DREADFUL VISITATIONS

2006

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In his remarkable book, A Journal of the Plague Year, written in 1722, Daniel Defoe mixes historical records and his own personal experiences to recount the “dreadful visitation” of the bubonic plague as it swept across London in the year 1665. Such dreadful visitations of microbial plagues are hardly a thing of the past. Leprosy, malaria, tuberculosis, the plague, and others, still haunt the world. Microorganisms such as bacteria, viruses, protists and fungi are behind these plagues. Microbes are also the earliest forms of life on earth, and they continue to evolve. Lynn Margulis states in Symbiotic Planet (1998): “All life, we now know, evolved from the smallest life-forms of all, bacteria.” Microbes rely on a symbiotic relationship for their existence, having co-evolved with all known species of animals, plants and humans -- their ‘host’. Mostly they do no harm or damage. Humans are in fact ninety per cent non-human: nine out of ten cells in our bodies are these other living organisms. We are all individually --and socially living -- ecologies, a thriving community of organisms.

When pathogenic microbes spend part of their lives in insects or other animals before they move to the human body, they are called ‘vector-borne agents’. They can become pathogenic when they leave their host and cross over to another species, causing illness or even death. When humans travel, passing from one geographical zone to another, they carry their genetic makeup and immunologic sequelae of past and present infections. Microbes are always our travel companions.

Through a series of installations, Dreadful Visitations is an exhibit that explores sites of microbial visitations. Mosquitoes: even encased in wax their unsettling ability to carry multiple viruses is eerily projected. Birds: amassed chicken bones shaped into a series of mutating DNA strands proclaim the possibility of an avian flu disturbingly transferred onto humans. Nautical Vessel: known for transporting major diseases in the past, the ship is itself a living organism, bearing microbes in its very own aesthetically fabricated and unique cellular makeup. Respiratory Masks: are the very masks we wear to protect ourselves from disease acting as a vector for contagious microbes?

SARS, AIDS, HIV, Ebola, West Nile, ‘mad cow disease’, ‘fleshing eating bugs’. These are some of the ‘new’ diseases we have witnessed in the last few decades. Historically exploration and imperialism disseminated many diseases such as plague, TB, measles, and smallpox, devastating many cultures. Geographical passage of humans and goods are a potent force in the emergence of disease, and today’s massive circulation of humans and commodities sets the stage for genetic change at rates and in combinations previously unknown. This is another of the discontents of globalization. With concomitant changes in the environment, climate, technology, land use, human behavior, and demographics, we now produce even more of the contributing factors that converge to favor the growth of infectious diseases. We are besieged with warnings by the media and scientists suggesting we will be witness to greater waves of epidemics, or even the coming of a global pandemic. Mike Davis’s recent book calls this the Monster at Our Door (2005).

Dreadful Visitations challenges us to confront both our personal and societal fragility against microbial scourges. Ultimately, the exhibit asks us to accept that microbes are not merely visitations, and we are not merely hosts. We are intertwined symbiotic organisms. From SARS in Toronto to AIDS in Africa, there is also a social question raised by the exhibit that cannot be avoided. It is the most fragile of us, linked and marginalized by globalization, that are the most vulnerable to ‘visits’ from contemporary plagues.

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