As a former dancer, Elaine de Kooning was always moving. And she aimed to capture the way her portrait subjects moved, too. Focusing less on the face, and more on the way a person sat or stood, or the particular way they carried themselves and the various parts of their bodies, her brush work was equally kinetic. “The pose is the person,” she is known to have said, and her finished paintings embodied this.
In this time of physical isolation, I can’t stop thinking about the body. Of its beautiful resilience, and its fragility, too. Of touch, and the notion of distance, and how separation impacts our ability to connect as we’re so hard-wired as humans to do. “How close is too close?” Something I’ve been asking myself dozens of times a day since the virus was declared a global pandemic, especially once I became infected. 6 feet. 4 feet. 3 feet. 2? In this novel somatic reality, our basic movements, are no longer utility alone; they are warnings. The gestures generally reserved for expression or emphasis—of ideas, sentiments, attitudes—morphed seemingly overnight into non-verbal caveats of impending peril. There are new and silent limitations to our rules of proximity; and the arms pressed tightly to the side, the knowing nod, the averted gaze, are all indications.
Until protesters of police brutality and systemic racism recently began flooding the streets, one of the other hallmarks of our locked-down state of existence has been the very absence of the body. Even with phased re-openings and so-called ‘careful’ reentry into regular life, the rush of people in movement across the globe, in and out of our cities and civic spaces, is still mostly gone. This emptiness has become a signifier of our deeply ingrained inclination to congregate outside of our own homes; not only out of the necessity to protect human rights, but to also satisfy our most basic instincts as social creatures. The Zoom-call grid, and Instagram Live, have otherwise become our momentary replacements these past months—a makeshift break room, or bar, or birthday party—though hardly substitutes for the kinds of IRL interactions we’re so used to.
Still, new gestural patterns emerge in these digital realms. During a Zoom “pub quiz,” I turned the laptop camera away from my face (so as not to give away the answers I was mouthing to my teammate), inadvertently leaving only my right hand in-frame, where it proceeded to go about its own series of movements in accordance with my invisible chatter. A disembodied limb floating in and out of the screen, my fingers, palm, wrist, elbow transformed into a silent chorus of collective isolation. Alone, together. As with Yvonne Rainer’s Hand Movie, which she filmed from a hospital bed while recovering from surgery, the lone hand becomes a unique mode of expression, even medium itself, as complex as the various anatomical parts that comprise it, while simplistic in its almost sculptural emotion.
During an outing through my own shuttered city early on in the pandemic, I passed a curbside sign for a company that offers home care to seniors. “Helping Hands,” it stated. “Quality care with a loving touch.” And then I passed another sign, “Hands On Medicine.” The name of the business gently floating between two cupped palms. I laughed out loud, I admit. It was early on, as I said, and assisted living facilities had not yet become the hotbeds of contagion we all now know them to be. And I spent the better part of that desolate walk thinking about the millions of people in the business of bodies, whose very livelihood hinges on contact. Not only the healthcare workers and first responders who’ve been risking their lives on the front lines since this whole mess began. But also healers, energy workers, yoga practitioners, chiropractors, none of whom have been able to do the work they’re trained for. I ached for them, too. And mourned their scores of empty clinic rooms, their silent manipulation tables, all yearning for a body to touch, another human to connect with, once it’s safe again to do.
I’ve always loved how Kundera’s Immortality begins with the body, and one mundane, yet dazzling, gesture. A sixty-year-old woman at a pool, and her seemingly unique wave. But as the story unfolds, it begins to reveal itself as an imposter: nothing more than the gesture of her father’s secretary, who coyly waved in a similar fashion during her childhood. So deeply internalized, she borrows the wave as if it were her own. As with all gestures, though, hers is not singular. “A gesture cannot be regarded as the expression of an individual… nor can it even be regarded as that person’s instrument,” Kundera suggests. “…on the contrary, it is gestures that use us as their instruments, as their bearers and incarnations.”
Her once charming wave, now charmless. A ubiquitous gesture that took hold of one woman and another before that, and god only knows how many others, using them as nothing more than a means of proliferation, like the crown-bearing virus that takes hold of its hosts so that it may keep reproducing. The minuscule invader is “very good at its job,” I heard on a podcast I subscribe to. That job being: to seize a cell, pierce it until it yields, then enter it without permission to make copies of itself, ad infinitum. We are merely its unwilling factories. Even gesturing—a persistent cough or sneeze, in hopes of relief—to satisfy its means.
With this in mind, I can’t help but predictably return to the photographs I’ve seen of people during the 1918 flu pandemic. In one, two young women walk arm in arm down the sidewalk of a city, maybe Paris. Their faces covered with scarves, their bodies caught mid-motion. One’s eyes dart to the side, the other’s glare blankly at the camera. In another, two women sit next to each other on a park bench in Australia. Their pursed hands rest on their respective laps, their mouths covered with lengths of fabric reaching down to each of their waists. One looks amused, or panicked. The other, grave. In yet another, a group of seven—four women, three men—stand uncomfortably, side by side. Their hands buried in the pockets of their ankle-length topcoats, their faces protected with patches of gauze. Only one in the group dare touch anyone else; his arms stretched wide to encompass two of the women. One of them dramatically tilts her head in the opposite direction. The other bears a sign that simply states, “Wear a mask or go to jail.”
And here we are, more than one hundred years later. Masked or unmasked, with frightened eyes and racing hearts and raised fists, jogging through neighborhoods, picking up takeout, filling up gas tanks, going on bike rides, sitting on patios, marching for justice, running from the police. The very ‘choice’ to don a mask as we do so, as polarized as our nation itself. Those of us who do have been slapped with labels like big-government loving “sheep” (one I’ll proudly wear). And in keeping with his personal brand of partisan defiance, the president continues to blatantly eschew the public-health measure in an act of aggression one could only describe as the most privileged form of idiocy.
The first time we went grocery shopping during the outbreak, I saw two women with the same uncertain posture, movements, gaze, the same makeshift masks, as the women once terrorized by the deadly strain of H1N1 that incited the most severe pandemic in recent history. They stood there like two frightened rabbits, motionless, in the frozen-foods aisle. I passed them quickly, with as wide a span as I could make, and noted how timeless the entire scene was (minus the French fries and Hot Pockets). Since that maiden voyage, my partner only leaves the house for provisions once every two weeks, sometimes twice. I no longer accompany him, as the store we shop at allows just one family member per household. And the entire frantic process, which includes not only the shopping itself, but also the methodical washing and disinfecting of every single item we bring back to the house, takes no less than two to three hours from start to finish.
If I had children, which I do not, they might internalize the furtive movements that have taken hold of me in the time of corona, only to eventually watch their own bodies reproduce them decades later. As it so happens, I only glimpse my mother or father in myself when moving and emoting—sidelong, past a mirror; when stepping out of the bathtub; in throwing back my head to laugh. Deep into our quarantine, with overgrown bangs parted in the middle and held back with two barrettes, I briefly spied my dead sister in my own emotive face, reflected back at me in the mirror above our fireplace. The unpracticed gestures of generations past, reincarnated in a new body. If inherited body language is, in fact, an essential component of what makes us us, then what happens to our very essence, if not duplicated generation after generation by way of progeny? Where do our physical expressions end up, if anywhere? Perhaps my wave or my way of walking or the fear expressed in the corners of my mouth will be picked up at random, by someone else’s child, one I won’t ever recall having met.
How close is too close. Did de Kooning ever ask? Did Kundera? I often wonder if Dr. Fauci did, each time the president teetered nearer and nearer his body on that tightly packed press conference stage, when they were still the kind of charade that included at least some reputable physicians and scientists. The doctor’s exasperated response, a viral face palm that has since gone on to fuel an alt-right conspiracy theory and disinformation campaign, social media memes, and hashtags. #FauciFacepalm and the oft-employed corresponding emoji 🤦 may very well end up being amongst our go-to signs of the times when this virus is finally containable.
Like photographs of unnamed strangers in both common and exceptional circumstances, I also collect gestures. And by that, I mean: when visiting a museum or gallery, I take photographs of various parts of the body in paintings and statuary, then crop them in such a way that abstracts them from the greater composition, whatever it may be. An odd pastime, maybe. Though I’m both provoked, and comforted, by the knowledge these small representations of the body have survived the ages, and the pandemics that preceded our newest. At the very least, collecting them has become another way for me to focus attention on the daily realities and burdens of those that have come and gone before us. Like comedies, histories, and tragedies all rolled into one, their bits and pieces of bodily flourish contain multitudes. “There is a certain part of all of us that lives outside of time,” Kundera also said. In this age of once-again rampant disease and unrest, gestures remind me—for better, and for worse—we’ve already been there, done that. Their corpus lingua, a kind of narrative of our collective joy, and suffering.
 “For Artist Elaine De Kooning, Painting Was A Verb, Not A Noun.” Morning Edition, NPR. May 13, 2015.
 “History of 1918 Flu Pandemic,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. March 21, 2018.