While in lockdown, many artists have taken on new projects of various kinds. The latest body of work by Zhang Huan, a Chinese artist based in Shanghai and New York, is a direct response to his experience of the pandemic. In a new pandemic diary below, Zhang, who here debuts a new series of paintings, describes reading news about the coronavirus and finding spiritual equilibrium in the meanwhile.
Death is my lover! Every time I went to Tibet, my mind became delusional, and I started to have strong hallucinations. Tibet is intoxicating! Maybe it was the geography of the Tibetan plateau? I yearned for a sky burial, which is my mysterious garden. And I dreamed of countless vultures taking my body and soul, flying high in the blue sky! The process of dying, which comes between breaths, is a revolution of 49 days, a reincarnation! During this period, a person will experience the trajectory from death to birth, undergo a process of cause and effect, go through uncertain reincarnation, and, finally, obtain rebirth.
These are the stories that moved me during the pandemic…
Weng Qiuqiu, a 32-year-old, pregnant woman in Huanggang, Hubei, felt unwell on January 8. After visiting multiple hospitals, she was finally examined, and it was discovered that both of her lungs appeared unusually white in her X-rays. After beginning medical treatment on January 10, she entered the ICU at the daily cost of RMB 50,000 to 60,000 ($7,100 to $8,500). After she borrowed more than RMB 200,000 ($28,000) for her medical care, her condition still didn’t improve, and on January 21 her husband, Chen Yong, finally signed a consent form, agreeing to cease medical support of Weng Qiuqiu. An hour later, she died—only twelve days from the onset of her symptoms. This suggests that she could not afford to waste any time in obtaining a diagnosis for COVID-19. On January 22, the government announced that treatment for the new coronavirus would be free.
“Beijing’s First COVID-19 Death”
Yang Jun traveled to visit Wuhan from the 8th to the 12th of January and was diagnosed with COVID-19 on January 22. He died five days later. Just a few days before, he had posted on social media: “The first stop of the first day of 2020: the playground. It’s time to move around and experience youth in its prime.”
On December 30, 2019, ophthalmologist Li Wenliang released information about the outbreak that began in Wuhan’s South China Seafood Market. For posting this information in a WeChat group of his classmates, he was labeled a “whistle blower” by the public.
On January 3, 2020, the police station in his jurisdiction reprimanded him for “publishing untrue statements on the Internet.”
On January 10, 2020, two days after examining one of his patients who was later diagnosed with COVID-19, Li Wenliang developed a cough.
On February 1, 2020, he was admitted to the hospital after being diagnosed with COVID-19.
On February 7, 2020, he passed away early in the morning, missing the birth of his second child.
Chang Kai’s last words were: “I’ve done my filial piety for my son, my father, and my wife with sincerity! Farewell to the people I love and to those who love me!”
Chang Kai was a film director, based in Wuhan. On January 25, the first day of the Chinese New Year, his father developed symptoms of pneumonia and sought admittance to many hospitals without success. Due to a shortage of hospital beds, he resorted to treating himself at home and died on January 27. His family also developed infections, leading to the death of his mother on February 2. Chang Kai and his sister also succumbed to the disease on February 14. In seventeen days, four people in Chang Kai’s family passed away one after the other. His son, who was studying abroad, was spared from the virus.
Qiu Jun, a 72-year-old retiree, was a winner of the National Bodybuilding Championship as a result of his rigorous fitness training and balanced diet. From the moment he developed symptoms of COVID-19 on January 24, it took eleven days for him to obtain a diagnosis and hospital admission. He passed away after spending just three days in the hospital, a sudden turn of events that deprived him of the opportunity to participate in the Nanjing World Olympic Games scheduled for this June.
Liu Zhiming, deputy secretary and dean of the Party Committee of the Wuchang Hospital in Wuhan, was always at the front lines of epidemic prevention and control. During this crisis, he was unfortunately infected with COVID-19. His wife Cai Liping, the head nurse of the anti-epidemic staff at another hospital, offered several times to take care of Liu Zhiming, who declined her help out of concern for her. On February 18, Liu died due to inadequate treatment. He was 51 years old.
During the pandemic, a pregnant cat lived alone for 40 days at home, giving birth to 4 kittens. The fish in the home’s aquarium disappeared.
Regarding Love, Love comes from a dust suspended in the sunlight. Those you have loved and those who have loved you; those you know and those you don’t know; those you have heard of and those who have lived on this planet will eventually spend a lifetime here, everyone’s life. The Earth in the universe is this dust suspended in the sunlight! Like a dream, an illusion, a bubble, a shadow, without beginning and end. How will we define life and death?
Are we still obsessed with the insignificant self? Are we still finding joy and sorrow in the comings and goings of the material world? The energy of the universe comes from love, from a dust suspended in the sunlight.
Zhang Huan, 2020
Translation courtesy Zhang Huan’s studio. Journal courtesy Pace Gallery.