“A lot of people started to work with their hands“: Esther Schipper on Covid and Art

What was your experience with Covid?

I was actually in Wuhan in November of 2019 to visit a collector and came back with pneumonia. And already in December some people were talking to me about a strange virus in Wuhan. I started to read a lot about it because I had been so extremely sick. When people started to talk about it in Europe in February, it was a bit like: “Oh, this will never happen to us.” I was not really so sure because of what some Chinese friends told me about the situation. This wasn’t at all reported here in the same way as it was there. Already at the end of January, an artist living in Beijing sent pictures of people in full protection, like from a science-fiction movie.

The art world is maybe the most globalized network of all.

Already in the light of climate change we started to talk amongst colleagues about all the art fairs we were doing, sending around the world big crates, flying all over the place like crazy. And how that was giving us the worst carbon footprint ever. It was really two-faced: One would be politically very concerned about climate change and working with artists on these topics – but at the same time jump every week into another intercontinental flight. Covid finally taught us that it was about time to develop other ways of doing business.

Later you had Covid yourself, didn’t you?

It felt like nothing else I ever had before. The minute the symptoms started I knew I had it.

How did it feel?

I had extremely high fever, which in my age, you don't have often, from normal to more than 40 degrees within a couple of hours. It’s strange. You have the impression that you are inhabited by something which is doing things to you.

It's more like you're possessed by a ghost or some other being?

It’s something here and there and then suddenly the fever goes really high and then you get super tired and you don't smell anything, you don't taste anything, and then you suddenly taste things differently than they are, but you smell things that nobody else smells around you. That's also an interesting thing. I still have it sometimes. And a lot of other people I know who had Corona had that too. 

A lot of people around me started to work with their hands, started to draw or to build things.

Can art tell us something in this moment, Covid or the fragility of life?

There is something very fascinating in this idea that you are possessed by a virus. A lot of artists worked on AIDS related themes back in the 1980s and 1990s. Politically this had a lot to do with how our healthcare system functions and how we are caring about each other in a society. This time it seems that people think more about the quarantine, the solitude, being at home, not traveling. A lot of people around me started to work with their hands, started to draw or to build things.

It is interesting that you bring up AIDS. There was a lot of anger in the art about a society letting people die. How is it different this time?

Well, there is this whole Anti-Covid-Movement, which doesn't want to apply any safety measures and is putting in danger the whole project of overcoming the virus. In the last month, it has not been a very political and more a social and human topic. But as the virus becomes more and more politicized, I can imagine that also artists are getting into a more political debate.

Do you see this political focus with climate change as well? You represent artists who work specifically on that subject, like Tomas Saraceno.

In a certain way, Covid and climate change are related. These events have the power of confronting us with reality. Tomas Saraceno is really proposing new ways of living and traveling. An artist like David Claerbout just made a beautiful film called “Wildfire”, a forest on fire. It is fascinatingly beautiful and painful at the same time. It doesn't say anything. It's just trees burning. Something which happened over centuries. But now it has a completely different message.

Do you think things will get back to the way they were before the pandemic?

I do think that quite a few things will get back to the way they were because people are so bored – not being able to travel, not being able to meet with people. On the other hand, people also realized that through the extreme traveling you tend to forget your own community. Now I have been home since March and start to think: “Oh, Berlin in the end is quite nice. There are good people living here.”

One last question. Can you complete this sentence: For me, this is personal because –

it makes me think a lot about who I am and what I am doing.

Esther Schipper is a gallerist in Berlin

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