Over the weekend, I finished watching Station Eleven, the gorgeous HBO Max limited-series adaptation of Emily St. John Mandel’s post-apocalyptic novel of the same name.
As I mentioned in a previous issue of this newsletter on PanCon, or Pandemic Content, I’d been avoiding starting Station Eleven because I knew it was, in part, about a pandemic — one that wipes out most of the world’s population.
But Station Eleven isn’t a show about a pandemic, not really. It’s a show about art at the end of the world.
Jeevan (Himesh Patel) becomes the default guardian to young actor Kirsten (Matilda Lawler) when the world nearly comes to an end in "Station Eleven." (Ian Watson/HBO Max/TNS)
The works of Shakespeare serve as a through-line in Station Eleven; without spoiling too much, two decades after the pandemic, a group of survivors who call themselves the Travelling Symphony continue to put on his plays, mounting them by candlelight and scoring them with an orchestra. They do this for themselves as much as they do it for their (small) audiences. The subway has long been choked out with weeds, the internet is gone, and no one has an iPhone anymore, and Hamlet is still being performed.
(Shakespeare himself, by the way, was supposedly very productive during a plague; back in March 2020, someone tweeted that Shakespeare wrote King Lear whilst in quarantine and people were like, “wow, thanks, no pressure.”)
Also at the heart of Station Eleven is a sci-fi graphic novel of the same name, a passion project by an artist named Miranda Carroll (Danielle Deadwyler) who works as a logistics expert by day.
The graphic novel is another example of art made for art's sake, of art as an imperative. Miranda was secretive about her work and only five copies of her graphic novel were ever printed — self-published, no less, a mode that is often snobbishly seen as less-than, often by people who have written no books at all and as though publishing isn’t often just a form of gatekeeping. But her graphic novel had the kind of lasting legacy that artists dream of. (I mean, many not "dream of"; the people obsessed by her work really put the "cult" in "cult following," if you catch my drift.) It outlived the end of the world.
I thought about this idea of art at the end of the world while I was on assignment yesterday afternoon, sitting in a near-empty Centennial Concert Hall as masked Royal Winnipeg Ballet company members — in full dress — performed scenes from their upcoming production of The Sleeping Beauty to a camera crew so that audiences can enjoy it from the safety of home. I was stuck by the notion of Marius Petipa’s century-old ballet, based Charles Perrault’s 325-year old adaptation of a story even older than that, being packaged and presented in such a modern way with technology that would be inconceivable to either man, and how not even a pandemic can stop art from being made.
The Royal Winnipeg Ballet performs Seventh Symphony at the Centennial Concert Hall in Winnipeg last year. (Daniel Crump / Royal Winnipeg Ballet)
Our pandemic is not the humanity-ending pandemic of Station Eleven, of course, but I’ve been thinking a lot about how people are still making art during what’s been an incredibly trying time. I’m not just talking about Winnipeg’s ever-pivoting arts organizations — though they deserve their roses, too — but also the Miranda Carrolls of the world, quietly working away on their own projects.
Creativity takes energy, space and time; what we think are the fruits of inspiration and motivation are, more often than not, the results of consistency and discipline. And at a time when so many people are so very tired, the act of creating seems even more unlikely, like catching a star in the palm of your hand.
To that end, there’s plenty of art that’s not being made right now by people who have been forced into untenable situations, and have had to defer dreams or put aside passion projects to take care of themselves or others. They are not writing the next King Lear or much of anything at all. But those people are still artists. Making art isn’t just an act of production; it’s also about being, observing, absorbing. Art helps us make sense of life. Living, then, is a pretty big part of the process.
It’s a well-established part of Winnipeg lore that the reason we have such a robust and prolific arts scene is because our winters are long. There’s a parallel to be drawn between the slog of a Winnipeg winter and the slog of a pandemic, with its tendency to turn inward, to hunker down, to create, and then emerge — sometimes with a finished product, sometimes with the germ of an idea. Maybe it will see the light of day. Maybe it won’t. Either way, you made it through a tough season.
There’s a poem I love, by Marge Piercy, called For The Young Who Want To about the toil of creative work, the dark-night-of-the-soul stuff that happens before the champagne fizz of applause, accolades, awards and recognition. “Work is its own cure,” it concludes. “You have to like it better than being loved.”
Miranda Carroll knew that. So, too, did the Travelling Symphony. Work is its own cure. The play’s the thing. And art, like nature, finds a way.
Jen Zoratti, Columnist