China’s great artists, confined to their homes, capture love and loss during the coronavirus

Apr 07, 2020

Chinese artists have turned to their work to get through social isolation.

As much of the world locks down in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic, many people are experiencing the boredom and uncertainty that wracked most of China during the initial outbreak in January and February.

In the past few weeks, people have found light relief playing dinner-table beer pong, tackling TikTok dance challenges, and catching up on movies they’ve been meaning to watch.

Meanwhile, the world’s great artists and photographers—confined to their homes—have been creating pieces that manifest the worry, anger, and hope felt by so many others during this crisis.

Here’s how five Chinese artists responded to the pandemic during its early stages.

“We Have a Chinese Dream” by Li Zhengde
“We Have a Chinese Dream” by Li Zhengde / Photo: Courtesy of the artist

New love in the time of the coronavirus

Shenzhen-based photographer Li Zhengde spent four months trapped in his hometown of Anhua, a small county in rural Hunan Province, when the coronavirus broke out in China.

He had returned in December to get married. “It was supposed to be a happy time,” he says. “My partner, Wu Yue, was already heavily pregnant, and we were going to stay with her family until she gave birth.”

Li’s plan was to photograph Anhua while they awaited the arrival of their son. But then the virus struck not long after their wedding.

“Love in the Time of the Virus” by Li Zhengde
“Love in the Time of the Virus” by Li Zhengde / Photo: Courtesy of the artist

“We got stuck indoors,” he recalls. “We couldn’t even go to the supermarket without a mask. and we only had one for the entire extended family.”

Trapped in their 16th-floor apartment overlooking the verdant mountains and jade waters of the Zi River, Li spent his initial weeks in lockdown worrying his first son would be born under a bad star.

(Read more: Why more women in China are choosing to be single moms)

“I had nothing else to do but stare out at the night sky from my window every evening,” he says. “I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t go out and shoot photos.”

Eventually, Li managed to organize his thoughts and get creative. He meditated on the seemingly paradoxical situation in which they found themselves.

“Life, love, death, nature, and the universe—everything became immediate and intertwined.”

Li Zhengde

“The number of deaths was increasing every day while our child stretched my wife’s stomach and the scenery outside the window softly changed over time,” Li recalls. “Life, love, death, nature, and the universe—everything became immediate and intertwined.”

His contemplation of the metaphysical resulted in existential pieces such as Love in the Time of the Virus, Birth 1 & 2, and Monster’s Garden, which express a sense of detachment from the built world.

“Monster’s Garden” by Li Zhengde
“Monster’s Garden” by Li Zhengde / Photo: Courtesy of the artist

“Despite all our advanced tech­nology, an invisible microbe stopped us in our tracks,” he says. “Looking back on the long river of human history, I consi­dered our attempts to conquer nature. It reeked of arrogance.”

“Exploding with Bad News” by Wu Qiang
“Exploding with Bad News” by Wu Qiang / Photo: Courtesy of the artist

Pent-up angst and dark visions

Beijing-based ink painter Wu Qiang is known for his abstract portraits reminiscent of Francis Bacon’s raw imagery.

His family was traveling south to Guangdong Province for vacation when the coronavirus epidemic reached its peak in China at the end of January.

“We were trapped in a serviced apartment I’d rented in Huizhou,” a city in Guangdong, Wu recalls. “Four of us in one tiny room, living long days of boredom permeated by moments of panic whenever we read the daily news reports. Can you imagine? I began to feel very pessimistic about life and the future for my two boys.”

(Read more: The hopelessness of Hong Kong’s youth captured in ‘ugly’ cartoons)

After a month holed up in the room, Wu decided he needed some fresh air and went to his old stomping ground, the Wutong Mountain Art Village in nearby Shenzhen.

“I went there to sublet a friend’s house,” he says. “But the landlord forbade it under the new quarantine rules.”

One of Wu Qiang’s paintings depicts a nightmare he had about an infected soul wandering alone through a graveyard.
One of Wu Qiang’s paintings depicts a nightmare he had about an infected soul wandering alone through a graveyard. / Photo: Courtesy of the artist

So Wu returned to Huizhou, where his family remained, and bought some paper and ink on the way.

“I couldn’t help but create images relating to our situation and the nightmares I’d been having,” he says.

One of his most vivid visions—which Wu turned into a painting—involved an infected soul looking for a place to rest among endless rows of tombstones wearing masks.

“My paintings are usually colorful,” he says, “but in these works, it is always night.”

“Self-Portrait” by Zhang Xiaowu
“Self-Portrait” by Zhang Xiaowu / Photo: Courtesy of the artist

Making sense of the noise

Zhang Xiaowu, an art teacher in Zhejiang Province, traveled to Hangzhou, the province’s capital, to be with his wife’s family during Chinese New Year. She was working in the gynecology department of a local hospital.

When the virus hit, he was soon overwhelmed by the noise coming from all sides—first-hand reports from his wife, who had many colleagues in Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak in China; chatter on the social media platforms WeChat and Weibo; and official reports from state media.

“There was so much information to take in each day that I could not separate fact from fiction.”

Zhang Xiaowu

“There was so much information to take in each day that I could not separate fact from fiction,” he says. “My grief was born not just out of a sense of tragedy but also out of what I felt I could not see.”

Seeking to channel his anxiety into a piece that could express his sense of disorientation, Zhang composed a photograph he calls simply Self-Portrait.

(Read more: Chinese internet users are evading coronavirus censorship with code languages)

“In the selfie, I’m wearing a mask,” he says. “The [word on the tape is] ‘feng,’ meaning ‘sealed’, which represents how I felt under quarantine,” he explains. “My mouth has been closed and I am powerless, almost unable to breathe. Although the light above my head is faint, as I look upwards, I still want to try to find it.”

“2020 Plague Expulsion Rite” by Wu Guoyong
“2020 Plague Expulsion Rite” by Wu Guoyong / Photo: Courtesy of the artist

Crowdsourcing quarantine stories

Shenzhen-based photographer Wu Guoyong emerged from relative obscurity in 2018 after his series docu­menting China’s bicycle graveyards, “No Place to Place,” became a hit at photo­graphy festivals from Paris to Moscow.

For his latest project, Wu collected photos from 3,500 people across China who were stuck in their homes and created a collage modeled after The Scream.

“I’ve endeavored throughout this crisis to show the human face of the cata­strophe,” he says, explaining why he chose the iconic Edvard Munch painting.

(Read more: This artist makes giant Chinese paintings with just dots)

Wu managed to conduct the entire project while under quarantine in his home. He had fled Hubei Province, the epicenter of the outbreak in China, just before it went into lockdown on Jan. 23.

“Under quarantine at home in Shenzhen, I got in touch with Luo Dawei, who operates [the online photography platform] Fengmian,” he says. “We asked everyone to document their new year in quarantine then posted the best online.”

“I’ve endeavored throughout this crisis to show the human face of the cata­strophe.”

Wu Guoyong

The endeavor exceeded all expec­tations. “Tencent [China’s biggest social media company] picked up on what we were doing and posted it on their plat­form,” Wu says. “The numbers exploded to millions of viewers.”

Realizing that they might have started something significant, Wu and Luo have already begun thinking about a post-virus exhibition.

“We’ve reached out to all our friends in the art community, from Beijing to Guangzhou, and asked them to contribute images of their time in lockdown,” Wu says.

A girl wears a mask while traveling on China’s “slow train.”
A girl wears a mask while traveling on China’s “slow train.” / Photo: Courtesy of Qian Haifeng

Notes from self-isolation

Photographer Qian Haifeng, whose series documenting life on China’s fading “slow trains” won him international accolades, is no stranger to Chinese New Year.

The rush home during China’s biggest holiday is his favorite time of the year. It’s when he gets to work photographing travel on China’s slowest and oldest trains.

But this year was different.

“I went out to shoot three times this year and took a total of 10 trains,” Qian says. “Throughout the period, the [coronavirus] news story was developing, and I began to see more and more people wearing masks on trains.”

(Read more: How a Taoist priest became an award-winning news photographer)

When he returned to his hometown of Wuxi, near Shanghai, for New Year’s Eve, he went into self-isolation to avoid potentially infecting his elderly parents.

“I had to try to cocoon myself, which meant staying in a dark room all by myself,” he says.

Medical staff sent to check on Qian at his Wuxi home.
Medical staff sent to check on Qian at his Wuxi home. / Photo: Courtesy of Qian Haifeng

Qian endured two weeks of social distancing as meals were delivered to his door and his waste was taken away. Throughout this time, he continued to photograph the medical staff who came to check on him.

On Feb. 7, he received an official notice from the hospital that he could be released after showing no symptoms of the coronavirus.

“When I finally received the notice, I stood at the door of the house and asked the community officer to take a photo so I could commemorate this deeply unusual time in my life,” he says.

Adapted from an article first published in the South China Morning Post.

ArtPhotographyCoronavirus