She made this massive installation about infectious disease...and then COVID-19 happened

Magdolene Dykstra's Polyanthroponemia is about our connection to the planet and each other — an idea that has new meaning in a global pandemic.

It's about our connection to the planet and each other — an idea that has new meaning in a global pandemic

Polyanthroponemia, an installation by Magdolene Dykstra, debuted at Toronto's Gardiner Museum March 4 as part of Raw. The group exhibition was originally scheduled to run to June 7. In response to the global pandemic, the museum has been closed since March 14. (Toni Hafkenscheid)

In the middle of February — the same week COVID-19 entered the global vocabulary — Magdolene Dykstra was busy inside Toronto's Gardiner Museum, fixing clay to the walls and ceiling as she finished her latest installation. 

"Coronavirus wasn't in my consciousness," she says. "It just wouldn't have been in our own backyard at the time." So it's "pretty strange," as she writes on Instagram, that she was building an installation about widespread contagion. 

Dykstra's piece debuted March 4 at the Gardiner Museum as part of Raw, a group exhibition that was originally scheduled to run to June 7. But like so many institutions around the world, the gallery had closed its doors by March 14, responding to the global pandemic. Now home with her family in St. Catharines, Ont., where she'll be living and working in self-isolation for the foreseeable future, Dykstra says she's been thinking about the ways "life imitates art which imitates life."

Her installation is called Polyanthroponemia, a mouthful of a title that was inspired by the author James Lovelock. He coined the term in his 2009 book The Vanishing Face of Gaia, and his theory goes like this: imagine the Earth is an organism — a single living thing that behaves a lot like our own bodies. When the human population gets out of control, he posits, people become a sort of plague to their home planet. And, like anything that catches a bug, the Earth will fight to survive the infection.

Detail of Polyanthroponemia, installed at the Gardiner Museum in Toronto. (Toni Hafkenscheid)

"The idea behind my installation is to visualize what it would look like if the Earth's immune system started pushing into the gallery space," says Dykstra, and her original plan was to keep adding to the work over the run of the show. Every panel of the installation is made of unfired clay and stringy nylon fibre, and these "growths" have been molded into bubbling forms that suggest ominously metastasizing cells.

It's not pretty, which is the point. Says Dykstra: "When we get coaxed into patterns of only dealing with things that are easy to look at, and easy to reckon with, I think we forget all the work we have to do."

Hung to look like they're oozing from the walls, by closing day this artful infection would have spread beyond the exhibition gallery, creeping past the emergency exit and into a whole new territory.

I'm thinking about the fact that we are so irrevocably connected.- Magdolene Dykstra, artist

The idea is to create something overwhelming — something equal parts awesome and terrifying — something sublime. And where the Romantic artists of the 1800s would have painted mountain ranges and tempests, Dykstra flips the scale, depicting that same uncanny wonder at a microscopic level.

In 2018, while finishing an MFA at Virginia Commonwealth University, she started developing this new "visual language" for herself, inspired by cellular growth. "I started thinking a little bit more about how the individual disappears when we're in crowds," she says. There are 7.7 billion humans on the planet. "How do you represent what it means to be an individual in that context?"

In Dykstra's sculptures, the details don't pull focus. It's about the swarm, not the cell. "I'm thinking about the fact that we are so irrevocably connected," she says. "We're so interdependent." In one way, Polyanthroponemia is confronting viewers with the ugly side of that story: human intervention is a literal cancer on the environment. But it is, more largely, a reflection on the links that intrinsically bond all forms of life, so reading it as a visual aid on the positive effects of "social distancing" isn't impossible, either. "Which is ironic," says Dykstra, "because we're isolating because we are so interdependent." 

As news unfolds, Dykstra says she's continuously re-framing her thoughts about the work. "This is still an in-process experience for me, as it is for everybody."

Detail of Polyanthroponemia by Magdolene Dykstra. (Toni Hafkenscheid)

CBC Arts understands that this is an incredibly difficult time for artists and arts organizations across this country. We will do our best to provide valuable information, share inspiring stories of communities rising up and make us all feel as (virtually) connected as possible as we get through this together. If there's something you think we should be talking about, let us know by emailing us at See more of our COVID-related coverage here.


Leah Collins

Senior Writer

Since 2015, Leah Collins has been senior writer at CBC Arts, covering Canadian visual art and digital culture in addition to producing CBC Arts’ weekly newsletter (Hi, Art!), which was nominated for a Digital Publishing Award in 2021. A graduate of Toronto Metropolitan University's journalism school (formerly Ryerson), Leah covered music and celebrity for Postmedia before arriving at CBC.

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