Forgetting Pandemics and Creating History
As total deaths worldwide exceed 3 million, governments mismanage public health problems and our lives are in stasis, it’s alluring to look at yesteryear with incredulous longing – lengthening time tends to dress up even the darkest parts of the past. Everything looks colourful (except in black and white) and full of promise, temptation, personal agency, and ignorance of the germ warfare we’re presently avoiding – most of us bunkered down and told to keep hidden. It’s easy and tempting to complain; tout this as the worst year in history, ordered to be alone at peril of anyone who comes within a foot of you inadvertently harbouring your death. Yet this has actually happened before and not in as far a distant past as you would think – a la bubonic plague – but in the often overlooked post-war period of near a century ago, with more similarities to today than you might expect.
I’m referring to the devastating 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic, that the world had the misfortune to encounter sandwiched in a time of global instability around the end of the war ‘to end all wars’. The spookily similar pandemic of early last century was largely overshadowed by the brutality of wartime, despite claiming more lives than the war itself did, cradled in that line between the nightmare and waking up. It brings forth the question of this pandemic, is it likely to end and become obscure – lost to time like a bad haircut from a few months ago we never took photos of and pretend didn’t happen at all?
Professor Alfred W. Crosby even published a book on the outbreak, titling it “America’s Forgotten Pandemic” due to the lack of recognition it’s retained in modern history.
(Cambridge University Press; 2nd edition book cover (18 Sept. 2003))
Perhaps it’s vanity or some innate instinct for self-preservation, but we feel like people need to remember us and the struggles we went through: if we did great things in our life we might get a statue or plaque, stars have their names on Hollywood pavements and figures both great and terrible are represented in museums, books and films. If I manage to make it to old age, describing this imposition to young people who perhaps will look upon this time with the same distance and brazenness as some currently do the Spanish flu epidemic; what will my sermon be formed from, so as to shorten the distance between listener and memory?
More pressingly, what can the arts do during an international crisis such as this, are we able to make a difference, or in a century’s time will it all have been for nothing?
There’s a famous quote largely believed to have originated from the philosopher George Santayana; a Spanish born American, that goes “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. With all the information lurking deep in the bowels of the world wide web, and this idea rattling around my head nearly a year into ‘Covid and chill’, I decided to venture in and try learn about the shadow of our present fears. A search for meaning in fragments of the past to better understand the lengthening and mollify this modern uncompromising grounding.
“I had a little bird
its name was Enza
I opened the window,
I waded into the pools of information cautiously – by now we’re all fully aware just how rife disinformation and exaggeration is on the web, and things tend to morph and grow legs over time. It’s been a little over a century since the conclusion of the influenza epidemic, and unfortunately due to a lack of structure and organisation in health care at the time, the estimations on death tolls vary massively. The confirmed lower estimates are that the deadly influenza strain claimed at least 50 million lives across the world over the course of a couple of years, though some estimations put mortalities at nearly double this. For reference of scale: as of the middle of April 2021, Coronavirus has claimed 3 million lives in just under a year – to get the numbers of Spanish flu we’d have to maintain this same rate of mortality for 20 years, and that’s just to get to the lower estimates.
Back in 1918, the Great War was coming to its grim conclusion and morale lowering news was carefully moderated by warring countries; due to this fact the first officially reported cases came from neutral Spain and resulted in it being fondly labelled the ‘Spanish Flu’. This unfortunately led to many believing it was a purely Spanish issue, and poor understanding of disease prevention in thoroughly weakened, trench huddling soldiers helped spread influenza very quickly. In one of the greatest historical examples of ‘when it rains, it pours’ – the first world war finally reached its bloody, bitter end and armed forces returning home brought with them the gift bag of hasty death on silent wings to their anxious families.
“Young adults between 20 and 30 years old were particularly affected and the disease struck and progressed quickly in these cases. Onset was devastatingly quick. Those fine and healthy at breakfast could be dead by tea-time. Within hours of feeling the first symptoms of fatigue, fever and headache, some victims would rapidly develop pneumonia and start turning blue, signalling a shortage of oxygen. They would then struggle for air until they suffocated to death.” (Historic UK)
Some 43 years after the end of the epidemic Bob Dylan recorded ‘Boots of Spanish Leather’ in New York; a ballad of two lovers alternating verses of letters in an exchange stemming from a woman leaving for distant lands and wanting to send back something fine to her partner. Though the protagonist initially refuses and wants for only her loving return, by the end when it appears she will not be coming back, they relent and request boots of Spanish leather. With reflection the song can sound almost like an alternate reality in which some of the salient facts changed but the end result was still the departing of loved ones, marked by an exchange of imported ‘Spanish’ cargo.
One of the ways we come to terms with life and history is through our creativity, our innately human and desperate desire to bring some of the vibrance and flourish of our mind and emotions to the page, canvas, matter, sounds and sights. If presented the choice of hearing the dry statistics and locations in the events of a war or being able to read the diary of someone from the front lines, watch film footage or listen to interviews – the choice is obvious. The shorter the distance between embodying the events ourselves and our comfortable hindsight the better we might come to appreciate the scale and relation to our own lived experience. We connect with stories of lovers parting by vastitudes of water; we feel pity for the poor souls describing their fear of death; we are moved by music that swells and flows with emotion; and the splendour of a meticulously considered painting can compel us to tears.
One of the more poignant pieces I came across in my research was by Edvard Munch, famous for ‘The Scream’, who in fact contracted the deadly influenza strain in 1919 himself. Munch was a notoriously sensational artist, exaggerating aspects of his works to better depict the psychological or emotional charge present in himself, the subject, or the atmosphere at the time of painting. His take on the disease is particularly potent because of the tragic events in his own life, having lost his mother to tuberculosis at age 5, and later his sister when he was 13 to the same disease. As Munch himself began to succumb to a respiratory illness many years later, he surely felt the weight of his childhood trauma pushing behind his paintbrush, as he depicted himself stricken with Spanish Flu in 1919, a shifting wraith being washed away with each brushstroke.
“When the Spanish Flu hit Europe just after World War One, Norwegian artist Edvard Munch became one of its victims. While his body was still grappling with the flu, he painted his trauma – pale, exhausted and lonely, with an open mouth. The gaping mouth echoes his most famous work, The Scream, and perhaps depicts Munch’s difficulty breathing at the time. There is a strong sense of disorientation and disintegration, with the figure and furniture blending together in a delirium of perception. The artist’s sheet looks like a corpse or a fitful sleeper, tossing and turning in the night. Unlike some of Munch’s previous depictions of illness, in which he portrays the sick person’s loved ones waiting with anxiety and fear, the artist here portrays himself as the victim, who has to endure this plague isolated and alone.”(Article from 2020, image “Self-portrait with Spanish Flu” c.1919)
A little over a century ago the world was in total turmoil: war brought death and change, then disease brought yet more death coupled with blind fear – that later when coupled with a multitude of other factors would be stoked into another war – and so many artists still recoiling from the initial punch became proponents of Dada and nihilistic abstractions.
“But the flu did not go unnoticed by artists. Rather, the outbreak magnified the absurdity of the moment, according to art historian Corinna Kirsch. For many, World War I and the flu combined with political upheavals (such as the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the rise of newly-formed communist governments) and social issues (such as gender and income inequality) to create a perception of the universe as chaotic and hopeless. A sense of meaninglessness spread, and people started to lose faith in their governments, existing social structures and accepted moral values. Everyday life felt ridiculous. The art movements that came out of this period explored this hopelessness, tried to fight against it and showed the ways in which everyone was trying to cope.” (Time Magazine)
Absurdity in the face of chaos, a sardonic reflection of the inconceivable hatred of such an unrelentingly inhospitable world. For some the horror and bedlam of such a time could only be met with an equally incomprehensible string of dissonance, of repulsion integrated with endearing joy straining to blot out the overwhelming sense of dread that had permeated every waking minute of recent years.
When we think about the period at the end of the first great war, we tend to think about the ‘roaring 20’s’ and the carefree fun culture of prosperity and liberation, throwing off the worries of war, disease and death in favour of more personal autonomy, social and sexual liberty. Even today, people host celebrations and birthday parties based around the theme of the 1920’s, so associated is the decade with indulgence, extravagance and classy debauchery.
“For the ‘Bright Young Things’ from the aristocracy and wealthier classes, life had never been better. Nightclubs, jazz clubs and cocktail bars flourished in the cities. The hedonistic lifestyle portrayed in books and films such as ‘The Great Gatsby’ was perhaps for some, an escape from reality.” (Historic UK)
While in all retellings of history there is some level of bias from the historian, the prominent feature across all accounts of those heady days before the hangover of the 1930’s was the escapism and reckless abandon. Having seen the panic, indiscriminate death, and general chaos of the previous decade rounded out by immeasurable influenza death; it’s clear that indulgent decadence to help forget those rough memories was the order of the day.
In light of the centenary of the Spanish Flu epidemic the Florence Nightingale Museum in London put together “an immersive exhibition which told the story of the ‘deadliest pandemic in history’ through the experiences of the people who lived through it.” The showcase was exceptionally put together and won ‘Temporary Or Touring Exhibition Of The Year’ from the Museums & Heritage Awards because of its ability to bring the nature of the subject as close to reality as possible. Despite having been largely purged from the collective public conscious and overshadowed by the preceding and proceeding wars, this threat was brought to all corners of the earth and affected many millions of lives far from battlefields. The exhibition toured from September 2018 to January 2020, and even made some stops in Aberdeen City and Shire, whereupon in collaboration with the exhibition organisers; collected personal letters, stories and journals were loaned to the show to bring it closer to home by the city archives.
The experiences featured by some of the displays are uncanny when revisited after the events of the past year, perhaps most disturbing in the context is some of the diaries of school teachers and written tasks undertaken by school pupils, highlighting student absences and what they missed most during wartime life respectively. A small selection of these are still available to view on the Aberdeen City Council website as scanned documents, maintaining the poignant character embedded in the flourish of intimate human handwriting, shortening the distance between the writer and reader.
As if it were some kind of precursor of things to come, the exhibition came to a close a mere two months prior to our own disturbing brush with respiratory illness epidemic. We are still at risk for the foreseeable future while attempts are made to turn the tide, despite a vaccine rollout underway and an apocryphal ‘end’ in sight, so thus continue to be herded indoors for all but the bare essential services and needs. The major difference now for the average person living today however, is that communication is faster and more efficient than ever before; we can celebrate the fact that while we’re isolated – we’re not all entirely alone. Modern artists in reaction to the lockdown culture can produce work, hold exhibitions and conduct live streams of performances from the comfort of their own homes or studios.
Unfortunately, due to the virus restrictions last summer, the Gray’s School of Art calendar event of the year – the degree show, couldn’t be held in a physical capacity. Thankfully it was able to be held still, thanks to hi-tech reproductions of each student’s work presented in a virtual space designed to purpose. Opening night was able to host a surprising number of attendees on the server, displaying simple block characters for avatars that could be moved with a computer mouse and directional movement keys. The show features gentle ambient music playing as you journey through the quad, drifting up from the ‘club’ down in the sinkhole (left of shot below) where there was a live DJ performance by local artists on the night of degree show opening.
While it is sadly no substitute for the allure of a sparkling prosecco and evening dress opening night we have become accustomed to, we are still able to attend the event in some capacity, and enjoy the understandably hard-fought exhibition for the great show it is.
Social art projects held by local cultural organisations like Second Home Studio + Café ably make use of the distanced-but-connected nature of this outbreak by inviting artists to reflect on something they enjoy in the form of a digitally written, sent and displayed ‘love letter’ that’s shared on their social media and running blog.
The simple initiative of asking artists to produce personal responses to the pandemic and life today – focussing on a positive or ‘loved’ aspect – the project inspires tender defiance to the grinding melancholy exclusion that has permeated the lives of creatives in the North East. The point of the project isn’t so much the celebration of valentines, as it is promoting artists, positivity, the non-profit itself and its passionate ideals of bringing art to the wider community of the city. A recent letter uploaded for this project came from one of the Gray’s degree show exhibitors of 2020, which was based on the criticisms of utilising a degree show through virtual platforms among other things, since it looks possible this is the reality for the graduating year of 2021.
“i do want to address that there are benefits to having a virtual show, which is undoubtably the format of this year. VDSs are accessible to a far bigger audience, they allow you to push the boundaries and create a space which might not be achievable within the traditional, physical framework (e.g. Charlotte Snow’s took up an entire warehouse space, while Marie-Chantal Hamrock’s was located in the sea).” (Second Home Aberdeen)
Through the brilliance of technology today, artists are producing and bringing their work to accessible platforms that can fully utilise and market their ideas to ever growing demographics in an attempt to bridge the gap brought about by lockdown. The art made today about our lives and lived experiences can be epitomised through the communication and display methods we have available, fashioned into the best possible exemplification of what it is trying to be, where physical display might have fallen short. Not to mention that if held on continually maintained websites, they may exist to be viewed forever, forged into the URL’s and metadata of the internet – if it remains functioning.
A huge part of the role our culture sector fulfils is the collecting and maintaining of our time for posterity: our words, films, art, personal recounting, news stories and photos, keeping track of the way we respond to our daily lives and hardships. This is important because perhaps in a century when hopefully this arduous impasse has been overcome and it’s little more than a distant memory – an exhibition might be made to show the way that we dealt with the problems we faced.
The Elphinstone Institute of the University of Aberdeen, in response to the growing isolation and desperation borne of the Covid-19 pandemic, decided to elicit the public for personal creative responses to the lockdown. Since its founding in 1995, the institute has been primarily interested in researching and promoting the culture of the North East, through our ‘Ethnology, Folklore, and Ethnomusicology’. The project, titled ‘Lockdown Lore’, aimed to collect a vibrant and efficacious personal recounting of how those living in the city and shire of Aberdeen have been surviving under this new duress through a collection of the public creations.
“Simply put, we would like you to send us photos, songs, tunes, poems, talk to us about your lives under lockdown, and tell us about participatory digital initiatives you have created or know about. We’ll try to share as much as you have sent us as possible, making sure that this project is useful to the wider community. Your submission will also make a permanent contribution to our archives, ensuring this material is available to future generations.” (The Elphinstone Institute)
The Lockdown Lore project will in time serve as historical marker of fact, documentation of the changing ethnocultural habits in context and more personal vindication of the hardships we face now, as our ancestors did over a century ago. The outcome will be available for those to come for many centuries yet: an intriguing collection of photos, stories, poetry, interviews and public initiatives that will bring colour and humanity to a period which might largely be defined by figures and statistics otherwise.
The last deadly disease outbreak of this scale may have largely been consigned to a footnote at the end of a war, but through the art made by creatives, personal reports of those that lived in the time and the culture sector’s dutiful efforts to bring the history together for modern people, we are able to rediscover and give new life to the many millions who have been overlooked for falling victim to an unpopular aspect of history.
Hopefully the lives – and sadly the deaths – brought about by today’s Covid pandemic will inform future generations, our records and culture make our lives and the time we lived through more prescient and imbued with meaning to distant future observers.
Considering the last year, I’m sure we can all appreciate the importance of ruminating on the Spanish flu and some of the remnants of the time, just as we’d hope that one day upcoming generations will find meaning and beauty in the way we’ve been creating and responding to our own pandemic.
Keep safe out there, keep connected and keep creating history for the future to look back on.