In 2018 as part of the 1418 NOW programme, Shobana Jeyasingh premiered their project ‘Contagion’ at the Gynamisum Gallery in Berwick-upon-Tweed and then toured across the UK. It explored the impact of the 1918 Spanish Flu Pandemic, which killed more people than World War One. The performance explores the speed in which a virus can spread and its destructive nature to the body. Performers move in a volatile way, creating shapes that reflect a mutating virus. There is a focus on the flu’s impact on breathing and body convulsions. The narration over the piece deals with the grief of a person who has seen the effects of the flu all around him in multiple family members as well as other recorded memories. Jeyasingh’s choreography brings a physical presence to a flu that is often referred to in invisible terms. Projects such as this truly show the benefit of creating art to engage with history, as their relevance will continue to haunt us as time passes. Events like these bring us closer to this history whilst allowing us to reflect on our own experiences. Contagion is one of the projects that is rightfully pushing the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic into historic memory, something I’m sure many people were truly unaware of before 2020.
As a 1418 NOW project, ‘Contagion’ helps to commemorate those who died and were affected by the flu, something which is overshadowed by World War One commemorations. These events were intimately connected; the reason it is called the ‘Spanish Flu’ is because they were the one of the only countries reporting on it, due to media censorship from countries fighting in the First World War. The journeys home taken by soldiers as well as mass celebratory events led to a further spread of the flu. Letters sent to historian Richard Collier documenting their memory of the Spanish pandemic are held in IWM’s archives, which led to the publishing of his 1974 book ‘The Plague of the Spanish Lady’, one of the first published histories of the pandemic.
One further project that Shoshana Jeyasingh company created was ‘Spanish Flu Now’. It explores how the Spanish Flu would have been personally communicated about in 2018 via Instagram. It is both comical and scary to watch how similar the post reactions are to content created this year in response to COVID-19. The biggest theme that unites the choreographed dance and Instagram project is that people are unaware of the consequences of the virus until it hits them personally. The similarities go further, from influencer posts promoting virus -fighting products to delivery drivers being essential in delivering food and the sparseness of people on the street. Moreover, Instagram photos capture the emotional journey of anger at mass groups gathering, redundancy and grief for others and their previous ‘normal’ life. Looking at these posts felt like holding up a mirror to society.
There has been a discussion online of what will COVID-19 influenced art and media look like in response to the current pandemic. It raises the question of whether artistic projects that document COVID019 are too emotionally sensitive to deal with while it is happening, or whether we wait ten, fifty or one hundred years to engage with it again. But wouldn’t that be repeating the same mistakes that have been made in negating the seriousness of a virus pandemic?
Check out the projects here: