Revisiting ‘A Journal of the Plague Year’ (2013): Cosmin Costinas and Inti Guerrero
by Kate Whiteway
C Magazine would like to congratulate Kate Whiteway on winning the 2020 C New Critics Award, and Olivia Klevorn on being named the runner-up. Now in its 11th consecutive year, this program gives C Magazine the opportunity to identify, support, and promote the work of promising new writers, who often become regular contributors. C would like to sincerely thank all those who applied, as well as the jurors of this year’s award: Jaclyn Bruneau, Amy Kazymerchyk, and Monika Kin Gagnon. Measures were taken to ensure that the identity of entrants remained unknown to adjudicators.
In early April, Para Site, the contemporary art centre in Hong Kong, hosted a livestreamed presentation with curators Cosmin Costinas and Inti Guerrero reflecting on their 2013 exhibition A Journal of the Plague Year. Fear, ghosts, rebels. SARS, Leslie and the Hong Kong story. The exhibition traced the cultural, political, and psychological effects of Hong Kong’s association with disease, from the 19th century to the present. Looking back at the exhibition during the current coronavirus pandemic was, for the curators, a “way to observe the present moment through a continuous past.” The presentation sensitively positioned COVID-19 within a specific historical lineage of disease and its effects on cultural production and political mobilization.
The exhibition combs through the annals of 2003 in Hong Kong, a year which witnessed the outbreak of SARS, the American invasion of Iraq, the public suicide of the beloved pop icon Leslie Cheung, and the emergence of a prodemocracy constituency punctuated by protests that started on July 1 that year, with manifestations in Occupy Central in 2014 and in opposition to Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s proposed extradition bill in 2019. A Journal of the Plague Year featured some 40 local and international artists’ works and archival material installed across three venues—Para Site, a private apartment, and a civic centre—and two re enactments of Brazilian artist Lygia Pape’s work Divisor (1968), a 65-person garment worn for street procession. The exhibition was also expanded into a book published by Sternberg Press in 2015.
A highly politicized scientific debate was waged during the 19th century on the mechanics of how disease spreads. Miasmatic theory, which would eventually succumb to germ theory, held that disease was communicated not through people, but through noxious or “night” air that was believed to be inherent to certain places. During the presentation, the curators noted that the British colonial empire, as the epicentre of global trade at the time, had a vested interest in perpetuating miasmatic (and thus, racialized and morbid) thinking of Hong Kong as a place intrinsically prone to disease, because if disease was indeed communicable rather than inherent, then quarantine measures would be applied to slow transmission, thus restricting labour and the movement of goods.
The exhibition lifts its title from Daniel Defoe’s 1722 eponymous tome that records the events of the 1665 bubonic plague in London. An interview with Hong Kong–based journalist Fionnuala McHugh, which was included as a video work in the exhibition, elucidated the many similarities between the plague of 1722 and the SARS outbreak in the spring of 2003. Revisiting Defoe’s book during SARS’s reign, McHugh notes, “It wasn’t some fusty literary classic, it was a prediction of tomorrow’s headlines. The use of vinegar, the deaths of doctors, the shutting up of houses, the departure of the wealthy, the orders for cleansing the streets: it was all there.” Notably, both diseases erupted on the eve of looming wars: the Second Anglo-Dutch war (1665–1667) and the American invasion of Iraq (2003), which led the curators to assume and explore the recurring response of heightened paranoia and social unrest that often coincide with moments of mass disease. The curators state in their curatorial essay, “In Hong Kong and elsewhere, fear of infectious carriers has repeatedly evoked irrational fear of other people, quarantine has mirrored exclusion, whilst epidemiological, racial, and cultural contamination have shared the same language.”
If epidemics tend to deepen the grooves of preexisting social inequalities, governments also tend to use the moment of crisis to reshape what constitutes the freedom of the social body. McHugh relays, “As it happens, on the sixth anniversary of the Handover, July 1, 2003 several weeks after the WHO’s travel advisory was lifted—half a million Hong Kong residents marched against planned legislation which would outlaw sedition, treason, and subversion. … The security legislation vanished, rather like SARS, to wait until it could reappear in another form.” As predicted, it seems to have reappeared in the form of the new national security law passed on the eve of July 1, 2020, effectively rendering myriad forms of protest and dissent illegal.
One striking aspect of the presentation was the way the curators wove contagion and its many metaphors into a methodology with the travel of the exhibition itself. Following from one of the foundational tenets of contemporary curatorial work—that placement essentially alters meaning—Costinas and Guerrero suggested that more critical attention could be paid to the ways in which exhibitions travel. They contended that the exhibition’s “center of gravity shifts under the influence of magnetic forces in each location on its itinerary.” After Hong Kong, it went to Taipei (TheCube Project Space), Seoul (Arko Art Center), and San Francisco (Kadist Art Foundation and The Lab). The decision to bring the exhibition to San Francisco was in part based on the well-travelled 19th-century axis between South China and California, both in terms of immigration and in transmission of the bubonic plague, an axis that has nonetheless rarely been critically activated in exhibition history. In doing so, the curators actualized the relationship between Hong Kong and North America, taking travel as an opportunity to recontextualize the exhibition’s contents and breaking the predominant logic that travelling exhibitions are, in effect, mobile commodities, identical regardless of location.
Throughout the spring of 2020, the closure of nonessential businesses due to COVID-19 caused contemporary art exhibitions, in their public and spatial manifestations, to take a hard and indeterminate pause. In response, we saw a rapid turn by institutions to catch the falling knife by making exhibitions and their corollaries— tours, panels, screenings, publications accessible via digital means. Many art institutions enacted strategies of engaging their publics’ attention through their archives, yet opening the vault of past exhibitions and programs can quickly lead to oversaturation on the part of the audience. Beyond its undeniable relevance to the present moment, by revisiting A Journal of the Plague Year, the curators brought this complex lineage of contagion and cultural production into active public memory, positioning it as a present moment in the continuous past.