A Measure of Meaning
This is not the first time a virus has disrupted my life. In 1987, at the age of thirty-three, I learned I had HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Back then, this was basically a death sentence. From one minute to the other, the life I had envisioned in front of me shrank from a distant horizon to one I could practically touch.
The future had become a hard deadline.
In the beginning, it wasn’t easy to shake my long-term expectations; I felt like I was floating on an open sea with no land in sight. I played little tricks on myself; I decided that I had at least two more years to live, and with every test result showing that my defenses remained strong, the lease on life was renewed for another two years.
The aim of this exercise was not to determine my life expectancy; it was to put myself at ease. Gradually, I got used to thinking short-term: the end of the day, the end of the week, the end of the month at most, but not much further than that. I got used to thinking in the present.
But over the years, the pull of a busy schedule crept back in. In the past decade, my work meant I was rarely home for longer than ten days in a row. The excitement of getting to know different cultures through the artists we work with, the constant changes in scenery, and even the jet lag became addictive.
I had wanted to write more, but that fell by the wayside. I tried to soothe my guilt about not writing by saying that I would do it later at a quieter moment—not that I truly had such time planned in my future.
And then suddenly, after all these years of non-stop movement, my schedule was clear. That unplanned moment had finally arrived.
When the strict lockdown here in Barcelona began in mid-March, I was firmly determined to make the best of it. With no traveling and a practically empty agenda, I would at last find the time to read, declutter closets, and file the thousands of photos on my phone. And best of all, I would start writing again. Confinement would be an opportunity to live in the present once more. So, why was I checking my watch every three minutes?
I haven’t finished any of the books I started in these last twelve weeks. After the first thirty pages, I would turn to another book. I wouldn’t finish that one either. No closet has been decluttered, and the photos on my phone are still where they were before the pandemic.
I started to write, though, despite remaining deeply uncertain about what I’d written, even about what I’m writing at this very moment.
According to the artist Francis Alÿs, when a situation stops making any sense, it sometimes takes the absurdity of the artistic act to re-introduce a measure of meaning. When I write about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, I feel I’m able to give some meaning to what has unsettled our lives in such a profound way. What’s more, when I write, I feel that I give meaning to my existence itself.
That thought heartens me, but at the same time, it’s daunting. If what I write is no good, does my life have meaning?
After so long away from my writing, the fear of having lost the knack is still there each morning when I sit at my desk.
The artists we work with often describe the same sensation. They are delighted with the opportunity to produce a new video and show it at renowned art institutions. At the same time, a pressure weighs upon them.
The fact that they made promising work in the past may be an assurance for us, those who selected them, but for the artists, it can be a burden—they have to compete against themselves.
The moment our artists finish producing their videos, their thoughts immediately turn to what to do next. And once again, with the urgency to create comes the fear that this time, they might not be able to do it.
I tell myself to sit at my desk anyway. The need to give a measure of meaning to life never eases off. It’s the motor that keeps us going even though it sputters again and again. So much of my work has been about forging connections—connecting of people through art, lending and donating the works from my collection to different museums, supporting of emerging artists, sharing my financial resources, organizing lunches and get-togethers with friends and collaborators. My writing is a part of that, too.
As we emerge from lockdown—for now at least—I’m reminded how much my life is the exact opposite of social distancing; it is a constant quest for closeness.
I will stick it out in these socially distant times as long as it takes. I will try to connect in whatever ways possible—through writing, through celebrating art. And after all this, I will be back to embrace the world. With a face mask, scrubs, and gloves if need be.