Wuhan, August 2020. Photos: Wu Jing.
We caught up again with Wu Jing 吴静, a painter and performance artist based in Wuhan whose studio we visited for an interview in our Wuhan Creative City Guide video. This article shares a conversation continued through April and May over WeChat during the initial pandemic outbreak lockdown in Wuhan, accompanied by photographs of the city taken by the artist in August, after the city re-opened.
China Residencies: Hi Wu Jing! How have you been?
Wu Jing: Hi! I'm happy to talk to you. I am doing fine and am healthy, although I have not yet returned fully to a regular life. I am just trying to do the things I can do at the moment.
CR: Can you tell us where you are at the moment?
WJ: I am in my studio in Wuhan.
CR: You were inside for a long time in March and April. How many days have you been staying inside?
WJ: When we all were isolating a few months ago, I was staying at home and haven’t left my home for around more than 60 days.
CR: Can you tell us how it felt for you when the lockdown in Wuhan was announced? Where were you during that time, and what were your initial reactions?
WJ: I had just returned to Wuhan from Berlin on January 18th. The lockdown happened from one moment to another, so suddenly. It happened right after they discovered that the virus was more contagious than previously assumed. For me, the flight from Berlin to Wuhan felt normal. When I landed in Wuhan, everything felt normal. I went to Xiangyang (a neighboring city) with my best friend on the 20th. I was still recovering from jet lag, and did not have any understanding about the virus. As soon as I heard about the lockdown in the city, I was shocked and knew this was something serious.
CR: How have you been coping with being confined at home? What were your initial feelings when it started, and how has it changed over time?
WJ: In the first few days of lockdown, I was still dealing with jet lag. After I had gotten back on track and used to this timezone again, I started following how the virus was developing in the city. Facing an unknown illness, people were caught up in all kinds of fear and worries. I was a witness to such painful experiences by people who were infected. Despite the fact that hospitals faced a great shortage of medical supplies and PPE, the doctors and staff worked day and night with all they had to treat as many patients as they could. I’ve seen uncountable compassionate volunteers trying to find ways to get supplies to the hospitals, to help the doctors and healthcare staff working on the frontline, and to support the patients, which touched me deeply. Then, I started to organize financial donations together with my classmates from the art academy to get PPE delivered for the hospitals. For a full month, I was looking for supplies everywhere in the world and asking for the prices, and learned a lot about the difference the types of PPE, their functions, and qualitative differences. When, for the first time I had gathered enough money to get the right type of PPE, I was unable to buy them. I started getting anxious and depressed. So many people were getting infected every day and passing away, it made us feel powerless.
I would say this period has impacted my life very much. At the same time, I have also learned so much from it. I am thankful for the friends who believed in me and who gave me the strength to do everything we did during that time, but maybe I haven't done enough.
CR: Thank you so much for everything you tried to do! It's been the same scramble all around the world to find PPE for medical teams and first responders, almost nowhere seemed properly prepared. And thank you giving us an insight into your life and feelings in lockdown, I cannot imagine the hardships you have been going through.
WJ: This virus is neither humankind’s only existential threat, nor is it the only social problem which exists in our world. No matter what stage society and humankind has reached, in the end, this is still a man-made chapter. I think this is less about people having learned to wash their hands often or respecting basic personal or public hygiene codes-of-conduct. Rather, this showed us a great deal about the need for introspection, our true needs and wants in life, and what we want to work towards as a society. Lastly, it is about humankind learning to better take care of nature, the living creatures, and the whole world.
CR: On the 7th of April 2020, the lockdown was lifted in Wuhan. Still, it seems like not everybody can move freely around, and many are staying home. What is your outlook on the next few weeks or months? Are you planning to leave the city?
WJ: For me, Wuhan is home. Unless work or education calls me somewhere else, I will never leave the city.
CR: With the epidemic turned into a pandemic, people are staying home around the globe. Do you have any tips for them?
WJ: I think a lot of people have already been learning and giving their best tips from home! You will notice the small things and find joy at home, which has inspired me a lot. Seeking out these small joys also makes everybody staying at home a bit happier and comfortable, given the background of the pandemic. The best method to face uncertainties and difficulties is always to have a positive and optimistic outlook, in my opinion.
CR: You spent your entire life almost in Wuhan. What was it like growing up?
WJ: The place where I grew up is called Hengdian, a small district in Wuhan. My childhood memories were filled with curiosity. I remember riding my bicycle through wide tree-lined streets and small alleyways. We would read all kinds of books with fiends, from classical literature to comic books, really everything. There was also big movie theater in this small district. One of my mother's close friends' whole family used to work at the cinema, so my sister would often take me with her into the projection room. We would either cut the films or watch movies. Later on, the theater moved to the neighboring district, and I would regularly spend my summer and winter holidays there. I remember the time happily. For university, I went on to study at the Hubei Institute of Fine Arts (HIFA), which is in the city center of Wuhan.
CR: Can you tell us a bit about the artist community in the city?
WJ: Wuhan has brought out some of the best artistic talents in the past. But because it's been considered a "second-tier" city, it had less opportunities than bigger cities. People from here move to "first-tier" cities, like other talented folks from all over the country. This leads to a loss of talented creatives, since everyone moved away. Recently, Wuhan was promoted to a first-tier city, so things are changing. Young artists are now moving here and are building things up. I think the artist community will only get better and better.
CR: How is it to live in the city as an artist? How would you describe Wuhan?
WJ: The people of Wuhan love to eat. With this, Wuhan has a delicious cuisine, and food plays an important role for the artists. Wuhan itself has also a history of being a cultural center. It has the most universities in the world and is a major city with young people. The well-known Yangtze River flows through the city, Wuhan has a huge number of lakes: 166 lakes! And this city is the major juncture of nine provinces (九省通衢). Wuhanese people are warm and welcoming, but also hot-headed. People say Wuhan girls are beautiful, they love fashion and they love to dress up. Every time I introduce Wuhan to foreign friends, I tell them that Wuhan is the "Chicago of the East." It is much like a younger version of Shanghai - if Shanghai was an attractive woman in her 35-40s, then Wuhan is the counterpart - an energetic young girl in her 20s.
My working routine as an artist is usually the same, regardless of being in Wuhan, another city in China, or in another country. I work on my artworks and create, I visit the galleries and museums and keep up with exhibitions and shows. I am an observer of the city’s flow and daily grind, I wander the streets and alleyways for delicious food, and enjoy taking in the natural environment around the city.
CR: Wuhan is a city with such rich and old history. I’ve only passed it on the train on one of my journeys. The city seemed to be floating on lakes when we passed by. Since Wuhan was put together from three cities, how are the different neighborhoods and what makes them so diverse from each other?
WJ: Wuhan used to be made up of these three areas: Hankou, Wuchang, and Hanyang. Roughly speaking, Hankou is the financial district, Wuchang the cultural district, and Hanyang the economic development zone. But in truth, Wuhan consists of 13 districts. Next to Hankou, Wuchang, and Hanyang, there are also areas for tourism, archaeology, agriculture, forestry and fishery, mining, and industrial areas.
CR: Can you tell us a bit about your background?
WJ: Sure! I graduated from the Oil Painting Department of Hubei Institute of Fine Arts. After graduating, I worked different art jobs: I've been an assistant to artists, I worked in galleries and at two universities, while continuing my own work as an artist. So far, I have participated in projects and exhibitions in China, Europe and America.
CR: Are there any projects you would like to talk about?
WJ: Before the epidemic, a curator friend and I gave a lecture on the Wuhan art scene in Weimar, Germany. We were promoting an art exchange project for Wuhan artists in Germany. I hope to have more opportunities to participate in and promote local and international cultural and artistic projects after the pandemic.
Update in August:
China Residencies: Since the last time we spoke, a few months have passed. Now, the situation in China seems to have mostly recovered. I am curious, how has the living and working situation changed for you and your peers - compared to prior the outbreak?
Wu Jing: For all of us, the movement between places used to be much easier. For the time being, we can’t go abroad. Wuhan is safe now, as are most cities within China. People are still wearing the masks in crowded public areas and are very conscious about it. The weather is very hot at the moment, and still it feels like everyone wearing the face masks diligently. It's become the newest fashion accessory. I still remind myself to not go outside often, and if I do, I go to lesser crowded areas for a walk, get my art supplies, or spend more time reflecting and thinking by myself. My friends and artist peers are in the same state at the moment, I would say.
China Residencies: Looking back at our conversation in April and May, how have your feelings changed since then?
Wu Jing: I've become more peaceful. I want to fall in love, get married, and live an ordinary, simple and content life. I want to enjoy the beautiful parts of this world together with my mother, my other half, and the important people in my life. In the end, our time on earth is limited. Everything we want to express, all deep love and compassion, can only come to be within our limited lifespans.
This interview was conducted in Chinese and translated by Xiaoyao Xu for China Residencies in April, May, and August 2020.
With the current pandemic and the ongoing travel restrictions worldwide, people have been finding ways to keep in touch with artists and friends online, since they can't meet up in person. In lieu of our annual research trip, we are revisiting spaces we've met in the past seven years through in depth interviews over WeChat until we can meet again.
All photos courtesy of Wu Jing, 2020.