Diana Novaceanu // The exhibit In Time of Plague: Five Centuries of Infectious Disease in the Visual Arts opened in January 1988 at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. It aimed to showcase both the “changing conventions” of illness representation and the ways in which artists dealt with “the gradual emergence of the concept of infectious disease” (Fox, Carp, 172). It was a bold project, intertwining intricate histories of medicine and art, publicly tackling what has been outlined as “the principal metaphor” (Sontag, 44) of the AIDS epidemic. Plague is an ambiguous term that had been used to describe a wide range of conditions and events. It became associated with “the most feared diseases” (Sontag, 45) whose longstanding social implications affected all aspects of artistic production. Like previous other plague agents, the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) had seemingly materialized “from somewhere else” (Sontag, 47) and was circumventing physical and abstract thresholds. Throughout the year 82,764 cases would be reported within the United States* with 46,000 of them proving fatal (CDC).

A selection of one hundred and twenty works showcased typical aspects of illness related to Western canon and its progression over time. They disclosed to the viewers what others before them had made not merely of witnessing plague times but the corresponding medical attitudes and actions. The engraving of a sixteenth century plague hospital by the print-maker Jeremiah Wolff  presented a setting that was less therapeutic and most often “a place to rest and die, not to be cured” (Fox, Carp, 175). Various other artifacts portrayed the birth of the modern medical clinic and expedients such as vaccination. The apparent progression was marred by an overwhelming sense of insufficiency: the imagery of death, of sufferers lying deserted on the streets, as social order and decorum unraveled all around them. Across the centuries, plagues’ strength lay in its numbers: outnumbering (the “sick” surpassing the “healthy” and their defenses), misnumbering (the “hidden” sickness of others) and finally being displaced by the manifestation of symptoms, placed among the “sick”, reduced to one of the number of casualties.

The most familiar piece for a modern audience was the 1986 World Press Photo of the Year by Alon Reininger. His portrait of the terminally ill Ken Meeks being cared for by a friend captured another palpable dimension of a plague: attending to the affected was often left to those willing to brave contagion and stigma. The exhibit ventured to frame artworks not as lamentations of desolation and tragedy but stories of “intimacy and caring” (Fox, Carp, 173). Such actions reflected shifts in attitude and visualization, taking place outside the museum walls. As the exhibit closed its doors that March, Ryan White testified before the President’s Commission. Months afterwards, ACT UP members and supporters managed to briefly shut down the FDA protesting deficient policies in drug availability and testing. World AIDS Day held its inaugural observance.  

Twenty one years later, the exhibit States of Health: Visualizing Illness and Healing held its opening at the Princeton University Art Museum. The ambitious project extended past the usual metaphors and clichés, building up four universal themes: “Confronting Contagion,” “States of Mind,” “Worlds of Care,” and “Birthing Narratives” (Pellichero). It included voices and perspectives that spanned temporally and geographically across multiple cultures, highlighting issues of race and gender as well as artwork produced outside of Western paradigms. Contagion loomed from works such as Domenico Tintoretto’s Venice supplicating the Virgin Mary to intercede with Christ for the Cessation of the Plague (1630-31). It reached sublimation in those of David Wojnarowicz, delicate yet sober reminders of mortality. Finally, it became larger than real in the black and white photograph by Marcus Leatherdale succinctly titled AIDS, 1988 portraying an emaciated man sitting on a chair and gazing outside the frame. Special features were included to mark the thirtieth anniversary of World AIDS Day.

As the exhibit headed to its end in early February 2020, the World Health Organization had reported 14,557 globally confirmed cases of the novel corona-virus (2019-nCov), 2604 cases being reported on that very day (WHO). The outbreak would be declared a pandemic on the eleventh of March 2020 (WHO).  Over the following weeks, in accordance to hastily drawn up national and regional mandates, most cultural institutions closed their venues for an indeterminate amount of time. The bustle of galleries and museums appeared to have come to a halt. In turn, the digital space was filled with the clamor of a continuous stream of art made under confinement, deeply raw and mostly self-curated. Plague once again became le mot du jour, with artwork of past pandemics being featured prominently under its banner.

Deconstructing the problematic meanings attached to contagion and infection has become somewhat of an established tradition in contemporary arts. The 2019 Venice Biennial took  environmental matters “beyond virtue signaling” (Judah) and perhaps ironically, befell to the flooding of the city. The very title May You Live In Interesting Times seems now a foreshadowing of things that were to come:  an age of plagues, adversity and unrest. Yet it is in such surroundings that art becomes perhaps more than ever a “crucial interface” (Levin) facilitating action orientated dialogue. Paolo Baratta, the president of the Biennale underlined the importance not just of reflection or resignation but re-commitment to action “in times when, too often, oversimplification seems to prevail, generated by conformism or fear” (Baratta).

This call for active engagement could not be more timely for the metaphor of the plague which, whilst critically assessed and contextualized, continues to persist in contemporary visual arts on a curatorial and institutional level. Metaphors associated to medical conditions have refined, diversified and in some cases, adjusted to the advancements of medical science and practice. Conventions refer to the way in which a subject is depicted, its formal and metaphorical configurations, ranging from the choice of colors to the positioning of figures and each of their allegorical or iconic connotations. Tuberculosis is viewed and depicted in a different manner than in was in the mid nineteenth century or during the years of World War II. Similarly, the visual depiction of illness episodes we might presume to be TB followed different conventions before the advent of clinical medicine. What than accounts for the persistence of the plague?

It may be argued both that the history of art implies the “history of innovations” (Summers, 105) which is of great importance when converging with the history of medicine; and that “convention implies continuity” (Summers, 109), as such being connected to specific “customs, manners, mores” (Summers, 109). The Medicine in Art exhibit that took place at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Krakow (MOCAK) in 2016  has been aptly described as a “gargantuan international show of everything we don’t want to see, telling us everything we don’t want to know” (Sural).  Plagues put us face to face with more than the embodiment of the personal undesired : they draw from the fear that medicine, with all its progress and innovation, may for once not be enough. All previous plagues have passed, but each budding incarnation holds the promise of achieving its apocalyptic potential.

When is the terminology of plague appropriate for use? In early 2019, Hong Kong’s Tai Kwun Centre for Heritage and Arts hosted a group show entitled Contagious Cities: Faraway Too Close, bringing together two infectious disease episodes that had marked the metropolis. The featured works of ten national and international artists explored the “psychological and emotional dimensions of disease and contagion”(Artomity Magazine) drawing on the 1894 bubonic plague and the 2003 SARS outbreaks. Taiwanese artist Taiwanese artist Chou Yu-Chen’s piece dubbed Wiping, Perception, Touching, Infection, Disinfection, Education, New Habit greeted visitors with sanitary hand towels, branded with the terms of its title; visitors would be encouraged to take one, the pervading disinfectant smell filling the gallery space just as it had engulfed the city during the height of SARS. Oscar Chan Yik Long integrated the ominous figure of the plague doctor into his work. The most ambitious piece had been produced by the artist collective Blast Theory, as a result of the time spent as the first artists in residence of the World Health Organization. It provided visitors with an insight into the process of the initial epidemiological investigation. Whilst “recollection is not a virtue in itself” (Lachenal and Thomas), the exhibit was part of an international Wellcome Trust project, with institutions in Berlin, Geneva and New York showcasing their own take on urban contagion.

How may plague terminology be better integrated and contextualized in the process of curating? It is easy to fall into the “comforts of comparison” (Lachenal and Thomas) and build exhibits centered around the art of past pandemics. At the same time, “metaphors cannot be distanced just by abstaining from them” (Sontag, 94). The current direction of enacting interdisciplinary projects, engaging global perspectives and conducting in depth art based research of infectious outbreaks offers the chance for a much needed reassessment. Such insight is integral to a larger, pressing conversation: “can you decline the word ‘art’ socially and assume it has a grammar?” (O’Doherty, 25)

Header Image: The plague of the Philistines at Ashdod. Oil painting by Pieter van Halen, 1661.

Wellcome Collection, https://wellcomecollection.org/works/nk4dmc9z/items?canvas=1


For a timeline of the HIV/AIDS epidemic from 1981 to present day please visit https://www.hiv.gov/hiv-basics/overview/history/hiv-and-aids-timeline and https://www.avert.org/professionals/history-hiv-aids/overview.

States of Health: Visualizing Illness and Healing held its opening at the Princeton University Art Museum may be viewed at https://artmuseum.princeton.edu/files/soh_check.pdf

Marcus Leatherdale  AIDS, 1988 (1988) https://static.artmuseum.princeton.edu/mirador/?manifest=https://data.artmuseum.princeton.edu/iiif/objects/49421&canvas=https://data.artmuseum.princeton.edu/iiif/objects/49421/canvas/49421-canvas-213624

Nicholas Poussin, The Plague at Ashdod (1630) https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Nicolas_Poussin_-_The_Plague_at_Ashdod_-_WGA18274.jpg

Works Cited:

CDC. (1988). “AIDS and Human Immunodeficiency Virus Infection in the United States: 1988 Update”. CDC.gov 

Green, Monica H. Walker-Meikle, Kathleen. Müller, Wolfgang P.(2014). Diagnosis of a ‘Plague’ Image: A Digital Cautionary Tale. The Medieval Globe.  

Fee, Elizabeth. Fox, Daniel. (1992). AIDS: The Making of a Chronic Disease. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Judah, Hettie. (2019). There’s a Flood of Climate Change-Related Art at the Venice Biennale. Can It Make a Difference—Or Is It Adding to the Problem?. Artnet.

Pellichero, Laurie. (2020). “States of Health: Visualizing Illness and Healing”. Princeton Magazine

Sontag, Susan. (1989). AIDS and Its Metaphors. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux.

Various Artists. (2019). Artomity Magazine. https://artomity.art/2019/05/23/various-artists-3/.

World Health Organization, “Novel Coronavirus(2019-nCoV) Situation Report-13”. WHO.int.

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