Lest we forget

In a world which would rather forget the Covid-19 pandemic, artists are playing an important part in creating spaces to remember. Susan Mansfield spoke to three of them.
I Remember - Scotland’s Covid Memorial, Photo: Hannah Laycock

Three years after we all learned what “lockdown” meant, much has returned to normal. Art galleries, theatres and concert halls are back in business, a bottle of hand sanitiser often the only clue to recent events.

Although the pandemic changed everyone’s lives for a time, few creatives are queueing up to explore the experience. And who could blame them? In the arts, as in other spheres, the focus is on moving forward.

But that is not the whole story. For those who lost loved ones or suffered long-term damage to their health, forgetting is impossible. The effects on NHS waiting lists will be felt for years to come and some businesses are still struggling to recover. The experience of lockdown still weighs heavily for many who want their stories to be heard. One of the few spaces where that can happen is art.

Alec Finlay in Pollok Park, Photo: Herald and Times
Alec Finlay in Pollok Park, Photo: Herald and Times

Artist and poet Alec Finlay has just completed the final phase of the multi-faceted project I Remember: Scotland’s Covid Memorial. People gathered at the Memorial Walk in Glasgow’s Pollok Park for a minute’s silence on March 23, the third anniversary of the first national lockdown. The project was commissioned by a partnership which included Greenspace Scotland and The Herald newspaper, which led a public fundraising campaign to meet the £250,000 budget.

Finlay, who himself suffers from long Covid, is a defiant voice on the subject of remembering. He says: “As much as some may want to push these events to the side, they’re not over. Two million people in the UK have long Covid. Some people are still shielding. Bereaved families are still grieving, and their grief is heightened by what feels like a lack of respect from politicians. The pressure to move on is part of that. This becomes a very political work simply by telling the truth.”

The Memorial Walk features 40 trees with wooden “supports”, sculptures inspired by human gestures of support, some of them modelled by the bereaved and those with long Covid. Each tree bears the words “I remember” in one of the many languages spoken in Scotland, and QR codes enable walkers to listen to some of the memories submitted to the project, read by actor Robert Carlyle.

“I said very early on, it has to be not just for the bereaved, but for everyone affected<Alec Finlay in Pollok Park3, Credit Herald and Times.JPG><I Remember – Scotland’s Covid Memorial, credit Hannah Laycock.jpeg><I Remember – Scotland’s Covid Memorial2, credit Hannah Laycock.jpeg><KennyHunter_YourNextBreath_1.jpeg><Claudia Zeiske, right, with the pink tablecloth.jpg><Claudia Zeiske, Split Image 2.jpg>

Hundreds of Covid memories, single sentences beginning with the words “I remember”, were collected from people of all ages and backgrounds, creating what might be the first social history of the pandemic. Some were recorded by Carlyle, others printed in a book. All have been stored electronically on the project website and at the National Library of Scotland. Submissions are still being accepted.

Finlay says: “I had worked on other projects relating to health, like the organ donor memorial, but this was on a different scale. I needed to find a way of working which was appropriate to that, which I did by integrating different art forms. Rather than making a single centrepiece, the idea from day one was to use the whole landscape, to make something very large out of some things which were very modest.”

“I said very early on, it has to be not just for the bereaved, but for everyone affected, including those grieving their health. One in eight people who had Covid has long Covid, and that’s not talked about. We’ve just had a leadership election in Scotland where Covid wasn’t talked about except as a historical event, which Sturgeon handled well. There is not a single long Covid clinic in Scotland. The lack of provision is a political story. I was excited to get the commission because I wanted to show people who had become disabled that we could still achieve things.”

KennyHunter, Your Next Breath
Kenny Hunter, ‘Your Next Breath’

Another group of people for whom forgetting is not an option are the NHS workers who were in the pandemic front line. In the summer of 2020, sculptor Kenny Hunter was commissioned to create a large scale work celebrating healthcare workers for the courtyard of the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh. Your Next Breath, described as ‘a memorial to mark the containment of Covid-19 and the resilience of healthcare workers’, was unveiled last autumn and has been nominated for the Marsh Award for Excellence in Visual Arts Engagement .

The sculpture is composed of four socially distanced figures at ground level, representing NHS workers at the end of a shift removing their masks and PPE. Hunter drew on interviews he conducted during the pandemic with surgeons working in intensive care units.

He explains: “The words that came up again and again were ‘reflection’, ‘resilience’, ‘exhaustion’ and ‘compassion’. That’s what I wanted to try to convey. Hopefully, each figure has got a bit of each of them. I wanted their humanity to be tangible. They’re all dressed in scrubs, so they could be surgeons, anaesthetists, junior doctors or auxiliary nurses. I didn’t want there to be individual roles or hierarchy.”

Hunter compared the context of the work to the war memorials of the last century. He continues: “Society tends to build monuments to people who gave their lives, and in a way this was a similar human experience. There was a time when people didn’t understand what the virus was, how it spread. Their job was to walk into rooms with people with this disease, and a lot of them did get ill. It seems a tame beast now, but at the time it was a really scary situation.”

“A lot of people did their lockdown projects, built a shed, did their garden, had quite a nice war, but for other people it was hell on earth. People don’t want to think about it, and for most that’s okay, but it’s different for the people who gave so much. They went into the burning building and we went out the other way.”

Claudia Zeiske: From the Mountains to the Sea
Claudia Zeiske, ‘From the Mountains to the Sea’

Claudia Zeiske, former director of the community arts organisation Deveron Projects in Huntly and now a freelance curator and producer, spent the summer of 2022 collecting Covid experiences of ordinary people in Aberdeenshire. Funded by the Scottish Government via Greenspace Scotland, she devised Mountain to Sea, a 250-kilometre walk, meeting groups and individuals in each town and village she visited.

With the aim of ‘walking the strapline of Aberdeenshire’ (the phrase used to promote the area to visitors), she started at Ben Macdui in the Cairngorms, following a meandering route to the coastal towns of Peterhead and Fraserburgh, and sat with people around her pink tablecloth embroidered with participants’ names (a tradition from her German family). Zeiske says: “By the time I arrived in Peterhead, I felt like I had walked the British class system.”

Her blog and film record a spectrum of experiences, from people who took up new hobbies and enjoyed walking and cycling in their local area to harrowing experiences of grief and hardship. In the coastal towns, many workers at fish factories on zero hours contracts were laid off with no access to furlough and had to rely on food banks to survive.

In Peterhead Prison, Zeiske heard from inmates about being locked in their cells 24/7 for ten days if one person on their unit tested positive. She also met overseas workers on trawlers who became stranded in Scotland with no paperwork to come ashore, while she described the “electric” atmosphere in one sheltered housing complex where “anger, frustration and sadness” were still palpable. She says: “The people who are most affected are the elderly and the really young. I think the mental health pandemic will be longer and bigger than Covid.”

What she found everywhere was a hunger to share experiences. Some people talked for hours, and in one town people actually queued up to talk to her. She says: “Some things are so strange in life you almost can’t tell their stories later on, you have to do it at the time. If you don’t write these stories down, they will get lost somehow. If you don’t capture these stories, who will remember?”

For more information about I Remember: Scotland’s Covid Memorial visit www.iremember.scot. 

For more information on Claudia Zeiske’s Mountain to Sea project visit www.claudiazeiske.com.

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