In this interview, artist Joshua Neustein writes to us from New York City about a shifting relationship to technology and to others in response to the pandemic, as well as literature and other references that are relevant to the moment and his practice.
This interview was conducted in May 2020 as part of Artis’ series, From the Desk of…. In this series, we check in with artists, curators, and collectors about their recent projects, reflections on social distancing and quarantine, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as how they are practicing, experiencing, and engaging with art.
Tell us about your art practice right now. What are you reading and thinking about, and what kinds of research are you conducting?
I will respond to this question in several parts, including flashbacks to earlier decades.
As I am stuck in New York City, the epicenter of the Covid-19 pandemic, my grip on sanity is paper thin, and my license on life is timid, tentative, and tenuous. I have been reading literature on epidemics. Samuel Peppy’s diaryon his experience with the bubonic plague epidemic in London from 1665 to 1666, and Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, written in 1720, which focused on the challenge of self-quarantine. More recent literature on epidemics includes Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice , Albert Camus’ The Plague , and even the film Jaws .
This time in quarantine has been an opportunity to meditate and do communion with myself. On the one hand, the quarantine is an experience of detoxification, and coming to terms with my body and mind. On the other hand, it is a complete hijacking of the soul by the internet. A problematic distancing of the subject and the object (the mind – body problem) materialized with the virus. I feel like I am a hostage, overwhelmed by technology that compartmentalizes my life. The epidemic made us pawns to a digital reality. As if we, in the analog world, have dissolved. There is the sense that Capitalist Democracy humiliates the public, and is not well suited to confront this virus.
In the personal creative sphere, I find much support in Samuel Beckett’s Endgame to define my current state of mind: a fusion of trifles, survival, and day to day anecdotes; the constantly shifting states of mind; and the emphasis on trivial details. Suddenly, and unlike my usual self, I am enormously infatuated with nature. I am awed by the bushes, flowering trees, grass, and nonlinear walking paths. There seems to be a fragmentation of the human condition. I discovered a group of raccoons that made their home 300 meters from my home, and I find myself identifying with their values. I recorded their movements on a video camera. I expect to make a piece of art, or an aesthetic equation that will amount to a work of art, in response to my experiences.
Has your practice included artistic response to social distancing and quarantine regulations?
No. I wish the press would call it “physical distancing” and not “social distancing”. I am not a gallery artist, and I work in isolation even when I have assistants. I generally do not make work collaboratively. When I work on an installation at an art institution, I will collaborate with the curator. There is actually a productive component to the current experience of isolation. It allows for meditation and introspection.
In 1972/73, I made a performance piece that dealt with a person bound by a very limited space, shelter or territory. Originally performed in my studio, the work was curated by Gideon Ofrat in 1973, and was exhibited as a series of photographs by the Tel Aviv Museum in 2008. In the performance, I took two cardboard boxes and interacted with them. The boxes, held together by rope to retain their shape, are metaphorical structures that I contorted my body to fit into. The piece explores the potential inherent in the spaces that these boxes create, and is a reflection on how we experience architecture and space.
Notions of isolation, whether as punishment, reward, a strategy for ownership, territorial survival, a path to mystic truths, or a religious inclination, are evoked in the work. Also addressed is the idea of possession, and the dialectic of the free human versus the political human. Finally, questions of the juxtaposition of ‘place’ and ‘space’ come to mind.
Is there anything, in particular, that you miss from life before social distancing?
Well, it’s a new reality, like the movie Groundhog Day , when a man relives the same day over and over and tries to act more decently every time. It is based on a Hollywood idea of success and winning. Certainly, we’re experiencing a fragmenting of continuity. I have no long range plans.
I miss my studio. I now work in my apartment. Making art in the era of the plague presents fundamental questions. Mostly I work alone, so it is not an added burden. At this moment, I greatly empathize with art institutions since their activity is so dependent on artists and art professionals coming together.
I do, however, see the shift in focus in my practice. There is definitely a sense of the “end game”. Before the outbreak of this epidemic, and in spite of my old age, I was in denial of the stage of life that I was in. Now, I am profoundly aware that life has no dominion. I make art that is faithfully the “end game”… I may have been unconsciously making “end game” art before the pandemic, but now, I am aware of it more figuratively. Whittling things down to essentials does not necessarily mean reducing things to the most meaningful or important parts.