The Plague Archives: The Temporality of Diseased Bodies

In the Lenzner Family Art Gallery, Maya Gurantz’s “The Plague Archives”

By Sage Keller, PZ ’25

“The Plague Archives” by Maya Gurantz. Photo by Maya Olson

Maya Gurantz’s “The Plague Archives” makes an auspicious arrival on Pitzer’s campus with the help of Pitzer College Art Galleries director and curator Ciara Ennis. Located in the Lenzner Gallery on the first floor of Atherton Hall, Gurantz’s exploration of immunology throughout history allows viewers to piece together the capricious portrayals of disease, especially in the wake of COVID-19. 

“The Plague Archives” draws on Gurantz’s extensive background in social practice and community-based projects. Examining the historical narratives of outbreak and plague, this exhibit centers the perpetual divergence of disease and its reflection on society today. Gurantz showcases this through a dense collection of archival material which she strategically arranges throughout the gallery. 

The Lenzner Gallery is a small, yet effective space. Upon entering, viewers immediately learn that the deep purple of the walls adds to the uncanniness of the exhibit theme. It is broken down into five different sections: “The Breast,” “Public Service Announcement,” “Charms & Magic,” “Narratives,” and “Maps & Pustules,” along with the addition of two short films, “Great Men and Sheep” and “Productions of Whiteness.” It works to establish parallels between race, gender, and class with personal desires, rituals, and medicinal motifs. Using an extensive collection of archival materials, she illustrates narratives ranging from the tenth to twenty-first century. 

Gurantz has pulled over a hundred different types of material together in an effort to convey her message. The collected material she brings together is bold, characterizing numerous different artistic styles in the same space. All photocopies of the original work, she covers the gallery walls in pop art, scientific flyers, multilingual public service announcements, and High Renaissance paintings. This organized chaos further emphasizes the message Gurantz works to deliver: disease as anarchy. Photocopies of old etchings, animal based photography, and ancient religious texts (which vary in size and shape) cites a grand story of sensational havoc. For some viewers, it might be too grotesque, too graphic. For others, maybe, thrilling and enlightening. 

To the left of the entrance in a dark alcove, one of Gurantz’s short films, “Great Men and Sheep,” plays, allowing viewers to become fully immersed in the eeriness of the media before them. This is, by far, Gurantz’s most ambitious part of her exhibit. Drawing from Louis Pasteur, a French microbiologist, and his work on germ theory, she centralizes the utilization of sheep for Pastuer’s work against Anthrax, a disease that barreled through France in the late 19th century. Gurantz outlines connections between the ways in which the predominant role of men in the medical field represents a fiction of male genius and godliness. She avidly theorizes on the role of animal-human relationships within immunology at the time, and the pruriency present throughout.

Showcasing her work in a non-linear progression forces her viewers to create their own account of disease through social, political, and economic lenses. Gurantz blends simplistic chalk drawings straight on the gallery wall with rich 18th-century oil paintings like Gaetano Giulio Zumbo’s La Peste, which works to narrate macabre scenes of death and destruction at the hands of debilitating diseases. Guarntz’s collection of archives is accompanied with little to no explanation via the physical exhibit. As a result, the extensiveness with which Gurantz presents her work is overwhelming, and if not, mystifying, for viewers. 

Yet, the ambiguity here is effective. Not only does “The Plague Archives” chronicle transnational sentiments towards outbreak from the past 1,000 years, but it forces Pitzer students to create their own parallels between bias-driven disease narratives and the modernisation of them today. 

“The Plague Archives” exhibit is open until March 25, 2023 in Lenzner Family Art Gallery. 

“The Breast” of “The Plague Archives” by Maya Gurantz. Photo by Maya Olson.

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