The Stir-Crazy City

Let yourself be inspired by Bruce Nauman, Chantal Akerman, and Cindy Sherman this quarantine.

by Annie Armstrong
Mar 22 2020, 9:30am

Screenshot via Cindy Sherman's Instagram.

Social media is a very unique beast these days. Now that no one has anywhere to be, my feed has become crystallized into something far less annoying than it normally is (people can’t post their brunches, because there is no brunch to post) into something truly uncanny. There’s a palpable global anxiety in the air these days, and as most of the world is locked in their homes, a sort of insanity has set in. Oftentimes, it’s beautiful.

In my own personal quarantine, I’ve been picking back through Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City which, if you haven’t read it, is kind of like a guide to the art that helped her mitigate and even appreciate feelings of loneliness when she first moved to New York. While I’ve been looking it back over, I’ve kept a little list in my head of all the art I’ve seen that reflects some of the more batty behavior I’ve seen online as people try to learn how to self-isolate. So, in the spirit of Laing, I thought I’d write out a kind of guide to “The Stir-Crazy City.” And let’s don’t forget that if getting cabin fever is the worst problem on our plates today, we should consider ourselves extremely lucky.

Certainly, in those first few days under the self-isolation guidelines, I thought of Chantal Akerman’s Je Tu Il Elle from 1974, a film starring Akerman herself, who, for the majority of the film, locks herself in her bedroom and eats only spoonfuls of powdered sugar. The sugar is like a fuel beneath a stir-crazy fire: she writes nonsensical letters, re-arranges her furniture over and over again, and generally just kind of acts...strange. This sort of cabin fever happened to me early on, when I felt like I had to always be doing something, and I was eating my groceries bought for a week in under two days.

More specifically though, I thought of Akerman’s film when I saw that weirdo video of the actress January Jones making her “human stew” bath. The instruction felt almost kind of dada to me, like something I’d read in Yoko Ono’s Grapefruit. Never during my time here on Earth have I seen someone put baking soda in a bathtub. Watching her pour the thin white powder into the water immediately evoked the powdered sugar in Je Tu Il Elle. Neither of these substances are being used for their intended purpose, and it is, in very different ways, mesmerizing to see.

Also, as we delve deeper into solitude, I’ve noticed a lot more, er, creative selfies smizing at me from my phone. If there were ever a time to get into makeup tutorials, I suppose it’s now. I could go on and on about what I think contemporary culture has gained from the self-portraits of Cindy Sherman. But I’ve never felt her divine inspiration so poignantly as I have recently.

Back in 2011, Sherman told The Guardian of how she got her start, “I would just go in my bedroom when I was depressed and I’d turn into characters—and [my boyfriend at the time] said, ‘You should be documenting this. It’s really interesting what you’re doing.’ It hadn’t occurred to me that I was doing anything unusual.”

Seemingly, that’s what several artists on my feed have been up to since going into self-isolation. I’ve seen high-drama makeup get created just for #thegram, elaborate costumes worn proudly under captions like “how y’all doing under self isolation?? Im thriving hoe”, and bedrooms get transformed into full-on photo studios for letting freak flags fly high. Without a world outside to work with, many are simply using the self as a canvas to create new characters and versions of ourselves to play with.

Another way that artists have been using their own body as a means of expression is through the #CoronaVirusArtistResidency Challenge. I saw this first on Avery Singer’s Instagram page. I was surprised that the challenge pretty much follows suit with all other viral challenges—it basically just gets you to floss in front of the camera, and the “artist residency” modifier just means that it’s artists doing it in their studios alone.

Already, there’s over 100 artists and counting who have recorded themselves. It brought me back to roughly this time last year, when the Bruce Nauman exhibit spanned both MoMA and MoMA PS1. Ah, remember the days when you could bop from museum to museum? Even ones in different boroughs? Well, anyways. Much of that exhibit saw video work by Nauman alone in his own studio.

Aside from the more disturbing and arresting imagery, like 1987’s Clown Torture, there were more subtle motions in some of his videos, like watching Nauman barefoot, walking around in a perfect square in his studio, like 1968’s Walking in an Exaggerated Manner Around the Perimeter of a Square. He looks silly in it, his hips swaying in, well, an exaggerated manner. The piece highlights an important ethos to Nauman’s work, as he wrote it himself in his masters of fine arts thesis, “If I was an artist and I was in the studio, then whatever I was doing in the studio must be art. At this point art became more of an activity and less of a product.”

None of this art or any of these artists have any solutions to the feelings of restless insanity that we’re collectively experiencing, but that’s likely for the best. I’d think that if any of them were here to provide advice, it would sound something like, “Grab a camera, let yourself feel feral, and see what happens.” Who knows, you could become the next great bedroom artist.

olivia laing
chantal akerman
avery singer
Cindy Sherman
the internet