epidemic, the city would be sealed off, effective at 10 a.m. later that day. In the meantime, all public transportation was going to be shut down. I called my parents at 3 a.m., who woke up relatives to spread the news. From that point onward, there has not been a moment I didn’t think of my hometown and the unknown fear,” Wang explains. During Wang’s isolation, she found herself doing the things many of us are doing now: “Mostly, I follow up with the news, read books, cook, and have slowly started to make drawings and paintings again. I can maintain almost all the indoor activities, but avoid going out.”
In reflection on China’s outbreak, Wang says, “It’s a very hard time, seeing helpless messages, hearing about dying people and thinking about how anyone could be next. Secondly, this is a very tough, but good opportunity to observe and learn about our society. How is it structured? How does it respond? Where are we? However, I don’t think about being an artist. I think more about humans as a unity. Although a lot of people are still trying to maintain their life as normal, we know deeply that the world has already changed completely. The virus is a symbol of postmodernism—the deconstruction of existing institutions, governmental structure, economic and social configuration. With this unexpected quarantine, people have shrunk back into their rooms and retreated from life’s demands and human activity. It’s just like we’ve all gone back to the womb, waiting for an undetermined period of time to be reborn.”
Wang’s reflection provides a realistic acceptance of the virus’s effect on Chinese society. Her thoughts also provide a challenge for individuals to think innovatively about reconstructing our everyday engagements and creative practices. Dr. Greg Fricchione, director of the Benson-Henry Mind Body Institute at Massachusetts General Hospital, speaks on Harvard’s Living Better, Living Longer Podcast about “How to conquer your anxieties during the COVID-19 outbreak.” Dr. Fricchione says, “Your feelings arise from a misaligned ratio of stress to resiliency. The more resilient you become, the less stress you’ll feel […] With greater challenges, our brain needs more energy to keep physiological systems in the normal range. Right now, we are in allostatic overload, and using too much energy causes vulnerability. Everyone is feeling the threat, and social attachment is a strategy for survival.”
Without hesitation, several institutions and communities have already established resources for artists and art organizations. Creative Capital and Americans for the Arts have a comprehensive list of resources during the outbreak that is continuously updated, along with information on exhibitions, events, and creative challenges. CERF+ is a great example of a fund that’s always dedicated to aiding artists during circumstances that are out of their control. Anonymous Was A Woman has partnered with the New York Foundation for the Arts to provide $250,000 worth of grants for women-identifying artists over 40 years of age. ArtFare is giving 100% of all sales to its artists during the virus. Artists like Liza Lou are creating communal art projects to engage with the general public. In response to the cancelation of Art Dubai, the UAE bought $400,000 worth of emerging and established artists’ work. To keep galleries running, they are turning to online viewing rooms as alternatives to exhibitions. In addition to resources, artists and galleries are advocating for more state funding and rent suspensions.
At home, we can research these resources, develop new connections, and think of different ways to restructure our dialogue with others. Dr. Fricchione says in the “Living Better, Living Longer Harvard” podcast that compassion dampens fear, builds resilience, and makes us less vulnerable to stress. “There are things we can do, even as we shelter in place, that can enhance our resilience […] there are modern solutions in the digital age with Zoom and social media […] Spending a few minutes contemplating friends, loved ones, acquaintances, or people you even have problems with can solve issues with distance.”
Through Wang’s foreshadowing experience, we know that we may soon have more regulations in days to come and uncertainty for how the art world will operate again. “It’s different from city to city. In Shanghai, some complexes and neighborhoods require a certification or health pass to get through. Masks are needed if you go out. Packages and food can only be delivered by the front door. The temperature will be checked sometimes before entering a building. For all the provinces, the schools are shut down. Some companies slowly started to pick up work in early March. Therefore, more people are traveling inside the city or between cities. However, in Wuhan and other places in the province of Hubei, leaving the house is still forbidden.”
When pondering the future for China’s art world, Wang says, “In Shanghai, life has started to get back to normal, even Wuhan is going to unlock on April 8. I don’t know what the art world is planning for its resurgence, or if it is even possible to imagine as of today. There’s still so much uncertainty. Up until now, many galleries, and companies in general, have been implementing working from home policies for one or two weeks with limited hours. We heard a vague expectation that when the summer comes, things may be fine again, but there is no evidence on that.”
Despite everything that’s happening, if you find yourself frozen by the news and isolation, don’t forget about the community that will unfailingly be here to work with you. You can always find solutions for engagement because that’s how we survive. Your life is meaningful, even if you feel like you’re doing nothing in your home. You’re dedicating yourself to staying safe for your community. Self-compassion helps your empathy for others, so don’t beat yourself up for extenuating circumstances and for taking things slowly.
About the photographer: Qiming Wang graduated from Wuhan Conservatory of Music, majoring in musicology, and Beijing Film Academy, major in film. He currently lives in Beijing as an independent film director, commercial TVC advertising director and music producer.