Art and Outbreak: Science Gallery Bengaluru’s new virtual exhibition is an attempt to make sense of the uncertainty of a pandemic

Mounted online, the exhibition brings together works from around the world to make sense of the pandemic and how it influences the planet.

Art and Outbreak: Science Gallery Bengaluru’s new virtual exhibition is an attempt to make sense of the uncertainty of a pandemic
Mounted online, the exhibition brings together works from around the world to make sense of the pandemic and how it influences the planet.

Ranjit Kandalgaonkar was researching public health trusts operating in the 19th century when it led him to outbreaks and epidemics like leprosy, cholera, influenza and plague. The Mumbai-based artist and researcher says he slowly “gravitated” towards the plague outbreak of 1896 in then Bombay to understand how public health trusts deal with health crises. “The plague outbreak of 1896 reshaped the 20th-century map of the city of Bombay,” says Kandalgoankar, whose artwork, Drawing the Bombay Plague, is part of the Science Gallery Bengaluru’s new exhibition called CONTAGION, which began on April 30 and will run till June 30. Mounted online, the exhibition brings together works from around the world to make sense of the pandemic and how it influences the planet.

“It is an artistic expression of historical research into how we have responded to a pandemic in the past,” says Jahnavi Phalkey, the founder-director of Science Gallery Bengaluru, about Drawing the Bombay Plague. “The artist has identified the various components of social and governmental response to a pandemic. Government is one part… there are also people, doctors, municipal authorities, local government,” adds Phalkey, who has co-curated the exhibition with Danielle Olsen, the international cultural producer at London-based health research charity Wellcome Trust.

A new lens

The Bombay plague was an epidemic that British colonial authorities wanted to stop spreading to Europe. So they clamped down on the local population, imposing curfews, screening people leaving the city, with intrusive inspection teams entering homes, spraying disinfectants and whitewashing buildings with lime. “The colonial response is staged as theatre. It is done to shock its citizens into acquiescence,” says Kandalgaonkar, who uses drawing to give these under-represented facts, figures and people a voice. “So in some sense, one can surmise that we can look at present ways in which (some) governments across the world behave during a public health crisis, we can be sure that is, in fact, reminiscent of some cherry-picked older version of colonial state response,” explains the artist, who considers his work as a documentation rather than a comment. “I look at the drawing, or the image created itself, as a record in process; a form of encapsulating another reality of the plague episode. Hence, I imagine the drawing as a record that can be accessed to view the plague through a new lens, and hopefully viewed in years to come (by subsequent researchers if they want unconventional data) as a validation of some of the lesser-known aspects of the plague years,” he says.

Selected from an open call a year ago, the exhibition’s works—including a few commissioned projects—provide a much-needed space to make sense of a paralysed world through the interface of science and art. “We hope CONTAGION—with its wonderful range of voices and perspectives—provides an opportunity for all to make meaningful sense of these uncertain times,” says exhibition co-curator Olsen.

For the exhibition, Science Gallery Bengaluru has collaborated with leading international academic and research bodies like German national public health institution Robert Koch Institute, the central government’s Department of Biotechnology-Wellcome Trust India Alliance and Indian National Science Academy. There are 16 exhibits besides 20 public lectures and tutorials, 16 workshops and masterclasses, and five film screenings.

Stylised approach

One of the highlights of the exhibition is British artist group Blast Theory’s A Cluster of 17 Cases, a virtual interactive work based on the outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2003. With the help of epidemiologists, Blast Theory went back to February 21, 2003, so to speak, to the Metropole Hotel in Hong Kong to trace the origin of SARS. “In A Cluster of 17 Cases, we are exploring how we all respond to uncertainty and the unknown,” says Matt Adams, a group member. “On one night, a doctor spread the disease to 16 other people. There is no evidence that any of those who got sick ever met each other. None of the staff at the hotel caught the disease,” he adds.

“One reason we became fascinated by this story is that, in many ways, it is very banal. It takes place in an ordinary hotel, which would be familiar to almost everyone. Hotel corridors are a strange mix of private and public: as you walk to your room, you will often see no one. It’s sometimes hard to tell if the hotel is fully booked or totally empty. And yet, it was here that a super-spreading event took place. It’s the exact moment at which SARS jumped from the Chinese mainland to Hong Kong and then onwards to Singapore, Vietnam, Canada and the rest of the world,” says Adams. In 2018, Blast Theory members were artists in residence at the World Health Organization (WHO) headquarters in Geneva over a three-month period, embedded to WHO’s Strategic Health Operations Centre that monitors incoming reports of infectious diseases. They were there as part of Wellcome Trust’s Contagious Cities programme to understand the skills and practices of those fighting infectious diseases.

“Our work uses a stylised approach to put you in that (hotel) corridor and gives you the chance to go into some of the rooms. You follow some of the stories of those who were infected and get a sense of the randomness of infectious disease,” says Adams. “Because SARS is a coronavirus like Covid-19, it shows the alternate path that an outbreak can take. SARS was quickly brought under control and less than 800 people died worldwide. Covid-19 followed a similar path, but was impossible to contain.”

Among other works are Contagion in the Twenty-First Century, a multimedia work of text, images and simulation by the Museum of Robert Koch Institute, Berlin; the photography-based work Controlling the British Plague in India by medical anthropologist Christos Lynteris of the University of St Andrews, Scotland; When the World Has a Laugh by Paris-based visual artist Anaïs Tondeur; and the video work Malware Museum by Finnish computer security expert Mikko Hypponen. Controlling the British Plague in India is about the plague that broke out in Yunnan, China, in 1855 and swept across the globe until 1955, causing the death of approximately 12 million people.

Infectious laugh

Created for the Science Gallery Bengaluru exhibition, When the World Has a Laugh is a 2021 video work by Anaïs Tondeur. “The birth or rebirth of the world out of a laugh appeared to me as a promising image for the dark times we live in,” says Tondeur.

In Japan, divine spirits known as kamis, thought to inhabit the earth, rocks, rivers, trees or springs, are usually presented as laughing spirits, according to the artist. “The Kojiki, an early Japanese chronicle of myths, even evokes the ways a laugh took the earth out of the shadows,” says Tondeur. “I was also influenced by clay statuettes, found in the region of Veracruz in Mexico, where the Totonac population raised the temples of El Tajin and sculpted thousands of laughing figurines, also in a cult of the sun,” she adds.

Tondeur, who was attracted by the possibilities opened by laughter, received more than 75 laughs from Australia, Ireland, Spain, Portugal, France, Morocco and India (Bengaluru, Durgapur, Pune and Chennai). A participative and evolving project, When the World Has a Laugh is composed in two chapters, a collection of laughs and a speculative fiction made of laughs whose “vibrations give shape to a miniature world”.

Faizal Khan is a freelancer

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First published on: 23-05-2021 at 02:00 IST