Kings and Desperate Men
Death, be not proud
Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou are not so;
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.
Thou’art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy’or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.
John Donne 1572-163
Pandemics of deadly infectious disease are not common in the West; but they do occur; perhaps once in a generation. The last comprehensive and universal pandemic similar in quality to Covid19 was the great polio epidemic, before the introduction of vaccination in about 1957. That too left the community terrified as an invisible and potentially deadly virus infected an unsuspecting population.
By contrast, the AIDS epidemic from the early 1980’s was more selective; those vulnerable had been exposed via iatrogenic vectors (blood transfusions, poor surgical hygiene and contaminated equipment) or by sexual contact, mainly but certainly not exclusively male to male. Education and mechanisms to limit transmission (whilst not necessarily easy to apply, in a public health setting) proved effective in Western cultures; and advances in therapeutics have robbed the disease of its once well deserved terror.
The threat of BSE as a mass vector of appalling destruction was averted by rigorous control of entry of further contamination into the food chain; coupled with the absence of inter-personal contagion.
Mass influenza and SARS outbreaks have caused considerable loss of life, but nothing of the potential of this new virus.
Covid19, presumably the product of the forced and incestuous proximity of different wild species in traditional Chinese food markets, has spread rapidly around the world; and is the 21st Century equivalent of the Black Death.
I can only guess and shudder at what the experience of dealing with this threat must be like, in the crowded cities of south Asia, or the slums of metropolitan Africa and South America. We still know little of conditions even in countries with reasonably good communications and infra structure.
One thing, however, is absolutely certain. The solution to this terrible threat does not lie with the provision of more hight tech equipment for Western hospitals (however welcome that might be on a personal level). The answer will necessarily require us to reach out to the entire developing world, and ensure that whatever hygiene methods are eventually discovered to be most effective are supported, that vaccination is made freely and universally available to all, not just the wealthy West; and that the exploitation of wildlife for bush meat ceases. Coupled to this, we need to radically revise our expectations to travel and conduct commerce in ways which place others at mortal risk.
Memento Mori: The Case for Memorialisation
The case for creating a living memorial to the dead is compelling. At times such as these, art needs to be at the centre of grieving and the expression of feeling.
I would personally find a static monument inappropriate and distasteful, given then nature and extent of the loss and the particularly cruel way in which families have been separated and the process of grief interrupted by necessary precaution.
Furthermore, it seems to be those in caring roles who have borne the brunt of relentless contact with the dying and bereaved; so any mechanism for memorialisation ought to reflect that.
There are two practical matters which I should like to propose.
Everyone who has cared for others during this crisis is my brother or sister; and deserves to hold a British passport, if they want one.
All training and education for caring roles should be completely free for the future; and rebates given to those those who incurred debt to train in care.
A New National Park
I would wish to see a new National Park in England established in memory of those who died; (and Wales and Scotland too, if the public there wished it so).
One possibility would be to create a corridor of public space along the path of the Thames Valley.
A National Park would reflect the need for space to literally breathe and grieve. Such spaces could be served by green public transport rather than private motor vehicles and be furnished with individual artworks.
Whilst I am not keen on the idea of monolithic monuments, I can see an argument for a stolpersteine-type stone or plaque, placed at or near the last place of residence of the deceased.
The Dance of Death
In earlier times, our ancestors reminded themselves of the fragility of human life and its short span, by creating works of art, which reminded the viewer of the inevitability of death; and the ultimate democracy of the grave.
I was greatly moved by the experiences of those who are (like me) in isolation and anticipating the possible, indeed probable loss of loved ones; and those who have already lost those dear to them. I addressed those feelings artistically.
The follow section is from Robert Hovart’s 2013 blog The Dance of Death
Many amazing works of art have been found painted on the outside walls of cloisters, of family vaults, of ossuaries or inside some churches depicting the imagery of the ‘Dance of Death’. By all accounts, the Dance of Death first appeared in the cemetery of the Church of the Holy Innocents in Paris around 1424-25. Unfortunately, we are unable to see this mural today because it was destroyed in 1669. The back wall of the arcade, which the mural was painted on, below the charnel house on the south side of the cemetery, was demolished to allow a narrow road behind it to be widened. Despite its lose we have many other fascinating portraits of the dance of death still in existence that reflect the mood of artists and their unique representations of death from that period.
Two interesting examples are shown here below, Michael Wolgemut’s The Dance of Death (1493) from the Nuremberg Chronicle and of particular interest to me, Vincent de Kastav’s 1474 masterpiece, from the small church of St. Mary in Beram, Croatia. Time has unfortunately damaged much of the ‘Dance of Death’ frescoes of St. Mary, where some of the characters are scarcely distinguishable, and the lower section of the fresco is in some parts been destroyed. Still, it is an amazing representation of death, who seems to take pleasure playing his music, while leading his victims on a merry dance of death.
One might ask why the fascination with art and death? Quite simply, it was a way of showing people that “no matter one’s station in life , the Dance of Death unites all.” It was during the Middle Ages in particular that disease and death was on almost everyone’s doorstep. It was a time of horrible epidemics, where mortality was especially low. One of the biggest killers of the Middle Ages was the plague of 1348, where some two-thirds of Europe’s population was wiped out. With this death and disease began to play on people’s mind and the perception of death, as the Grim Reaper that scythes people’s lives, was arguably born during that period?
The Dance of Death in most paintings takes the form of a lively farandole, in which death and its victims are usually seen holding hands, winding in and out in a chain. The most common depiction of this fascinating dance of death shows bare Skeletons merrily playing music, while ‘Death’ is almost always left to deal with the sorry sight of his victims begging and crying out for death to be merciful. Interestingly, sometimes his victims will go to any length to cheat death. For instance, in the Beram fresco seen here below, a merchant is strategically pointing to the large amount of money he has in his sack in an attempt to bribe death. His efforts of course are in vain, as ‘Death’ is incorruptible. Death will never bargain to spare an individuals life in exchange for mortal riches. And so with no prejudice of sex, age or care of what standing in life one came from, ‘Death’ is the ultimate adjudicator.
Vincent de Kastav’s 1474 masterpiece, from the church of St. Mary in Beram, Croatia.
I drew upon several sources for these works; Mexican “Day of the Dead” images, Medieval frescos and paintings, the engravings of Holbein and 19th Century figurative art.
I then added to this matrix, photomicrographs of the Covid Virus, the iconography of isolationism, computer viruses and statistics
Enemy at the Door mixed media/digital image Bob Tate 2020
I based this image on the electron-micrograph of a coronavirus infecting a cell
This next image was inspired by Hokkusai’s The Great Wave; the tsunami of viral infection both within the body and between bodies reminded me of the fisherman struggling against the sea, and pulling frantically to keep afloat.
The third image was inspired by seeing politicians seeking to evade telling the truth at the various Press briefings; a meticulously furled symbol of oppressive colonialism reefed in the background.
This work was inspired by both the Mexican Day of the dead costumes and the sense of isolation one can feel even in a crowd. The shapes represent groups and clusters of people; and infection beginning to spread.
The final image in this sequence was formed out of a reflection on the mass graves being prepared in New York. I’ve had some experience of mass graves; and the interface between to mechanical process of digging a grave with an excavator and the furtive and anonymous disposal of human remains is literally ghastly (that is to say, evincing a feeling of utter horror) in its operation.
I think this is a form of abject art; or possibly the art of forensic architecture.
Mass Graves at Hart Island mixed media/digital Bob Tate 2020.
Social distancing is a challenging and uncanny concept. How are we as social creatures, to distance ourselves from each other? And yet, in the same breath, we are unutterably divided; by every possible kind of divisive barrier, race,wealth or poverty, age, gender, class, caste or whatever.
It is opportune that we should now have to confront and pay heed to deliberate social distancing, as we may learn much about the unconscious social distancing we all practise every day, in a thousand and one micro-rejections of our own unconscious prejudices.
To be continued…