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quarantine flounder

Quarantine Flounder (Wayne Ferrebee, 2020) Wood, Polymer, Mixed Media

America is still floundering quite a lot…and so am I! To prove it, here is a quarantine flatfish bas relief which I made on commission during the pandemic.  The Gothic-style sculpture is carved of wood and the little inhabitants (who are sheltering in place in their elegant town houses and cottages) are crafted of polymer.  I also carved the spires with a lathe, however goldsmithing is beyond me, so I ordered the base-metal crown online from a discount crown-dealer (who even knew there were such things?).  My favorite part of the work is the poor fish’s anxious expression and worried eyes.  In the upper right golden arch a fatuous king stares blearily at his malady-filled kingdom.  His vacuous first lady queen is his bookend and stares at him malevolently from the opposite side of the continent fish.  Between them is a crypt filled with sad little figures in shrouds, burial wrappings, and body bags.  A plague doctor winds his way through the virus-shrouded landscape as a gormless (and mask-less) yokel breaks quarantine near the flounder’s tail.

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Above them all, a dark spirit of pestilence wearing costly robes orchestrates events from the sunset heavens.  This is the realm of coronavirus now.   Let’s get our act together so I can build a beautiful new flounder of radiant health and justice! (Also let’s quickly go back to being a democratic republic: we may be experiencing a medieval type event, but there is no reason to go back to the venereal-disease-ridden mad king model of government).

Oh! Also…if you like my flounder art, go to Instagram and check out an endless ocean of flounder.  Now is definitely the time!

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There are many mythological creatures which give color to American regional folklore.  Champy the lake monster is said to haunt Lake Champlain.   Mothman (or a colony of mothpeople) are always reputedly flying over the accursed town of Point Pleasant, West Virginia (a very nice river town with a history of horrible occurrences which would make Stephen King add some episodes to Derry’s history). Bigfoot skulks around the American West and, despite not being real, he is so omnipresent that apparently he (or possibly an 8 foot tall man in a ratty fur coat) threw a hunk of opal ore at my uncle back in 1979!  This doesn’t even get into the legends of the Native Americans, who made up truly chilling monsters like the cold hungry wendigo [shudder].

And then we have Florida…

Although a folklorist who looked social media in contemporary America might initially conclude that the Sunshine state’s supernatural monster is the horrifyingly maladroit & depraved “Florida Man”, alas it seems that that particular troglodyte is all too real.  Apparently the made-up cryptozooiod man-beast native to Florida is a hairy simian creature known as the “skunk-ape” (a.k.a. the “swamp cabbage man”, the “stink ape”, or the “myakka ape”). The skunk ape descends from a magnificent monster of Seminole legend called the “Esti Capcaki(which apparently means something like giant cannibal man).  The Esti Capcaki was huge, hirsute and ate human beings, but was also known for an overpowering stench.  The skunk ape is a diminutive version of the same, who is alleged to hide out in dense swamps and nasty exurbs.

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Anyway, to point this post towards contemporary relevance, the skunk ape has acquired a new role in the age of coronavirus! The Florida theme park “Gatorland” has introduced a skunk ape mascot in order to promote proper social distancing during the pandemic.  The hairy monster man lurks in underbrush or waste places until he spots park goers who are failing to remain 6 feet apart, whereupon he leaps into the limelight and berates them with feral grunts and unhappy simian body language.  Skunk ape’s female spokesperson also appears and reminds visitors to keep their distance in plain and somewhat lawyerly English.

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At this juncture, it is unclear what Skunk Ape thinks of masks (I suppose I could reach out to his spokesperson and inquire, but frankly I am not going to do any actual journalism unless it involves actual remuneration).  Likewise it is a bit unclear whether skunk ape’s public sanitation drive will work in any way whatsoever. What is clear is that our monsters and our mummers are always lurking around in the psychological shrubs waiting to leap out in moments of turmoil or duress.  This is definitely such a time and I hope you are taking precautions to keep yourself safe from the all-too-real troubles which are currently stalking our land.  Be safe out there! Don’t make me call in the skunk ape!

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Let’s get back to talking about New York City’s enormous sad potter’s field at Hart Island (hey, why are all of  my readers leaving?) Well anyway, when we left off, we had explained that the island is rich in poignant, important-to-remember narratives.  For example, the island’s history strongly contextualizes mistakes made early in the 1980s HIV crisis (not that we’ll ever have another viral pandemic hideously mismanaged by pro-big business apparatchiks in national government).  How can we draw attention to this history and properly memorialize the souls whose mortal remains are interred there?

As an artistic exercise, I thought about what sort of memorial would fit a small coastal island next to one of the world’s busiest ports.  Despite advocacy by the Hart Island Project, a nonprofit organization (which also helps family members locate graves and works to beautify the site) , it is still difficult to visit the island, so the monument needs to be visible from the water or the coast. However, New York is already a chaotic place! We don’t need any more giant light beacons or 100 meter tall green ladies (although if you know of a friend for Lady Liberty, maybe let me know in the comments).

There is a sort of building from the past which fits all of these criteria perfectly: a lighthouse! Most of New York’s original lighthouses have been retired or are now cultural sites/tourist spots instead of working maritime devices.  I am sure we could fit a memorial sculpture in (in fact my favorite New York memorial is exactly such a thing), but how would we make it obvious that it is a monument to victims of HIV?

As a preliminary attempt, I designed this lighthouse  in the shape of a virus.  I painted it a cheerful pink to make it pop-out from the muted coastline colors of Hart Island, and of course to call attention to the unhappy stigmatization of queer communities which made the ravages of AIDS so much worse than what should have been.

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Model for Hart Island AIDS Cemetery Memorial (Wayne Ferrebee, 2019)

Let me back up slightly and explain this somewhat peculiar model. The base is largely irrelevant (it is meant to illustrate that the lighthouse/sculpture needs to be landscaped into an appropriate vantage point on the old AIDS cemetery on Hart Island).  There is, however, one important landscape feature which doesn’t read very well in this little diorama: I hoped that the pathway from the main path over to the memorial plaque at the base of the lighthouse/sculpture might be a site where mourners and interested entities could place mementos.  I thought if these were all the same color (a chromatic convergence easily accomplished with an inexpensive vat of enamel) it would make the overall presentation more powerful and emotional. I chose pink since it is a sacred color to the LGBTQ community (I also thought the light beacon might be pink as well), however there are other virtues to pink.  It is visually bold and highly visual, however it conveys renewal, joy, and beauty. It is an unusual memorial color for an unusual memorial. But it is just an idea (pink is also one of my favorite colors). Black, white, or rainbow would all work too and each of those options also have many strong supporting reasons.

A virologist might point out that this actually a bacteriophage (or actually an abstracted  symbolic likeness of one).  That is entirely correct.  I wanted this to be a symbolic likeness so as to not have people’s final resting place overshadowed by an overly realistic version of the disease which killed them.  in the past, such a memorial would probably have had robed allegorical deities and subdued personifications of Death and suchlike figures (in the manner of the extremely beautiful USS Maine monument at Columbus Circle), however in the modern world I don’t think we have many (or any) sculptors capable of such exquisite figurative work, plus such a sculpture would fail to feature the component of hard-won medical knowledge which needs to be central to this monument.

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Speaking of which, why have a monument at all? I am sure there are readers thinking this is all “too much” or something we don’t need in a world of monetary woes and immediate problems.  I am more sympathetic with such a point of view than you might expect from someone designing abstruse neoteric memorials! However I think we really DO need pandemic memorials.  Consider the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic. We swept it under the rug and moved on with jazz age excess as fast as possible.  In doing so we forgot about the critical lessons of the Spanish Flu (to say nothing of its victims and its stringent hardships), and that was obviously a terrible mistake.  There are, of course, even more victims of Spanish flu than there are AIDS victims right there at Hart Island.  Maybe we actually need a comprehensive viral pandemic monument to honor them and the AIDS victims, and the souls who have suffered and perished in the continuing coronavirus pandemic.  That final post of this three-part series will have to wait though (since I need to get back to my studio).

In the mean time, please take care of yourself. Be safe and be of stout heart.  Hart Island reminds us that these terrible times have happened before (how could we have forgotten??) but it also reminds us that the pain and loss and suffering have all been endured before and that we grieved and kept moving forward.  Perhaps that is the real secret to navigating treacherous passages which are memorialized in funeral monuments.

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Oh, one more thing. Please leave your comments and opinions below.  The more points of view presented, the better that memorials are able to represent all sorts of different viewpoints!

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April is poetry month! Since this is a downright peculiar April, I was hoping to reach back through history to 542 AD, 1350 AD, or 1666 AD in order feature some monumental poems about pandemics and how to get through these harrowing eras of fear….

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Yikes! I guess things could be going worse…

Uh, that effort is still ongoing…  Whereas visual artists address pestilence head-on by painting landscapes filled with grim reapers, corpse wagons, Catherine wheels, walking nightmares, undead armies, and whatnot, apparently famous poets address plague by writing about something else entirely.  I guess professional writers know that one of the secrets to living off of your art is to write about things people want to read about (speaking of which, this post should probably be about Miley Cyrus instead of worldwide plague (insomuch as there is a difference)).

Anyway, while we continue to comb the anthologies for the perfect poem from yesteryear, for today’s post, here is a poem from today.  As noted, poets shy away from this theme, so we had to bring in a visual artist, the indelible Yayoi Kusama, world renowned grand master of polka dot art, in order to get a Coronavirus poem.

Here is what she writes

Though it glistens just out of reach, I continue to pray for hope to shine through
Its glimmer lighting our way
This long awaited great cosmic glow
Now that we find ourselves on the dark side of the world
The gods will be there to strengthen the hope we have spread throughout the universe
For those left behind, each person’s story and that of their loved ones
It is time to seek a hymn of love for our souls
In the midst of this historic menace, a brief burst of light points to the future
Let us joyfully sing this song of a splendid future
Let’s go
Embraced in deep love and the efforts of people all over the world
Now is the time to overcome, to bring peace
We gathered for love and I hope to fulfil that desire
The time has come to fight and overcome our unhappiness
To COVID-19 that stands in our way
I say Disappear from this earth
We shall fight
We shall fight this terrible monster
Now is the time for people all over the world to stand up
My deep gratitude goes to all those who are already fighting.
Revolutionist of the world by the Art
From Yayoi Kusama
Although from a pure literary perspective, this poem is perhaps a bit spotty (hehehe), what it lacks in allusion, symbolism, or meter is more than made for with earnest goodwill and sincerity.  Kusama also does not want for temerity, directly adjuring the virus to disappear from Earth (an idea which is about as lovely as any I have come upon recently).
Perhaps the poem’s greatest weakness is that it speaks so guilelessly for itself that there is little to say about it.  Thus to round off the post, here is one of Kusama’s lovely polka dot artworks.  I surmise that her choice of themes–vines, corals,  or mushrooms (which are the fruiting bodies of much larger hidden underground networks of mycelium)  is really about how nodes form much larger networks.  Maybe she will paint some rangeomorphs!
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Mushrooms (Yayoi Kusama, 2005) acrylic on canvas

It is worth further noting that, Kusama’s great lifetime retrospective at the New York Botanic Garden was interrupted by the pandemic. If/when this quarantine lifts we can look forward to seeing that show in person and writing more about networks and nodes.  For now though it is back to Facebook and Zoom.  We’ll talk more next week!

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Greetings from New York City in this, the year of the plague, 2020.  I wanted to write about something today other than coronavirus, since we don’t seem to have actually learned much new information about the virus itself (or if we have, it is information in peer-to-peer medical journals about immunoglobulins, virology statistics, lipid membranes and whatnot). However, whenever I try to write anything else, I keep getting distracted and looking at frothy coronavirus articles, which are really opinion pieces about political or business concerns. Clearly the only subject anyone cares about is novel coronavirus, so why force myself to write a piece about sidewinders or limpets? But what do we write about?

We already explored the hypothesized snake/bat zoonotic leap (concerning which matters I have never heard any further news) and we have talked about the “crown” (corona) embedded in the very name of this virus. I suppose we could write about the President’s stunning incompetence, but we already know that this authoritarian dolt is at best a conman, and, more likely, likely an outright traitor who owes billions of dollars to Russian mobster (of course, if that isn’t the case, he can easily prove this hypothesis wrong by releasing comprehensive financial records).

But our horrible president is not my real target here. I want toget back to talking about an enormous issue that our nation has been failing to deal with: the disastrous trope that “government is the problem”.  This concept was cooked up by libertarian plutocrats as a tool for embezzling, defrauding, and plundering the country and it continues to undermine our collective well-being.  It is insidious because it is self-fulfilling.  As  government is defunded and abused, it keeps getting worse.  The plutocrats (or their mouthpieces) then say: “See: government doesn’t work! Only private industry produces results!” (although when the economy crashes they demand bailouts for their too-big-to-fail cartels).

Not many people love heeding rules (even good ones). As the government is captured by the people it is meant to regulate, the rules become even more onerous and complicated…and yet they don’t seem to address root problems (does this sound familiar?)  This isn’t because of the nature of government! It is because moneyed interests are taking advantage of society!

If this continues, within a few years we will all be sitting in cardboard boxes in the toxic runoff of dead factories talking about how America is the world’s greatest country as other places sale past us.  In fact, that sort of sounds like now, doesn’t it?

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We have been on the wrong path for forty years and yet we knowingly continue to walk down it.  Coronavirus offers us a chance to get off this evil road to serfdom and ignorance. The goal of society is not making a bunch of cartoonish monopoly men much richer.  The goal of society is to learn more about existence.  That knowledge can be further utilized for saving the world’s ecosystems, and making ark-ships, immortality potions, and all-powerful robot servants.  It could be used to keep you and your family healthy and prevent you from dying from zoonotic viruses, Or it could be used for other aims, or for nothing at all!  Knowledge stands beyond mere utility. It is not merely a means to an ends, but arguably the most precious of ends already, just in its own right.

Private enterprise is incurious about learning things unless there is a way to immediately use that knowledge to make money.  Since this is almost never the way that knowledge works, private enterprise shirks away from from learning things. It revels in ignorance.  This is why humankind’s forward technological progress has halted except for very slight incremental progress in consumer-side fields like robotics and computer science.

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Whether the doomsayers are proven right and coronavirus kills hundreds of thousands (or millions) of people, or whether quarantines and restrictions succeed in mitigating casualties, this crisis has already reminded us of something critical.  Government is not the enemy.  Government is us.  We need to de-monetize politics to whatever extent we can (and throw quite a lot of white-collar criminals in jail) and we need to get back to research and development.  We can once again be a nation that makes astonishing discoveries and builds incredible things and helps people.  Right now we are not headed that direction.  Do you really want to keep going this way?  Think about it as you weather this crisis.  Also, best wishes to you and your families!  As always, let me know what you think in the comments below.

 

 

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The Rich Man (Hans Holbein the Younger, 1526) woodcut (detail)

Today’s post features three of our favorite topics: crowns, serpents, and China!  But, alas, as sometimes happens, these themes have combined in a terrible manner to make frightening headlines around the world.  The past two decades have seen the emergence of strange flu-like respiratory viruses from Asia.  The most infamous was SARS-CoV which emerged from China in 2003, but there was a sequel in the two thousand teens, MERS-CoV, which seems to have originated in Arabia by jumping species from camels.  Now the world’s communicable disease experts are once more on high alert as a new respiratory virus has been identified.  The new new virus is going by the name 2019-nCoV and it causes similar symptoms to  SARS: unlucky humans infected with the virus suffer severe inflammatory response which can lead to (sometimes fatal) respiratory complications.

The virus has been traced back to Hubei to the city of Wuhan, one of the most ancient cities of China.  Wuhan is also the largest city of central China with a population of 11 million people!  So this explains the China angle, but what about crowns and snakes? that sounds like Russian folktale territory!

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A Diagram of a Coronavirus

It turns out that 2019-nCoV is a coronavirus, a category of virus which takes its name from the appearance of the virion as scanned by an electron microscope.  Tiny knobbed spicules emerge from the caplets of coronaviruses which make the round structures superficially resemble the royal headdress (particularly the classical knobbed crown of Medieval Europe).

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Coronaviruses are highly zoonotic–meaning they can easily be transmitted from animals to humans.  Sars was first thought to originate from Asian palm civets (although it seems the poor civets may ultimately have been a vector).  At this juncture scientists are starting to trace 2019-nCoV back to many-banded kraits (Bungarus multicinctus) a black and white striped elapid snake of coastal and central China.  People are not making out with kraits (which is good, because the snakes are super venomous) but the poor kraits are apparently popular as exotic cuisine.  Edipemiologists have pinpointed the origination of  2019-nCoV as the Wuhan seafood wholesale market, which sells all sorts of animals slated for the table, including many-banded kraits.

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This conclusion surprises me, since cold-blooded snakes are not a normal virus vector (in fact the word “never” might be applicable). However, with SARS, the palm civets turned out not to be the ultimate source of the disease.  The civets were eating horseshoe bats which were the original source of the virus.  Perhaps these snakes play a similar intermediary role (I can easily imagine nocturnal predatory kraits eating bats).

People should not eat primates or chiropterans for reasons of public health (eating such close cousins strikes me as morally opprobrious anyway, although admittedly, I am spoiled and haven’t had to subsist as a hunter gatherer).  Maybe they shouldn’t eat kraits now either.   Undoubtedly virologists, epidemiologists, and doctors will keep working to figure out the precise relationship between people, kraits, bats, and 2019-nCoV. Hopefully the scientists from the United States who should be dealing with this emerging plague have not all had their position eliminated by budget cuts to the NIH (although our dolt president has probably already tried to appoint 2019-nCoV as the director of the CDC).  Anyway, stay safe out there and we will figure this all out before summer. It’s never the one you see coming, and the Chinese, at least, are getting better at public health measures.

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