Art going viral
It has been overshadowed in history by the other thing that happened in 1918, and with reason. It might have killed already sinking morale among survivors as a wearisome war ended.
Newspapers were censured from writing about it so as not to damage the national spirit, but it was a global disaster that killed 50m, more than the whole four years of the Great War. It was coyly known as “Spanish flu” to give the impression that it really only happened in the far south west corner of Europe, and even calling it “influenza” made is sound less British, more alien. It was passed off as just another by-product of the nightmare war, “the grippe”, but in Britain alone 228,000 died of it.
And it’s the arts that are calling through the clamour of the last year of the First World War’s centenary about the devastating pandemic that caused more fatalities than the Black Death in the 14th century.
And they’re doing it in 21stcentury style. A new dance has been commissioned by 14-18 NOW from Shobana Jeyasingh, Contagion, her first major piece in three years. Contagion is supported by Wellcome who has also commissioned Jordan Baseman to make a digital work, Radio Influenza, that will be delivered to the public via a dedicated website, Twitter, Facebook and podcasts. And the Florence Nightingale Museum, deep in St Thomas’s Hospital on the Lambeth Thames embankment, is to have a new nine-month long exhibition devoted to the biggest medical disaster of the 20thcentury.
No-one knows why the epidemic was so deadly. It wasn’t particularly aggressive, but the fact that there was general malnourishment because of the war was probably significant, and that soldiers had been crowded together in unhygienic places for long periods and passed it on through coughs and sneezes. There is even a theory that aspirin poisoning contributed to the death rate. It killed the film star Harold Lockwood, the artist Egon Schiele and the circus dwarf performer Admiral Dot, while Lloyd George, the Kaiser and Mary Pickford survived it.
But these artistic responses are not mere casual exploitations of an historical event. Art is seldom successful when it is made like that, and each of these three approaches have involved deep research combined with human responses.
Shobana Jeyaingh says it's not a subject that can be dealt with just with moving bodies. These movements wouldn’t mean much to the audience without context, so there will be video to go with the performances, creating a narrative. But the performances themselves are based on studies of the physical manifestations, the shivering, the coughing and sneezing, the stiffened muscles, the extremes of temperature. She has even gone into the science of the different but fairly ordinary strains of flu that came together, making new dance phrases representing the mutation. The public is even being asked to contribute responses to a YouTube demonstration and make dances she might incorporate.
Baseman’s Radio Influenza will use original material from 1918-19 that relayed rumour, information and disinformation as the story unfolded, despite the lack of genuine information being allowed out. “There will be simultaneous viewpoints, it will sometimes feel contradictory, stories will lie, information and misinformation will overlap” he says.
The Florence Nightingale Museum will let us see what happened through the work of nurses. With doctors at a loss to know what to do, the only effective response seemed to be good nursing, and many lives were saved by it.
Still little is known about the flu that infected a third of the world, but after these interventions we will know a lot more about not only what it was but how it felt to live through it, and how it would feel now. Art can do that like nothing else.
Contagionopens at the Gymnasium Gallery, Berwick-on-Tweed, on September 15 and travels to Winchester,, Ipswich, Sunderland, Manchester and the British Library in London https://www.shobanajeyasingh.co.uk/works/contagion/
Radio Influenzawill be delivered as 365 daily audio soundtracks over a year from November 1 https://wellcome.ac.uk/press-release/artist-jordan-baseman-undertake-major-digital-commission-marking-centenary-1918
Spanish Fluopens at the Florence Nightingale Museum, Lambeth, on September 21 http://www.florence-nightingale.co.uk/?v=79cba1185463