2020 was meant to be a year of possibilities, a new decade, the trope of the roaring twenties. Looking back, I feel naïve believing in this sense of potentiality in those final days of 2019.
Instead, the year 2020 was marked by mourning.
I cannot help but feel a sense of anger towards who is deserving of our collective grief and who is not. Ignorant phrases used to connect the virus to China, most notably by the 45th President of the United States, acted as a way to deflect from any sort of responsibility for the pandemic. In turn, it dehumanizes the extreme loss experienced by those living through the virus in China.
The call for compassion through connection is fostered by collaborative projects within the art world. I myself connected with Sha Li to discuss her project, Post from the 1st Lockdown done in collaboration with artists Gaia Fugazza and Luigi Galimbert. The project offered a space to discuss how collaboration can foster as sense of connection, and most importantly, humanize those who are still in grief from the pandemic. Li reflected on the project a year after its launch, and shared with me where she sees this project going in the future.
Post from the 1st Lockdown began as a digital online art project that acted as a point of contact between artists in Wuhan experiencing the initial pandemic lockdowns, and the greater digital world. It was done through the contributions of Cang Xin, Chen Peifang, Chen Xi, Cui Yu, Deng Jianjin, Dong Mo, Fang He, Ge Yulu, Han Bo, Ji Xuefei, Jiang Cheng, Jin Haofan, Jin Jinghong, Juan Po, Li Danni, Li JiKai, Li Jingxiong, Li Liao, Liu Xinyi, Lu Shan, Luo Kai, Luxi Liu, Ma Jun, Tan Tan, Wang Zhiyi, Wen Jing, Yang Fei, Yuan Han, Zhang Jing, Zhu Xu, and Zi Jie. The project showcases how art production can be used as a vehicle for activism, allowing artists within the region to share conditions under lockdown outside of the contradictory narratives portrayed by the media. The rhetoric of political leaders and the media outside of China has fostered a violent blame-game, strengthening the problematic “West and the Rest,” rhetoric that feeds off of ignorance and hate.
“We started something very simple, it was actually the artists [Fugazza and Galimbert] that approached me” Li states. The project was meant to connect art and social responsibility, to allow artists in Wuhan to share their personal experiences of sadness, loss, joy, fear, and anxiety. Li notes that there was a need to develop a piece that would act as a curatorial project of care. While a project engaging with strict government mandated lockdowns can never be apolitical, Li shared that the project was first and foremost about caring for these artists and their works –to build up the community and to foster individual voices, countering homogenization. Li, Fugazza, and Galimbert utilized digital forms of connection to providing a sense of care towards the artists, sharing their initial email correspondence on the website. The goal of the project was to foster a reciprocal dialogue.
The project remains on a minimalist black and white website, guided by a quiet serif font. Each artist that participated in the project had a timestamped post. Some artists shared personal stories in both English and Mandarin, while others provided only visual narratives. Li notes how the project filled the gap of documenting what life was like for individuals living in Wuhan. She noted how at the time the project was created, most countries in North American and Europe had yet to experience conditions under lockdown: “Even when I viewed this project [at the time], I could feel their pain and struggle.” By the first week of April, Gaia Fugazza posted a letter to the artists in the project noting that the lockdown had reached Europe. Fugazza reflected on the ethics surrounding artists responding to trauma of the Covid-19 outbreak and the risk of voyeurism. Fugazza noted the psychological overlaps they resonated with in the early works that artists from Wuhan shared.
However, the lockdowns in China were drastically different from those experienced in other regions, with Li explaining that “you [were not] allowed to go out, to visit retirement homes, to go to the supermarket. Even deliveries couldn’t be accessed. When you want food, it is community based, it is equally distributed. It’s a sort of forced community. It is like forced collaboration. Without question you have to behave a certain way.”
The strict lockdown proved to create limitations for the project. After postal service was disrupted in the Hubei region, a large majority of the contributions were received digitally through email and WeChat. One contributor, Zhu Xi, created a series of small-sized paper works in tandem with the app, Meitu Xiuxiu, to make several short videos. Xi then included written contributions through Smartisan Notes, reflecting on the lack of humanity shown by the global community.
One particularly poignant piece by the artist Tan Tan, includes a visual diary in which she shares a photograph from her window every day of the Central South Hospital of Wuhan University. Tan Tan offers a space to reflect and mourn on the loss of life. She describes the mental health effects during this time: panic, anxiety, anger, sadness, depression, and redemption.
While popular discourses have focused on macro-narratives, describing the faults and achievements of each country, and in turn, perpetuating nationalistic narratives, Post from the 1st Lockdown engages with the micro-narratives that require us to humanize the loss we all feel. These micro-narratives are visible in Luxi Liu’s work. Liu shared a brief summary of her work titled “lighthouse.” After being stuck inside during lockdown she found an old headlamp. The piece is a photograph of Liu sitting on her bed reading in the darkness, with the only light source coming from the headlamp. She views the piece as both a comical pun on “light” in the “house,” but also invites further symbols of direction and hope. Sha Li notes that the piece spoke to her as an emotional visualization of how the confines of lockdown resulted in artists like Liu investigating their selfhood, “digging into a truth of existence and what makes you a human being.”
I wonder if projects that follow a framework of collaboration/connection can assist in the peril of dehumanization. Dehumanization attempts to deny a group’s humanity or humanness, and often materializes in the notion that some are less worthy of rights or treatment ascribed to other humans. The dehumanization of East Asian countries during the pandemic have amplified the deep history of violence against diasporic Asian communities. Projects like Post from the 1st Lockdown attempt to breakdown the binary of “West and the Rest,” a continuous process of colonization that attempts to divide countries into two groups, leading to the illusion of difference and a false perception of “cultural supremacy.” While some may examine this at a macro-level, it is the micro-narratives that need to be addressed as they have tangible devastating consequences. I would be remiss not to note the act of domestic terrorism in Atlanta that took the lives of eight individuals, six of them of Asian descent: Hyun Jung Grant, Xiaojie Tan, Delania Ashley Yuan, Yong Ae Yue, Suncha Kim, Soon Chung Park, and Daoyou Feng. It was an attack fuelled by white supremacy, and fostered by the dehumanizing rhetoric directly attached to the colonizing mission of the “West and the Rest.”
In the digital age it can be challenging to find the space to experience grief. There is at times a focus on moving forward, on celebrating the progress that has been made without allowing for any contemplation on the loss that we have experienced. I resonate with Tan Tan’s vulnerability expressed in her self-reflection on anger:
“Anger comes and goes in my diary. I think there are different reasons for being furious in every distinct nation under such epidemic situation. In China, especially in Wuhan, in the beginning, I was so angry about our political system that was always trying to cover the bad news, which caused about ten days delay in dealing with this virus. Li Wenliang, as one of the ‘whistleblowers’ to warn people of the suspicious virus, became internationally acclaimed as a Chinese hero oppressed by the ‘Big Brother,’ and killed by Coronavirus. After being a volunteer, I became even angrier day by day over many inefficient and inhuman measures from certain authorities, like the Chinese Committee of the Red Cross, which controlled the biggest storage of the supplies but was not competent for distributing them timely. This feeling was also provoked by various discrimination present among the people. Some of international media (outside China) insists on the stigma of ‘Wuhan Pneumonia’ although it has got the scientific name (COVID-19) already in January; there are some Westerners who like to shout at Chinese people (or even Asian looking people) on the street as ‘Coronavirus’; inside China, people from Wuhan and Hubei (the province of Wuhan) are discriminated by those from other areas; even in my own building, my neighbours didn’t allow a tenement to live here anymore when he came back in Wuhan from another city, for he might be a threat to bring the virus to this ‘zero infected building’…”
On a perhaps selfishly self-reflective note, I cannot help but feel that sense of anger too. The visibility of trauma and hurt is contrasted with ignorance. Some may try to avoid caring for others by ignoring lockdown protocols in an attempt to gain a sense of superficial normalcy. I am angry that anger is viewed as unwarranted.
But collaboration and connection has offered a slight remedy. Slight. It connects us to a greater network of those that share this anger and loss. However, I’m not sure I want to fully remedy my anger. A part of me wants this anger to continue to live in me so that I do not forget the loss.
Li notes that reflecting on the project, a year after its launch, how difficult it is to remain in contact with many of the artists: “It’s interesting how a year afterwards I can’t reach out to 80% of these artists. I think for various reasons. Some have moved on, not because they’re ignoring this project but because they don’t want to look back, it’s traumatic for them.” Li hopes to see the project further monetarily support these artists allowing them to be sold to also have full ownership if they are shared. She sees the project as a continuous project of care that will further make prevalent the power and limitless means of collaboration.
In the future, the pandemic will be a part of history, and Post from the 1st Lockdown will (and already has) become an archive. But perhaps it is our collective, our collaborative, and our connective responsibility to humanize this archive, humanize the loss, and to remind ourselves that we may need time to grieve. While the loss in other countries may be disseminated through numbers, we can only hope to try our best to turn these numbers into names.
The collaborators of the project are planning a panel this April featuring a live poetry reading by curator Shen Boliang.
You can engage with the Post from the 1st Lockdown project through their website:https://www.lockdownpost.org/
You can read more about Gaia Fugazza’s practice through her website: https://www.grandine.co.uk/
I am grateful to Sha Li who offered me the privilege of taking the time to connect and discuss this collaborative project. On a personal note, I am honoured to have worked with Sha over the past six months, collaborating on both a personal and professional level. I have deep admiration for this project and am humbled by the collective care that it showcases. You can reach Sha through her personal website: https://www.shalicurating.com/