From quarantine, with love

Author: Ella Kanegarian Göktas

After my second week in quarantine, when I started receiving more and more calls filled with existential crises, I realized that my own crisis was not far off.  

I decided that it was time to find some inspiration by speaking with artists. How have they managed to stay motivated and true to their craft in the face of so many challenges?

This project is a dialogue with artists from Yerevan and elsewhere about how the pandemic has changed their lives and how they are continuing to create even when stuck at home. 

Tigran Tsitoghdzyan’s success story is inspiring for many Armenian artists. His name is often my universal method of ending many conversations about the unlikelihood of Armenian artists competing in the international market.

Tigran’s story underscores that everyone is responsible for making his or her wishes come true despite challenges and hardships. At the end of the day, you are the one who spoils your life or makes it better.

When I called him, it was night in New York and Tigran was at his studio. He had been isolated for 23 days and had just been out for his first bicycle ride in a long time.

“Today I stepped in to a very different New York. I was walking through Soho this morning and looking at all those closed stores...once all of these were important. I even found myself thinking today that all the background noise has lost its value. Now everything which is not really important is just a waste--what party you attended, what dresses you wear, what special clubs you go to. All these luxuries have become useless,” he tells me. 

“People are going back to the basics, valuing human communication more. Having a good friend is now more important than, for example, a Chanel bag. Why do you need a Chanel bag now?”

Tigran’s voice is filled with light humorous notes, a balance between childish naivety and intellectual sarcasm, which makes everything he says sound like an elegant way of poking fun at modern society, with all its messes and feelings of alienation and loss--themes he often addresses in his work.

He was just 14 when he had his first art exhibit in New York. Tigran could have stayed there and made a career, but his parents decided he was too young and took him back to Armenia.

It was 1991 and Armenia was experiencing what was likely the toughest period in its modern history. The country was suffering from war and poverty. We refer to those times as “The Nineties” without any added adjective, because there is no need to add anything to a period from which the country has not recovered fully.

Tigran notes that isolation doesn't scare or bother him, not only because of his childhood during the Nineties, but also because he usually isolates himself for longer periods before his exhibitions.

Tigran continues doing what he usually does, without huge changes in his daily routine. He paints for 19 hours a day. He stays calm. He doesn’t even think about how to adapt to a new situation or fit in the new reality, which is changing in front of our eyes.

“I learned not to think about myself as the center of everything here in New York. It has this power of putting one's ego in the right place. You can't continue being self-centered here, because there are so many people around, so many things happening and in this uninterrupted flow you can`t simply be in the center of attention all the time. It kind of makes you a hard worker or just breaks you.” 

“I don't get stressed about things that I have no power to change. I concentrate on my path, my actions and myself. I can control and change those things. So, in general, I don`t worry about my future, my career. History moves in spirals, it has filters. If I lose my importance or my position, it's just a matter of natural selection, which I accept and can`t change.”

Arevik d` Or, an Armenian illustrator based in Belgium, had been under lockdown for five weeks when I contacted her, and she had just learned the government was prolonging the restrictions for another eight weeks.

“Eight is a small number, I can handle eight,” she tells me.

While she always worked from home, the restrictions and general sense of unease have affected her life.

“I spent the first few days of the lockdown reading articles and statistics about the virus. Afterward I started to spend more time cooking, in order to avoid my thoughts and not feel so guilty for my growing laziness and lack of any desire to work.”  

“Soon I found myself cooking more extraordinary dishes and desserts than usual, probably in order to somehow blur the context of an ‘emergency situation’ and to destress it, at least for myself and my boyfriend. Eating has become the pleasure of pleasures now.”

Arev also sends several photos of the dishes she had made. I want to respond to her in the same way, but have just raw veggies on my table, in my fridge. Everywhere. I continue eating raw veggies and fruits out of laziness and not fear. Just as I did before.  

Later I ask her how she keeps herself motivated, in spite of the added eight weeks and she replies:  “I was so happy hearing the news of the Venice dolphins on our fifth day of lockdown, but, later, that turned out to be a hoax. This made us a bit upset. My plan B is being happy for the huge positive climate changes in China and Italy.”

Sounds pretty fair. We`re in this situation because we forgot how everything is interconnected.  Why don't we take our motivation straight from that narrative? Why don't we try being happy that our current existential and financial discomforts may be useful somewhere?

“It's phenomenal how in just a few days the world has become so small, limited to the road between the house and the supermarket,” writes Arev.

I always thought that restrictions could lead to great ideas. I don't feel like that yet, but maybe a limitation of space results in a depth of ideas. I don`t know. I should give it a try. But maybe later. After trying other quarantine life hacks taken from other artists. Arev notes her quarantine will be over in eight weeks. Mine will also take time, so I will have more things to try and to do.

“I don`t know when these 8 weeks will end, but I am waiting. I even want to throw a party,” writes Arev. She notes that isolation made all of us treat the concept of time a bit differently. Once there were hours, days, and minutes, but now time is measured in other ways, which have nothing to do with a calendar.

“To be honest, my rhythm didn’t change even a bit,” wrote Sed Velikodny, a contemporary Armenian painter, who is currently working on a new project under the pseudonym Rush.

He lives in his studio, located in a 19th-century building in Yerevan.

“Since my very first step here, I felt like this place is mine.” he wrote, adding he recently realized that his grandfather, well-respected academic painter Sedrak Rashmajyan, often visited this very studio. To me, that coincidence seemed like a fairytale, too unlikely to believe.  But Sed, who believes in old school painting techniques and the power of coincidences,  says “Whenever you let life surprise you, it really does, sometimes in the most unexpected and film-like ways. You just have to take it with thankfulness and always know exactly what you want.” 

Maybe what he says is hard to believe, but what if he is right and whenever you gaze deeper into coincidences, you see chances and opportunities? Maybe all we need to get what we need is to be more attentive and give ourselves a chance to be surprised?

Sed says he is always open to new experiences, even if the new experience on the way is quarantine and a lockdown, which postponed the first exhibit of his new project for an unknown period. “At first I thought it would steal my motivation but then I found myself doing everything just as before. This made me happy because now I am more aware of how much I love painting for the process itself and never focus on the results, because results are part of the process as well.”

Sed is spending the quarantine in his studio, trying to work with what he has, without thinking what he would do if things were different.

On the very first day of the official quarantine his cat gave birth to six kittens, who now share the studio with him. The cat's name is Bosha, a reference to Armenian nomadic people. The black cat was named after them because she never stayed at the same place and was wandering through all the neighborhood until she finally decided to reside at Sed`s studio and share her quarantine with him.

Bosha`s kittens are black and grey. One of them, the loudest, is named Carnitina Malevich. Sed is known in Yerevan to have a rhetorical argument with Kazimir Malevich and has a series of drawings mocking the iconic “Black Square”. This is all Sed, he loves history, but also likes playing with it, probably it's his way of connecting to it. Sed now works with cliches, trying to give his audience a chance to take a deeper look at the things we think we already know. Famous people, traditions, the countries we live in. We think we know them, but we just know what they are wrapped in and almost never give ourselves a chance to sink deeper. One of those things, which we think we know, is time.  

“What I really stopped doing is rushing, but isn’t it funny. We could treat time just as we do now, not rush, focus, work. But when everyone is in a hurry, you also hurry because you feel like you are losing something,  opportunities or a greater future,  whereas the only thing you lose is your time. And you waste your time rushing” writes Sed, who currently works under the pseudonym Rush, which also adds a twist to whatever he mentioned. 

Gayane Yerkanyan, an Amsterdam-based designer and poster artist, is probably the most right person to contact whenever you lack motivation and have no energy to push forward or resist. Gayane seems to have a never-ending supply of energy, fueled by her inner desire to use the time gifted to her, use every single chance to authentically exist, and live with joy.

“I am used to working with a bunch of restrictions and boundaries. I just made myself believe this is one of them and I have to work with it,” she writes.

She believes, however, that resistance in the wrong context can be very draining. After a month of lockdown, she writes. “My first reaction was to adapt to a new lifestyle rather than to resist, I kind of felt that resisting would be a waste of energy, and I could spend that energy somewhere else.”  

Hearing this from Gayane, who always maintains her principles, seemed strange, but eventually I understood that she was speaking from a deeper understanding of the context. Sometimes admitting your defeat is better than fighting things that are stronger than you. Futile resistance can drain your energy-- but if you use the same energy to transform yourself, you can find a balance with the new terms and continue what you do as if nothing happened.

“For me, it’s interesting to see how much difficulty people are having being with themselves. Where does that come from? Is it because we kept ourselves so busy doing things, and seeing people, and did not have time to be alone with ourselves? Were we doing the things we were doing to fill the void?”

Her comment reminded me of an earlier conversation, back in 2016, when we discussed how our desire to be free and autonomous was paired with the fear of being alone and detached from the community. Eventually, these conversations shaped themselves into a small exhibition, “Errors.” It represented autonomous elements as errors, because after liberation, those elements don't fit anywhere, even though they have the ability to attach themselves basically to anything. 

Both of us had also experienced this in our own lives: Gayane, by adapting to her life in Europe, trying to find her place in the new city, new community, new job, and me, by adapting to a new life alone, without a life partner.

Since then, the ideas of void, pauses and silence became interesting for both of us. We were also amazed at how we, representatives of modern society, are afraid of those pauses, silence, and anything that may lead to self-confrontation. All of those fears can be clearly seen now, during the lockdown,  how we keep on filling our time, watching beautiful TV shows non-stop, reading, tik-toking, searching for jobs, workshops, e-socializing, all the while not taking time to really reboot.  

“Sure we won’t be the same, economically, socially, mentally. We will go back to ‘normal’ at some point, but the image created during the current times will stay in our collective mind. We will make decisions and build our lives differently around new norms.”

When Gayane said that to me during a recent phone call, she paused-- either for me to digest what she said or for her to understand how to continue it. During that pause, I focused on the phrase “new norms” and realized that while the idea brings a blurred sense of fear, it also represents possibilities. It all depends on our actions and current decisions. I understand, but sometimes I just feel the desire to have some guarantees about the future.

And the future must surprise us.

“Everybody wants to understand what's next. What is going to happen? I understand that this is our chance to rethink our lives, daily habits, co-dependencies, and connections with each other, our friends and families. Maybe that is also what we need to learn from this, to live in the moment, and learn to appreciate and be happy with what we have. ” 

Part 2

“It seems like we were watching a Futuristic movie set in a very distant country and certainly couldn't imagine that we would take part in its scenes too,” writes Kezban Arca Batibeki, one of my favorite artists from Turkey.

“The whole world, first hand, saw that such events could happen to anyone. Now we are experiencing the disasters that we used to watch in the news from afar, from our comfortable homes…  This is a period in which all personal ambitions are forgotten, even wars.”

Kezban’s art usually touches on female empowerment, sexism, and misogyny, and makes us understand that all the gender issues are rooted deeper than we think. They are in our fears and the feelings of self-deprecation and judgment, which exist in all of us, making our lives harder. 

In her world, “female” is portrayed as a powerful and dominant force, a leading force. The females she creates have no need to compete with others because real power is the lack of desire to compete with the outer world. It is interesting to view her work now, when the outer world is on pause, waiting on the background to reappear again. 

Kezban has already been under lockdown for seven weeks in Istanbul’s Salacak neighborhood, on the Asian shore of the Bosphorus.

Kezban sends me photos of the fantastic view from her room, where she is currently locked down, like many of us and like many of her heroes, who “willingly closeted themselves in unseen cages.”

She says self-isolation and its consequences have not troubled her very much over the past several weeks.  “It is actually a suitable environment for artists; they can return to themselves and dwell on the new works,” she writes, adding that even her delayed exhibition doesn’t bother her from experimenting and continuing to work.

What really concerns her, however, is the impact on Istanbul and Turkey as a whole.

Like each of us, she worries not only about herself, but also about the future of the entire system, how will it react.

Probably this is a chance for us as individuals--and even for our countries--to start rethinking our priorities. Now more than ever we have chances to see things differently, to understand the flaws in the system and the gaps in our values. Now we are able to feel how everything is interwoven and may collapse.

“I believe this stagnation will feed us positively, because practically, we had all been in a race before.”  

Ece Pinar Demirel, a Turkish designer I met by chance in February 2020, is not a friend of loquacity, but I really had a desire to know how she spends her 30th day in quarantine,  how she feels, what she thinks.

“I think a lot these days and it seems to me that the world can survive without humanity, but humanity won't survive with this behavior and this lack of respect toward both its own self and the environment that has been gifted to us.” 

Ece is inspired by the environment, nature and architecture. After reading this message I remembered her earring collection inspired by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava`s bridges.

It feels ironic now, that from her numerous works I remembered the bridges first, because it recalls the architect’s quote that behind every bridge lies the idea of overcoming or surmounting obstacles.

This quote somehow synchronizes with our current situation--and how we choose to overcome these obstacles. We now are like bridges, me and Ece, communicating with each other from one quarantine to another. But in this case, our bridges are not the devices connecting one home or one balcony to the other, they are our patience and inner desire to maintain the connections that we value; our urge to maintain our chosen lifestyle in spite of this difficult situation. 

Ece`s unstoppable desire to create, without even thinking about who will use her products, is pushed by the belief that this artwork is needed, it will find its place. My desire for writing, even though I am never sure who will need reading this--just for the knowledge that you do it because you love what you do. This is probably the only way to survive this journey from point “A” to point “B” with less trouble and anger.

Ece now weaves bridges from macramé. I noticed many women are now sewing, weaving and knitting. Embroidery is back again. This is also an old fashioned and beautiful way of filling hours of anticipation with action, meditative and beautiful. Ece also notes how therapeutic it is.

“Catching this rhythm is really therapeutic and therapy is what we really need right now, at this moment. Knitting, sewing, and making things by hand is actually our family tradition. Even my grandfather knitted perfectly. I made my first macrame knots when I was just a child.  I think I will knit until there is no yarn left in the studio. ”

Filled with patience, Ece waits, works, thinks and tries to analyze the situation: “I was thinking, maybe the end of capitalism is coming, because we need a fairer system to replace it. Doesn't it seem so?”

“I feel like these days Mother Earth gives us, humanity, an important lesson and shakes us off, our systems, our capitalistic mindset. I wonder--will we choose to adapt to it and make the right choice or not?”  

Canan Erbil, an emerging artist, photographer whose work revolves around reality, illusion and memory, answers my questions with a question: “Why we kept delaying things for an uncertain future?” 

As an artist, she gives huge importance to the routine and mundane in life, even those moments that most of us don't find interesting or attractive--or even find repulsive and boring. She doesn`t tend to fill the gaps or small moments of boredom or run from them.

“I realized that I have been living most of my life as in quarantine. But that was by choice. Now it is just a matter of adaptation,” she says.

Being self-isolated for already two months, she, just like many of us, has faced moments of mute emptiness, toxic boredom and demotivation. But she notes that she loves “the energy coming out of loneliness, misery and boredom.” She stresses that if we do not avoid it, it forces  us to clarify things and find ways to rebuild and change.

“I am able to see things clearer. My perception of my priorities changed. I started to judge myself much more fairly than before; I stopped blaming myself for the negatives in my life. Instead, I focused on solutions rather than problems,” she writes. Though she recently lost her job, she hasn’t allowed herself to feel depressed.

Canan continues working, finding inspiration from her home, her routine and her beautiful neighborhood. 

But inspired or not, jobless or not, Canan thinks that in this situation, we all are pretty much equal.

“The situation and the weight of the burden is the same for all the people at the moment. Nothing makes you special now. It feels good actually, because you realize that you are the only person who can take care of yourself.”

Though things look more positive now, and many countries have eased the quarantine regime, many of us keep thinking about what we should learn from these events and how we should act after it all ends. Canan is no exception, though she is not sure that there is one single message to remember from the experience we`ve had:

“Not a message, but messages…We have lots of them… We just need to go and pick them one by one. It reminded us of what we have forgotten, to listen to our inner voice, to the birds, to the trees out there. We were waiting for our phones to ring, for notifications to come and give us reasons to go out, to be together. We forgot that every single breath we take is very precious. And we lived as if there was no end.”  

“We must always keep in mind that we came to this world because we wanted it so bad!”

This sentence—one of her favorites—reminds us that we all have a reason to exist, no matter how we choose to live. 

If we stick to the idea that we chose to be born, maybe we will start enjoying what we have now, without expecting anything more--because if we have no appreciation of what we currently have, we might be left with nothing at all.




Chai-khana Survay