How would you remember Covid-19? It’s a question I’ve often thought about, particularly how we will historicise this time. What would a museum exhibition of the pandemic look like? It feels like a pertinent question at this moment. Infections from Covid-19 still happen every day, and there are still many unknowns about the virus, but mitigation measures are being lifted in many places around the world. And with these relaxations, memories of the pandemic, especially when it first began, have started to fade.
But not everyone is ready to forget. Last year, Arief Hamizan from Malaysia, Jeffrey Tan from Singapore, Regina Yuching Lin from Taiwan and Narumol Thammapruksa, known as Kop, from Thailand with curator Anmol Vellani from India started meeting to discuss how the pandemic had affected them as artists. They had been brought together for the 2021 Meeting Point, a networking and resource sharing event for artists in Asia. Those salon style discussions crystallised at the 2021 Meeting Point in the presentation “In the Wake of COVID: Altered Contexts and Prospects for the Arts in Asia”. Through this collective presentation and individual projects they shared how the pandemic had affected them, their art practices and the shifts and learnings that resulted.
However, the connection and conversations didn’t stop there. Arief Hamizan, a theatre practitioner from Malaysia who was part of the group said that they rode the momentum of their first collaboration: “I think the extraction of ideas from that time…the most intense time of Covid, I think we weren’t really finished with, we hadn’t properly excavated [them]. Secondly, I think having a bit of distance from that period, rather than making work during that time allowed us to see different perspectives, and also allowed us to take the step to engage with other artists in our circle to try and bring them into this conversation that we were having about Covid and the arts.”
At first, the group thought about documenting and publishing artistic projects from across Asia that came out of artistic innovation during Covid. But that idea soon proved less than ideal. Anmol Vellani who acted as a curator to the artists’ ideas described the problem with this first idea: “They found that they (and their networks) had knowledge of fewer such projects than they had imagined. And the projects they identified for consideration turned out, on closer examination, either not to be that original or the retrievable information about them was too scanty.”
Image courtesy of COVID Time Capsule Team.
In further discussions, the idea of preserving knowledge gained from the pandemic remained until the group arrived at the Covid Time Capsule. Rather than a physical time capsule that would be buried and dug up at a later date, the group created an online version that welcomed submissions and stories from people around the world. In doing so, the group wanted to go beyond superficial stories of Covid. “[W]hen we go out and meet people, people don’t share…their most intimate thoughts with it [Covid]. They’ll say, Oh, yeah, I had Covid or lockdown was difficult, and we move on,” said Arief. Instead, Arief and the others were hoping to get a “personal lens” of the pandemic through the collection of objects and stories.
Some of the objects like a mask or pulse oximeter are what one might expect of a Covid archive. In addition to these, the artists in the group had also entered objects that spoke to the inequalities and political tensions that surfaced during COVID. From Arief there was a black flag he used in the youth-led Lawan (oppose) protest in Malaysia against government mismanagement of the pandemic. While research-based translator, curator and writer Regina Yuching Lin from Taipei entered a mini exhibit titled “Fictitious Togetherness”. The artwork draws focus to the ways that migrant workers in particular were often mistreated during the pandemic in contrast to messages that we were all in it together.
But there were also unexpected and deeply intimate entries too. Rency Phillip from Bengaluru chose mirrors as her reflection during lockdown helped to ease her sense of isolation. While Sumana from Bengaluru placed sunlight in the time capsule after being admitted to hospital with Covid, “When I woke up the next morning, all I wanted was to run out into the sun. It was unusual. I had never craved for sunlight like I did during those eight days in hospital. It was visceral. My skin and soul longed for sunlight. I had the urge to hold sunlight in my hand and drink it like water.”
The diversity of these stories struck Vellani, “I was surprised by the nature and range of the contributions. My imagination of what might be put in the time capsule fell far short of what was actually put in it—a cat, mirrors, childhood friends, sky, sunshine, wilderness! And the compelling stories that came with these ‘objects’!”
The intimacy of the stories people shared was something the artists first encountered in workshops they held in their respective countries to begin the object collection process. Reflecting on the experience of his workshop, Arief found, “…it was very emotional…I think it’s a contrast to the sort of global framing of the Covid pandemic, the crisis where…we’re more accustomed to seeing numbers…And I think the time capsule, we’ve already got quite a diverse account of the different types of experiences, because there are still moments of joy that you can find during a crisis…So, I think it really adds a certain level of colour and and texture to that era.”
During the Meeting Point 2022, the group held a sharing session that gave attendees a glimpse into the process of putting together the time capsule, which included videos of the workshops. The artists also shared more about their motivations behind the project and the experience of it all. For Lin, who spoke to people one on one instead of holding a workshop, the most important thing was to ask people in the first place: “If we don’t ask our friends and the people we meet, we wouldn’t know the diverse stories.”
Despite the diversity of experiences and stories from different parts of the world, there were often common threads that could be found throughout. Isolation and struggles with mental health, forced introspection, creativity, loss, solace from art and animals, and of course brushes with Covid were just some of the connective tissue that ran through the capsule.
The connectedness of these disparate objects was best exemplified by a presentation of phrases and words taken from the submitted stories by Vellani. Using exhales to indicate a shift in voice or story, he wove together the stories into one beautiful poem. It was amazing to witness a narrative emerge from the fragments of stories to create a cohesive whole. The process of entering objects into the time capsule and their significance had transformed them from their everyday nature. “[the time capsule is] not just a work, but a piece of their heart, a piece of their life,” Lin said. And now these pieces will beat together to remind us of a time the world is determined to forget.