Creativity Under Quarantine: Shirley Tse, Liu Xiaodong and Zhang Yanzi on making art in these uncertain times

Zhang Yanzi, Mask Diary, 2020, ink, colour on medical masks. Image courtesy of the artist.
“February 21st, New York.
I went to see a show in Brooklyn with my daughter, and at the subway station on 14th street, 6th Avenue, I saw someone chalk down an “L” after the subway signs “F” and “M”, and write the words “Fuck My Life” underneath.
Someone in the subway was rocking loudly with a drum, but I couldn’t stop the words I saw spinning in my head.
Chang Kai, a director of the Wuhan film studio, his family of four all died of Covid-19.
Diamond Princess has confirmed 634 cases.
A total of 451 cases have been confirmed outside China.”
Extract from the Mask Diary, 2020, by Zhang Yanzi
. Image courtesy of the artist.
“April 1, New York
Today is April Fool’s day. So I draw a big fool.
To be stupid comes at a price.
In the United States, 215,378 cases have been confirmed, with 5,109 deaths.”
Extract from the Mask Diary, 2020, by Zhang Yanzi. 
Image courtesy of the artist.
Liu Xiaodong, Twin Sisters, 2020, from the series “Spring in New York Under the Pandemic”, watercolour, 25 x 33.5 cm. Image courtesy of Lisson Gallery.
Liu Xiaodong, Yu Hong on 6th Avenue, 2020, from the series “Spring in New York Under the Pandemic”, watercolour, 25 x 33.5 cm. Image courtesy of Lisson Gallery.
Shirley Tse in her studio, late 2018. Image courtesy of the artist.
Shirley Tse, Income Inequality, 2016, paper, paint and 24k gold bracelets, 55.9 × 78.7 × 76.2 cm. Image courtesy of the artist.
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ART Power HK

Chinese contemporary artists Zhang Yanzi, Liu Xiaodong, and LA-based Hong Kong artist Shirley Tse are all now in the United States, which has so far recorded more deaths from COVID-19 than any other country. We spoke to each of these artists to discuss the pandemic’s impact on them individually as well as on society as a whole. Their prognosis is grim, but there is good news: the virus is already inspiring creativity in unimagined ways.

TEXT: Nicholas Stephens
IMAGES: Courtesy of Zhang Yanzi, Shirley Tse, and Lisson Gallery

 

Zhang Yanzi: The Mask Covers Our Real Face

Zhang Yanzi was overtaken by events while visiting her daughter, who is studying in New York City. Since 17 February, she has been confined in her daughter’s apartment, unable to return to Beijing; rarely going out; obedient to New York’s stay-at-home message. As she puts it: “Dwelling in a constricted space definitely limits my freedom. It’s tough for me to get sunshine, to enjoy fresh air, to meet friends, to go to the gym, or to go to an art gallery. It’s been a hard time.”

Art is a calming influence and a chronicle of these unprecedented times. “Fortunately, I can still make artworks. My work, Mask Diary, is a record of this situation.”

 

Zhang Yanzi, Mask Diary, 2020, ink, colour on medical masks. Image courtesy of the artist.

 

Usually Beijing-based, where she is a professor at CAFA, Zhang Yanzi is an artist who continually investigates the fine line between health and sickness. Her shows at the Hong Kong Museum of Medical Sciences and Scotland’s Surgeons’ Hall Museums harnessed the tools of medicine (gauze bandages, pills, and analgesic plasters) to create works that acknowledge the precarious nature of our lives.

During this time of the coronavirus, the mask has become her leitmotif: “As the pandemic spread, the mask suddenly became a very complicated symbol. When I looked at the mask from a cultural perspective, I discovered that it is not only a tool to prevent the virus, but also a cage isolating human beings from fresh air. Finally, it covers our real faces.”

What does the mask cover? 

“Isolation, avoidance, illusions, barriers, distance, misunderstandings, doubt, fear, anger, contempt, discrimination, break-ups…”

 

“February 21st, New York.
I went to see a show in Brooklyn with my daughter, and at the subway station on 14th street, 6th Avenue, I saw someone chalk down an “L” after the subway signs “F” and “M”, and write the words “Fuck My Life” underneath.
Someone in the subway was rocking loudly with a drum, but I couldn’t stop the words I saw spinning in my head.
Chang Kai, a director of the Wuhan film studio, his family of four all died of Covid-19.
Diamond Princess has confirmed 634 cases.
A total of 451 cases have been confirmed outside China.”
Extract from the Mask Diary, 2020, by Zhang Yanzi
. Image courtesy of the artist.

 

Some people forecast some positive effects of the virus on future society: we may perhaps pause and treasure simple things; we may consume with more consideration; or give more time to what we truly value. Zhang’s view is more pessimistic. As if with the mask in mind, she speculates whether the current situation is a harbinger of the growing trend towards alienation—to fences being erected between humans physically, emotionally, and mentally. She says it is too soon to know how the virus will impact her work, “but it definitely will.”

Zhang views the future with some trepidation: “Personally, I have a sense of fear about the future. I am afraid that I will become a person with minimal sight, just like the one in the old fable, The Frog in the Shallow Well, who can only look up at his little bit of the sky and eventually loses the ability to jump out.”

 

“April 1, New York
Today is April Fool’s day. So I draw a big fool.
To be stupid comes at a price.
In the United States, 215,378 cases have been confirmed, with 5,109 deaths.”
Extract from the Mask Diary, 2020, by Zhang Yanzi. 
Image courtesy of the artist.

 

Liu Xiaodong: Nationalism Will Rise, the Vulnerable Will Suffer

Chinese artist Liu Xiaodong, also a professor at CAFA, is similarly marooned in New York City. Like Zhang, the situation was thrust upon him, but it is inspiring new, eerie creations: a series of watercolours entitled “Spring in New York under the Pandemic.” These will be presented on Lisson Gallery’s Online Exhibition space from 29 June to 11 July 2020.

The disruption of COVID-19 has made Liu’s life simpler, in keeping with the situation in which millions find themselves. His exhibition schedule has been impacted: both “Borders” at Dallas Contemporary, Texas, and “Uummannaq” (Greenland) at the Faurschou Foundation, New York City, have been postponed to autumn. In addition, the effects of the restriction on movement are exacerbated by his presence in a foreign country: “Like everyone else, basically I’m stuck at home. I only go out to buy food. It’s been like this for more than three months now. I’m in New York City; flights have been almost entirely cancelled; I have no means to return to Beijing.” 

 

Liu Xiaodong, Twin Sisters, 2020, from the series “Spring in New York Under the Pandemic”, watercolour, 25 x 33.5 cm. Image courtesy of Lisson Gallery.

 

One of Liu’s gifts as an artist is to locate the human dimension in macro-events such as population displacements, environmental catastrophes, or economic inequalities. It was therefore no surprise that, when considering the present situation, his thoughts soon turned to the lasting global consequences of COVID-19: “I think there will be some degree of change in society after the pandemic. This virus has already been made into a global political matter. The political relationships between western societies and China will become much more complicated. The lack of harmony between countries will have a direct impact on everyone’s life.”

He believes that political volatility, powered by technology, will sharpen some of society’s least attractive trends and will inevitably affect the most vulnerable: “The power of governments will be strengthened, and personal information will be more accessible and therefore controlled. Nationalism and episodes of exclusion will permeate into daily life and ethnic minorities will suffer injustice and feel less secure. Cultural exchanges between people will be affected; large-scale activities will be reduced; and the boundaries of personal life will shrink.”

Liu also notes there is likely to be a period when governments are all doing the same thing, but that this will be detrimental and risk becoming a zero-sum game: “This is a global war against the virus. After the war, every country will be more or less in the same predicament, all busy recovering their economies and expanding their political power.”

 

Liu Xiaodong, Yu Hong on 6th Avenue, 2020, from the series “Spring in New York Under the Pandemic”, watercolour, 25 x 33.5 cm. Image courtesy of Lisson Gallery.

 

But Liu is, perhaps by nature, not a pessimist, and sometimes the ability of humanity to forget can be constructive: “Maybe just the opposite will happen, and in two years’ time people will have forgotten about the epidemic, and life will carry on as always, possibly even more frantic.” Liu thereby acknowledges the unpredictability of outcomes and the uncharted territory in which we all find ourselves.

One of COVID-19s most insidious side effects is the isolation of individuals, combined with the sense of extreme uncertainty the pandemic has generated. We asked Liu to link the global forces in play to the individual human ones, particularly with reference to psychology. He sees isolation as leading to a new single-mindedness of thought, but also to increased family bonds. “The epidemic weakened the dependency between human beings. After a few months isolated from other people, we grow accustomed to forming our own opinions, to not socialising. Within families, family members reach unprecedented psychological dependence: their feelings towards each other grow deeper.” Perhaps acknowledging our own fragility is a step away from pointless struggles or worldly ambitions: “It also kind of feels like the world is approaching its end. It is so fragile. The so-called power is just a game between human beings. Confronted with microbes invisible to the naked eyes, human beings cannot stand and fight.”

  

Shirley Tse: Pandemic Lays Bare Our Devastating Inequalities 

Shirley Tse is not separated from Hong Kong by exigent circumstances. She grew up there, but is now a professor at CalArts in Los Angeles, California. However, despite working overseas, she still feels deeply connected to Hong Kong. She feels a sense of living through coronavirus twice: “Back in January, my relatives in Hong Kong were telling me about how surreal their lives were under COVID-19, which at that time seemed like tales from a faraway land. By the time the virus hit California, I definitely was experiencing a feeling of déjà vu.” 

There are immense practical disruptions for many in this period but teachers are feeling this more than most. A deliberate aversion to the insidious influence of technology on human behaviour makes the current situation more trying for Tse: “I teach at CalArts, and remote teaching has been challenging for me. In the early days of social media, I decided that I didn’t want to participate (beyond a web site). I never signed up for Facebook. The reason is less about privacy, but rather a conscious decision to avoid facilitating ‘digital social conditioning’ and big-brothering ourselves. I strongly prefer in-person social interactions. Now that we can only connect through virtual means, what once was a nightmare has turned into reality.”

 

Shirley Tse in her studio, late 2018. Image courtesy of the artist.

 

In her artistic practice, Tse’s experimentations with interaction and interconnectedness spotlight interdependence and serve to stress-test our willingness to adapt and flex in order to cooperate and survive. In this rather desperate time, this field of research has been vindicated like never before. As she puts it, “For the past two years, I have been immersed in the concept of stakeholders, since that was the title I gave to my Venice Biennale 2019 project for Hong Kong. I was giving different examples—analogies and metaphors—when asked to explain [the concept of] ‘stakeholders.’ Ever since COVID-19 hit the world, it needs little explanation. It is so painfully clear to everyone that we are all at stake, and our action and inaction has an effect on others way down the line, even though that may not be obvious to us at first. We live in a world of strong second and third order effects.”

 

Shirley Tse, Income Inequality, 2016, paper, paint and 24k gold bracelets, 55.9 × 78.7 × 76.2 cm. Image courtesy of the artist.

 

“Stakeholders” is travelling to M+ in Hong Kong this summer and Tse is closely involved with the vicissitudes of the associated logistics. The lockdown is a challenge to site-specific works that navigate unique spaces. Again, technology can only bring the artist so far: “Some of my sculptures can be installed by others according to remote interaction/instructions, but many of my installations are site-responsive. I negotiate with the space as I install. Zoom meetings and the like are a poor translator of three-dimensional space and the sense of presence.”

Living with uncertainty is a challenge for all, but the theory of stakeholding means that change is to be expected. “I think most people are uncomfortable with, if not anxious about, uncertainties. This is the mode of thinking and being that my art practice has led me to, namely: plasticity, malleability, and the non-predetermined. These have guided my philosophy and are more relevant now than ever before.” 

Like Liu, Tse worries that the consequences of the virus may aggravate existing structural weaknesses in our society. “Many have written about how the pandemic lays bare our devastating inequalities. We hold uneven stakes. The optimistic side of me sees this moment as truly transformational—perhaps in the world’s greatest reset we will finally exercise our agency and stop being complacent. However, the pessimistic side of me sees the status quo—mismanagement of Federal aid, for example—will only exacerbate the divide.”

Taking an active role in helping and combatting these evils is possible. It’s also an antidote to uncertainty: “I think in general there is a kind of paralysis many artists are experiencing right now as our attentions and energies are being pulled in other directions by necessity. I was in the process of developing new work [when COVID-19 hit], but instead I used my 3D printer to print face shield frames in bulk for healthcare workers. That is one concrete way to contribute, and keep myself in my studio.” For Shirley, these masks are also a practical realisation of the stakeholder thesis, and a path forward in artistic creation: “Out of this service, I believe new inspiration and work will present itself. I just need to remain open and responsive, as I am still a stakeholder!”

 

 

About the Artists 

Zhang Yanzi

Zhang Yanzi was born in 1967 in Zhenjiang, Jiangsu Province. In 2013, she won the Gold Award at the Jinling Painting Exhibition of One Hundred Chinese Artists, and that same year she won the Best Artwork Award at the Lu Xun Culture Awards. Subsequent exhibitions included a solo show at PAN Palazzo delle Arti di Napoli, Italy (2014); “Specials” at the Female Artists Salon at the Manet Art Collection in Beijing (2014); “Devotion to Ink,” organized by Galerie Ora-Ora at Hong Kong Maritime Museum (2014); and solo show “Blooming Season and Solace of Art,” Shanghai (2014). She also showed at the Today Art Museum in Beijing in 2013 and at 5Art Guangzhou and Art Basel in 2015. An artist who is fascinated by issues related to health, wellness, and the frailty and resilience of the human body, she has investigated medical themes throughout her artistic career. In the summer of 2015, Zhang spent several weeks in residence at the Hong Kong Museum of Medical Sciences. The resulting show, which took place in July and August 2016, demonstrated that she is an artist who embraces the opportunity to develop her art in new creative directions. Zhang Yanzi is based in Beijing and serves as the editor-in-chief of CAFA Art Info at the Central Academy of Fine Arts. Her art may be seen at the National Art Museum of China, the Jiangsu Provincial Art Museum, the CAFA Art Museum, M+, L’Università degli Studi di Napoli “L’Orientale,” and the Audemars Piguet Museum, among others. She also exhibited at the 2017 Venice Biennale. In 2018, she held two six-month solo shows in the UK, one at the Museum of East Asian Art in Bath, and the other at the Surgeon’s Hall Museum in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Liu Xiaodong

Liu Xiaodong lives and works in Beijing but has undertaken projects in Tibet, Japan, Italy, the United Kingdom, Cuba, and Austria, and, closer to home, in Jincheng in the north-eastern province of Liaoning, China, where he was born in 1963. He has a BFA and an MFA in painting from the Central Academy of Fine Arts, Beijing (1988, 1995), where he now holds tenure as professor. He continued his studies at the Academy of Fine Arts, Complutense University of Madrid, Spain (1998–1999). His work has been the subject of numerous solo exhibitions at venues including the Louisiana Museum, Denmark (2019); NRW-Forum & Kunsthalle Düsseldorf, Düsseldorf, Germany (2018); Chronus Art Centre, Shanghai, China (2016); Palazzo Strozzi, Florence, Italy (2016); Fondazione Giorgio Cini, Venice, Italy (2015); Shao Zhong Foundation Art Museum, Guangzhou, China (2014); Minsheng Museum, Shanghai, China (2014); Seattle Art Museum, WA, USA (2013); Today Art Museum, Beijing, China (2013); Kunsthaus Graz, Austria (2012); Xinjiang Arts Centre, Urumqi, China (2012); and Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, Beijing, China (2010). His work has also been included in numerous group exhibitions including Qatar Museums Gallery, Doha (2016); Gwangju Biennale (2014); Shanghai Biennale (2000, 2010); the 15th Biennale of Sydney, Australia (2006); and the Venice Biennale, Italy (2013, 1997).

 Shirley Tse

Los Angeles-based Hong Kong artist Shirley Tse (born 1968) received a Master of Fine Arts degree from ArtCenter College of Design, Pasadena, and a Bachelor of Arts degree from the Chinese University of Hong Kong Department of Fine Arts. Her work has been exhibited at venues including the Pasadena Museum of California Art (2004/2017); Osage, Hong Kong (2010/2011); K11, Hong Kong (2009); Kettle’s Yard, University of Cambridge (2009); the Museum of Modern Fine Art, Minsk (2006); the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University (2005); Para Site, Hong Kong (2000/2005); the Kaohsiung Museum of Fine Arts (2003); the Art Gallery of Ontario (2002); the Bienal Ceará América, Fortaleza (2002); the Biennale of Sydney (2002); Capp Street Project, San Francisco (2002); the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston (2002); MoMA PS1 (2002); the New Museum (2002); Palazzo dell’Arengo, Rimini (2002); the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (2001); TENT, Centrum Beeldende Kunst Rotterdam (2001); and Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, New Plymouth, New Zealand (2000). Her work is featured in many articles, catalogues, and other publications including Akademie X: Lessons in Art + Life (2015) and Sculpture Today (2007). Tse received the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship in 2009 and has been on the faculty at California Institute of the Arts since 2001, where she is the Robert Fitzpatrick Chair in Art. In 2019, “Stakeholders” by Shirley Tse represented Hong Kong at the Venice Biennale.

 

 

 
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