The Zeitgeist we are living in extends beyond social and geographical space. We are all impacted in some way or another by Covid 19 and its variants, many hit harder than others. For artists of all genres it is inevitable that the pandemic is woven into their work.
I had been re-reading the short stories of Franz Kafka. His writings typically feature isolated protagonists facing bizarre or surreal predicaments. His main characters exemplify the human condition, the liminal albeit magnified scary space between mind and reality.
The Metamorphosis recounts the story of Gregor Samsa; a salesman who wakes up one morning to find he has been transformed into a giant insect. In isolation and sick in his bedroom, he is truly alone, adjusting to his strange body and predicament, only able to eavesdrop on the conversations of his family.
In the process of creating the short video: ‘the Last days of Gregor Samsa,’ I read a lot about Kafka’s own life and his sickness with laryngeal tuberculosis. The complicated relationship with his father and his affectionate love for his sister. His dislike of noise and desire to be in solitude in order to write. All these aspects wove their way into the creative process. Gregor was isolated in his room, trapped in the body of an insect. Feelings of claustrophobia and isolation were synonymous with what was going on for most people around the world.
Whilst face to face meetings were not possible, I was able to connect with fellow UK based artist Paul Hazelton and musician, Thanos Fotiadis, living in the Netherlands. These were people I had only just gotten to know online; Paul through the Awakened Artist’s group, and Thanos through facebook, (via a shared interest in David Lynch). I liked their art, so I asked them if they would work with me on a short experimental film.
Working with video editing software was a new skill I learned during the pandemic. It was exciting to work with a new medium other than painting; video also allows for abstraction and nuance, but it is more fluid and open to all mediums. Both artists were enthusiastic to collaborate.
Paul Hazelton makes tiny sculptures out of dust. His mother kept the house spotless when he was a child and dusted incessantly. He now lives in a flat above a grotto in Margate and collects dust as a medium from which to create his artworks. I have not met Paul in person, but something about his art, my art ideas and Kafka’s Metamorphosis drew me to ask him if he wanted to work with me on this project. He was keen and eager and supplied me with visuals of death and decay, mostly made from dust. Unfortunately Paul fell ill with what was most likely Covid 19.
Was it selfish of me to see this as an opportunity to encourage him to explore The Metamorphosis further, and embrace the character of Gregor Samsa who turns into an insect? Please write to me and tell me how you feel and think, I asked. He became very poorly but he sent me a couple of drawings and text. The most captivating image was his ceiling. Stained from a leaking roof, a single lonely light bulb, a messy room that felt unfresh and ready for a giant insect.
The Last days of Gregor Samsa:
Following the creation of this 4 minute film, I was drawn to other Kafka stories, in particular the last unfinished story he wrote before his death, The Burrow. The more I read this story, the more it seemed to be a painful reflection of life during the ongoing pandemic; an echo of fear of the outside world.
Most people were experiencing some sense of feeling isolated and alone. Life wasn’t quite the same and it was going to be like this for some time yet. In The Burrow story, the main character fluctuates between complacency, anxiety, and then terror at some unknown monster lurking in the walls of his burrow waiting to capture him and take over his home. The monstrous presence makes itself known and felt through sound, the low hum of anxiety that becomes louder as the story progresses. For this film too Paul and Thanos contributed their creativity.
The Burrow story appealed to me because in some ways I could relate to it, like the protagonist in Kafka’s story, I had the security of living in a tall vertical burrow with all the home comforts. Despite that, there were moments of feeling trapped, claustrophobic. A realisation that one is isolated, fundamentally alone in this world. The only haven is our home. Out there was a different kind of monster, the virus.
Through isolation and quarantine we have all moved deeper into the burrows of our mind, the inner space of our thoughts and imagination. It is like a double edged sword, a great space for solitude and yet a scary space for isolation. The key is balance, and creativity can help with that. Creativity is a tribute to life-force and potential, the spark in the darkness that leads to something positive and bright, even more so when you can collaborate and work with other artists. The greatest spark here was Kafka himself.