BEIJING – Mask-wearing nurses, computers that vomit supposed news on current events and videos of animals taking over now-empty streets – these are some of the works of Chinese artists offering an insight into the post-pandemic world.
The exhibition “Meditations in an Emergency” at Beijing’s UCCA Center for Contemporary Art underlines the role of art as a space for deliberation as it brings together works of 26 artists, prompting viewers to reflect on problems brought about by the novel coronavirus, as well as others that have lingered for years.
Isolation, misinformation and prejudice are depicted in the works conveying the need to be flexible and knowing how to adapt to live in the new present.
The idea is in line with Polish sociologist and philosopher Zygmunt Bauman’s (1925-2017) concept of “liquid modernity,” characterized by the present condition of the world – full of uncertainties and rapid changes, with challenges never before encountered.
Chinese artist Zhang Hui (1967) underlines succinctly in his work how the global physical distancing measures to protect against the novel coronavirus has led to greater isolation among people within their societies.
“We have abandoned many of our routines unconsciously. We have been isolated without being able to escape, and things that we did not see before have come to light,” the artist told EFE in front of a painting depicting one nurse looking at another from a distance, despite enjoying the supposed security provided by the mask she wears.
The pandemic, Zhang said, has spread to a point where “everything is related to it,” but above all “it has revealed the true nature of relationships between people – fragile.”
“You can’t save only one person, and that comes at a cost. We have abandoned our desires, our purposes, our plans. We’ve forgotten our ways,” he reflected.
And one of the functions of art, in his opinion, is “to dramatize what is under our feet when you walk and you fall.”
In the post-COVID-19 world, nothing can be taken for granted.
“There are boundaries that have been blurred, and there are no absolute truths. We are facing a world that will be demarcated by restrictions, deception and misunderstandings,” Neil Zhang, one of the curators of the exhibition, explained to EFE.
The falseness of contemporary beauty standards and the obsession with avoiding aging and ailments are portrayed in the “The Purpose of Disease,” an installation in which Amiko Li (1993) rebuilds a hospital to demonstrate our relationship with disease and how we treat it both medically and socially.
Another section of the exhibition shows videos of animals taking over the city’s empty streets after the human species is extinct, as Yi Xin Tong (1988) and Robert Zhao Renhui (1983) denounce the destruction of the environment and question the exceptionalism of human beings.
“The goal is for the spectator to reflect and question the world as we know it. The pandemic has created the first truly global moment of the 21st century,” Zhang added.
In his opinion, the pandemic has put humanity in its place: “We believe that we occupy the top of the biological hierarchy, but we have only invaded natural habitats, to which we must now add population growth and climate change. COVID-19 has brought us back to the discussion of our relationship with nature, having to imagine a world that is not centered around human beings.”
In the section “Out of Focus,” Shanghai artist Payne Zhu (1990) denounces how the internet and its algorithmic dissemination of information has marginalized the veracity of the news in pursuit of emotions, and highlighted “extreme and detached positions” capable of altering the values and behaviors of citizens.
On a mural, it displays all the information related to the word “pandemic” when it is introduced into Baidu’s search engine – the Chinese equivalent of Google – on a computer that keeps updating news.
“This pandemic is reminding us of problems that we already had – one of them is misinformation and over-information,” said the curator, fascinated by the work of Lu Lei (1972), whose work depicted more than 50 giant megaphones emitting pigeon sounds as an allegory of the set-up that causes one to be continually exposed to “absolute truths.”
Meanwhile, Taiwan’s Joyce Ho (1983) installed rocking fences to denounce the segregation generated by the global flow of people, treated as goods, something that, paradoxically, “had been taken for granted in the era of globalization.”
Behind the wall is the work of Christopher K. Ho (1974), who was born in Hong Kong but moved to the United States when he was three years old, and who recounts how he personally perceives the fact that these two worlds now seem determined to separate.
“In the economic discourse of global capitalism, borders are an obstacle to growth, while for populism the walls supposedly protect. The threat from ‘the others’ has always created anxiety, and even in the time of the Black Death (1347-1353) it was used as an excuse to initiate violent movements against minorities,” said the text explaining his work.
In two small rooms facing one another, the creations of Frenchman Pierre Huyghe (1962) and Austrian Oliver Laric (1981) reflect on the intentional manipulation of the cultural imaginary, while Hong Kong’s Angela Su in her installation depicts technology causing a new wave of inequalities.
“We are in a constantly moving world where everything seems possible, but nothing is reliable. Our adaptation to the medium, how to respect it and respect one other will be key to getting out of this crisis,” summarized the curator.