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Posts Tagged ‘Contagion’

Feminist Fumes

April 6, 2015 | by

Anicka Yi’s miasmatic art.

AY06(c)Jason_Mandella

Anicka Yi, Grabbing at Newer Vegetables, 2015, plexiglas, agar, female bacteria, fungus, 84.5" x 24.5". Courtesy of the artist and 47 Canal. Photo: Jason Mandella

In nineteenth-century England, it was believed that the poor, foul-smelling parts of cities were points of origin for disease. The word malaria is from the Italian mal’aria: “bad air.” Cholera was believed to come from decayed organic matter, miasmata. Adherents of miasma theory followed their noses: bad odors, they thought, carried infectious disease. In The Sanitary Conditions of the Labouring Population, published in 1842, the British social reformer Edwin Chadwick proclaimed that smell “generally gives certain warning of the presence of malaria or gases noxious to the health.”

The artist Anicka Yi plays with this amorphous, olfactory fear in her show “You Can Call Me F,” a meditation on contagion and femininity up through April 11 at The Kitchen. Yi’s media are bacteria and smell, and a sense of bodily invasion pervades the exhibition. She worked with cheek swabs from a hundred women—her creative peers, artists, collectors, curators, and the like—to form a bacteria collective that will grow for the duration of the show. It’s a sort of feminist ecosystem, powerful but fragile. Quarantine tents dot the dark, barren space, and the scent that permeates it is at once perfumed and antiseptic, redolent of a doctor’s office operating out of a woman’s bedroom. It’s almost pleasant, but it carries an undercurrent of danger: Where does this smell come from, exactly, and where is it going? Read More »

Pox: On ‘Contagion’

September 12, 2011 | by

Courtesy of Warner Brothers.

“Pretty grim here,” a girl in Steven Soderbergh’s new movie, Contagion, texts to a friend from a funeral home, where the director is explaining to her father that he’s refusing to accept the infected corpses of her mother and brother. Lethal epidemics usually are grim. That doesn’t mean they can’t also be entertaining. In 1722, Daniel Defoe published A Journal of the Plague Year, which fictionalizes a 1665 outbreak of bubonic plague in London. Defoe’s novel opens with mortality reports: two Frenchmen died of plague in Drury Lane in early December 1664, and over the next few months, the number of dead swelled from the usual 250 a week to a suspiciously high 474, though the municipal authorities were reluctant to name the plague as the cause of the rise. Statistics!, the habituated news reader thinks. What’s more, untrustworthy statistics! The reader is drawn into the game.

Soderbergh’s movie is scored to a similar drumbeat of numbers. Five dead in London. Three dead in Tokyo. Eighty-nine thousand cases worldwide. Eight million cases worldwide. The human mind can’t really make emotional sense of such numbers, of course, and for that Soderbergh turns to interwoven vignettes of the sort familiar from movies like Traffic and Crash. With such dismaying material, the artist’s challenge is how to make it real but not too real. If the deaths seem too real, sorrow will overwhelm viewers. (This is probably why John Lithgow’s performance of Alzheimer’s is so halfhearted in Rise of the Planet of the Apes. If anyone in your family has ever had Alzheimer’s, the last thing you want to see in a sci-fi romp is realism.) Read More »