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April 5, 1815: On the lush Indonesian island of Sumbawa, poisonous plumes of ash and molten lava began spewing from the cone of a once-dormant Mount Tambora. Five days later, the tip of Tambora exploded and collapsed; its peak folded into a concave crater, reducing its height by nearly a mile.1 This staggering detonation is regarded as the largest volcanic eruption in recorded human history—its violence even surpasses that of fellow Indonesian volcano, Krakatoa, the 1883 explosion that emitted the loudest bellow ever measured by humans.2
While the immediate death toll from the Tambora eruption was grievous (an estimated 10,000 people perished), the chain reaction of environmental devastation that it unleashed proved even more ferocious, claiming the lives of some 100,000 people. Miniscule particles of volcanic ash infiltrated the stratosphere, blanketing the Earth’s atmosphere with sulphurous matter that obstructed sunlight in both hemispheres for years. The year following the eruption, 1816, is referred to as “the year without a summer,” a time when snowfall and darkness oppressed the otherwise routinely balmy skies.3 What began as a local calamity mush- roomed into an encyclopedia of global catastrophe: temperatures plummeted, tempestuous storms raged, economies collapsed, crops floundered, famine ensued, and the world’s first cholera pandemic took root.
Today, almost exactly 205 years after Tambora, I am confined to my home in balmy Los Angeles under a statewide shelter-in-place order—a desperate decree aimed at mitigating the local repercussions of our current global catastrophe (this one in the form of an insidious virus). As of this writing, similar lockdowns affect approximately 95% of Americans;4 tomorrow, these measures will surely swell. From here, I see the Tambora eruption and its aftermath as an ominous, unnerving, and fascinating parable–one that presages how our own surreal narrative might soon unfurl. The Tambora incident reveals that a catastrophe can stir up profound cultural effects that stretch far beyond the initial point of crisis. As the coronavirus pandemic continues to accelerate with unimaginable velocity, the social and cultural ramifications, which may presently elude us, are certain to be vast. In the meantime, we remain fearful and disoriented, terrified of others and of contagion, and unaware of what shape reality will take when we finally emerge from this nightmare. This pathos finds echoes in pandemics of the past, from the plague to the Spanish Flu and the HIV/AIDS crisis—all of which similarly fractured and reoriented artistic thought.
The Tambora eruption elicits breathless awe in part because of the ways in which it can be viewed as an origin point for what, on the surface, would appear to be completely unre- lated cultural phenomena. In July of 1816, Mary Shelley, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron, and several others were confined together in a villa near Lake Geneva, their leisure time stifled by the ceaseless, malevolent storms that characterized “the year without a summer.”5 As the group reveled in the exchange of sanguine ghost stories, two canonical narratives emerged: Mary Shelley penned Frankenstein and John Polidori (who was also present) wrote The Vampyre,6 a gothic thriller credited with anointing the modern vampire tale. In London, meanwhile, artist J.M.W. Turner’s wispy sunset paintings7 immortalized the extraordinary colors caused by the infinitesimal veil of volcanic dust that filtered the sun, creating a luminescent halo that lingered for years.8
With contagion, the instant of catastrophe occurs in multiplicity, fissuring our relationship to intimacy and rechoreographing our bodies’ relationship to communal space (here, the communal, creative intimacy shared by Shelley and Byron becomes an utterly impossible romance). Disease differs from other natural disasters in that it invasively assaults the body, making physical proximity to other humans the locus of crisis. Today, this manifests as social distancing, a form of which can be traced back to the plague epidemics that blighted Medieval Europe.
The contemporary notion of social separation as a tactic to deter disease transmission originated in 14th century Venice, where ships were forced to isolate in port for 40 days as a means to temper the bubonic plague, which spread through populations like wildfire. (As such, the etymology of quarantine stems from the Italian word quaranta, meaning forty).9 The disease decimated somewhere between 30 and 60% of Europe’s population, with additional outbreaks occurring over several centuries (infections still persist to this day).10 Solidified as an abject horror, the plague’s ghastly, seemingly biblical pestilence made close physical contact perilously radioactive.
Still, amidst these histories of forced seclusion, creativity found peculiar ways of manifesting. The phenomenological history of the plague’s isolating reality can be traced to the existence of plague stones, sculptural oddities that, despite appearing modernist in form, reflect Restoration- era attempts to mitigate physical commingling as a vehicle for contagion. Erected by several English municipalities in the 17th century, these idiosyncratic, humble stone monuments were intended to function as sanitized sites of commercial exchange during periods of rampant infection.11 Often called vinegar stones, they were topped with small hollows that cradled pools of vinegar or citrus juice, thought at the time to be potent disinfectants. Hoping to purge their exchangeable goods of festering bacteria, townspeople would place coins and other objects directly into the bath, thereby outsourcing direct human touch to these strange surrogate totems.
In 2013, Belgian artist Sophie Nys began photographing England’s remaining plague stones. Her images, compiled in an artist’s book titled Vinegar Stones (2015),12 casually document these uncanny relics in their contemporary surroundings: some stand proudly erect in provincial town squares with commemorative plaques, while others have been exiled to mossy, overgrown corners of idyllic countryside. While initially functioning as sculptural buttresses against the perils of bodily contact, these stones now function as haptic indices of these very perils—lone bodies memorializing both the infected and the recovered. Their physical remnants solemnize the invisible virality of disease. As crumbling cenotaphs to a long-passed public health terror, these plague stones also offer a macabre reminder that the coronavirus pandemic will too become a calamity of the past, leaving a litany of material (and digital) ruin in its wake.
Like Tambora, the plague reshaped artistic output in Western Europe—the pervasive threat of death bled into the continent’s cultural psychology. The fact that the disease so viciously and viscerally threatened all social strata regardless of wealth, morality, and piety fed a burgeoning predilection with death as a persistent artistic and literary trope—and not necessarily in terms of religious salvation. The danse macabre (dance of death), for example, a dual visual and linguistic allegory that ruminates on the wretched terror of humanity’s shared mortality, traces its roots to the plague pandemics of the 14th century (with additional credit given to the myriad traumas of the Hundred Years War).13 Materializing as painting, poetry, or didactic morality play, danse macabre consists of an inauspicious yet gleeful skeleton marching or dancing its mortal victims (whether papal or plebeian) from their quotidian toils to their earthen graves. The horror of the dance ultimately resides in the imminent anxiety of waiting, consummated by the act of being summoned to meet your fate by a loathsome figure whose form you will soon take. Hans Holbein the Younger’s Danse Macabre, a series of 41 woodcuts created between 1524 and 1525, is regarded as one of the most renowned works in the genre, which remained popular through the 19th century.14
The plague proved culturally generative in other ways as well. For example, it catalyzed some of Shakespeare’s greatest works (he drafted King Lear while in quarantine,15 a fact that has circulated widely on social media in recent weeks, much to the dismay of artists struggling to be productive). It also facilitated in the development of Isaac Newton’s laws of motion and gravity (he conceptualized both theories while isolating himself from the Great Plague of London in 1665).16 Historical anecdotes aside, there is danger in romanticizing the creative benefits of quarantine during a fatal pandemic (from inane Instagram memes to anemic articles dispensing productivity tips, this sentiment has circulated widely in recent weeks as well). While the cultural canon has certainly been enlivened by the inadvertent consequences of disaster, these catastrophes warrant, first and foremost, profound collective mourning.
Pandemics account for an utterly staggering loss of life, and such casual- ties also exert cultural tolls. The swift acceleration of the novel coronavirus has elicited comparisons to the influenza pandemic of 1918, also referred to as the Spanish flu, which eventually infected a third of the world’s population.17 A more invisible threat than the bubonic plague, the flu primarily suppresses breath and overwhelms the body with rushes of feverish delirium. These hallucinatory qualities infiltrated the works of the artists who suffered it. Edvard Munch’s 1919 painting, Self-Portrait with the Spanish Flu, depicts the artist, who long nursed a fascination with death and despair, in the midst of sickness: he stares laconically towards the viewer while sitting upright in a chair, swaddled with blankets that were perhaps dragged from the crumpled bed in the background. His mouth rests agape and his eyes appear hollow in his skeletal face. While the painting is surprisingly vivid and chromatic, the colors betray a palette of malaise—deep jaundiced yellows, bile-like greens, and febrile reds gesturally collide to impart the tone of a fever dream. Munch survived, emerging from convalescence to paint Self-Portrait after the Spanish Flu (1919), a looser and ironically less vibrant composition—a testament to the traumatic cellular assault that, even after the fact, the artist was likely still recovering from.
Viennese painter Egon Schiele, on the other hand, perished in the 1918 pandemic, as did his mentor, Gustav Klimt. Several months before his own death, Schiele—who already interpreted the human body as a twisted, agitated, sickly mass—sketched an image of Klimt on his deathbed, rendering only his disembodied head.18 In Gustav Klimt on his Death Bed (1918), Klimt’s recessed facial contours, stricken countenance, and bulging yet sunken eyes emblematize the brutal machinations of illness, as if Schiele had captured him postmortem. Both artists’ untimely demises (Klimt was 55, Schiele only 28) carved a wound in the trajectory of Viennese modernism, as they each left extensive inventories of unfinished and unrealized works behind. These were just two of 50 million deaths, each one an acute and bitter loss.
During the height of the more recent HIV/AIDS crisis (a pandemic ongoing since 1981), mass loss ravaged entire communities, with particular devastation befalling the art world. These communal losses were so great that psychologists began noting the prevalence of a condition referred to as “multiple loss syndrome,” a merciless combination of bereavement, anxiety, PTSD, and exhaustion triggered by the death of multiple loved ones.19 Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ “Untitled” (1991) is one of the more poignant memorials to the stinging intimacy of this crisis. Originally installed as a billboard in various locations throughout Hamburg, Germany, and shortly thereafter in New York City, the work is a photograph of an unmade bed, with the tousled imprints of two bodies clearly visible on the empty, rumpled sheets. An oblique reference to his partner Ross, who died of AIDS that same year, the image eulogizes both the pleasure of love and the brutality of grief, an emotion that also infects the body. As a rite of private mourning made public, the work’s vulnerability was exacerbated by the fact that much of the American public exhibited cruel and inhuman disdain for both gay people and AIDS victims, from Reagan’s refusal to publicly acknowledge the disease to the Supreme Court’s abominable 1986 ruling that declared (as activist/historian Simon Watney bluntly summarized) that “American gay men have no constitutional right to privacy from direct police interference in their own homes.”20 Here, bodies bore a twofold assault—they were pillaged internally by disease and otherized externally by conservative bigotry and governmental malfeasance. In this sense, the photograph of the bed functions as a communal memorial for the multi- layered traumas of the crisis: it becomes a surrogate for both individual and collective loss, as well as a political monument to the war on intimate touch.
of our government’s bureaucracy, the debased tone of our political rhetoric, and our blatant devaluing of life in favor of capital gains. Like pandemics of the past, the threat of an invisible disease has also paralyzed our most human gestures, confining us to our homes (for those privileged enough to have them), and seeding suspicion of our neighbors as potential sites of sickness. Now, as public space and private space fold into one another, Gonzalez-Torres’ publicly displayed bed functions as another metaphor for the ways in which this catastrophe has seeped into the crevices of our intimate lives, suddenly vulnerable to loss.
In this moment, Gonzalez-Torres’ billboard also functions as a different kind of political signifier: it becomes an icon of intimacy, privacy, and security, its public display suggestive of the ways in which ownership of or access to a bed—a symbol but also a commodity—has become a wildly misplaced indicator of social value, an almost farcical metric of humanity. Recently, I thought of this billboard after seeing an image circulating that depicted authorities in Las Vegas corralling people to sleep in six-by-six foot “social distance” grids demarcated on the street, while the city’s sprawling matrix of empty hotels, home to 150,000 empty beds, loomed in the background.21 Here, the billboard can be reinterpreted as an ode to, or a gesture of outrage for, our marginalized and un-homed neighbors, whose bodies will bear the brunt of this crisis. Like Sophie Nys’ images of plague stones, Gonzalez-Torres’ bed memorializes past tragedy while also viscerally reminding us of what trauma may come.
While, as in the past, artists and writers will surely mold our cultural responses to this blossoming catastrophe, many were already astutely and poetically navigating the waters of societal crisis long before the corona- virus became a black swan calamity. Now, as the formal institutions around us buckle and shutter, their once imposing facades betray fallibility. These fractures were already present. To be clear, catastrophe was too: we have been enduring (and willfully ignoring) a seemingly endless procession of environmental, epidemiological, and sociopolitical crises for decades, even generations. (The word crisis itself is a regular guest in discussions theorizing postmodernity). Here, however, as the pandemic’s brute force of disruption implicates our lives, bodies, and quotidian habits, this new, heightened meter of urgency demands a more cogent collective response (such as pushing to dismantle the faulty social structures amplifying the virus’ reach). For creatives, perhaps this means a more emphatic embrace of the community we’ve now been forcefully sequestered from. In the meantime, while disease, like volcanic ash, blankets and infests our structural supports, artists and writers remain present and the work continues. Catastrophe is crushing, yet it can often feed future regenerative acts: Tambora’s pyroclastic flows were fatally toxic, but the soil it seeded was wildly fertile.
Jessica Simmons is an artist and writer based in Los Angeles. Her work and writing navigate the haptic, oblique space that exists between the language of abstraction and the abstraction of language.
This essay was originally published in Carla issue 20.