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Art of coronavirus period: interpretations of Chinese artists

Ani Margaryan

Arts & History Writer

Ani Margaryan, is an art historian living in China. She is working on her second PhD at Nanjing Normal University, in the Fine Arts Department and is also a lecturer at the University. She been recently exploring the changes and challenges in the art world during coronavirus times and has prepared an article regarding the current subject.

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The majority of the works carries the hidden message of the idea that China would or has already overcome the coronavirus outbreak by its own efforts, highly-prepared and organized work of its people, focusing rather at the triumphal end of the fight against the virus, than the process of the struggle itself.

As most of the protagonists are depicted in protective clothing, glasses, gloves, on one hand pointing the high level of the Chinese authorities and institutions’ readiness on responding the disaster, there’s no way to speak on individual characteristics and identified personages, merely general representations, symbols, metaphors and allegories to form the collective image of the virus-confronting force- heroic medical personnel. The specific difference from contemporary art of Europe and United States with the pandemic subject matters, is the extensive engagement of Chinese cultural and folk elements (food, architecture, garments, calligraphy, masterpieces of Chinese traditional art). The motifs based on the images of tractors and cranes with the workers indicate the occasion of building a hospital in Wuhan in only ten days. The recurring theme with the doctor kissing her child or her husband through the protective glass (Pictured below) marks the high price medical staff is paying for prevailing the pandemic, at the same time hinting the case that the people who are on the hotline of the fight are the ones meant to be honored and the ones who are having the roughest times. 

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Chinese medics in protective cloths are not pictured as supernatural beings with special attributes, but humans involved in actions expressing all the best human characteristics such as devotion, deep knowledge and experience, bravery and patience, that is why they can be classified as “idealized representations”. Even if they are comprised in compositions with the emphasized metaphoric structure, they are still portrayed with humanly features, emitting the concept that real heroes of pandemic period are not imaginary and almighty beings (one can see in European and American nowadays cartoon production), similar to the personages of computer games or fantasies, but real, ordinary, recognizable “next-door people”, confronting the real threat with the strength of their heart and mind to fight till the very end.

The illustration with the rows of medical workers forming the burning candle is noteworthy for the peculiar arrangement of details in centralized composition with the best traditions of symbolism which could provide a number of contextual interpretations.

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A. A tribute to the medical staff who sacrificed their lives- burned as a candle, for the sake of people’s health and safety.

B. Medical workers forming the “living fortification” in front of the virus, and the fire as the symbol of desperate fight, the extreme level of pressure and tension.

C. The burning candle as the symbol of life on the Earth, based on the shoulders of healthcare workers.

The watercolors on paper by Zhang Mu vary with their apply of principles of surrealism, symbolism and metaphysical art, having withal their peculiar signature, for the first glance weird creatures in weird actions, as weird as the unknown disease.

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With a ration of irony, he repels the dark side of the pandemic times with his gloomy palette of cold greys, black and white and impression of dynamism due to the floating strokes. Some of his characters are wearing not the recognizable medical mask of our times, but the beaked-mask of the 14th century bubonic plague, drawing the analogical lines between the past and the present. Some figures are dancing on the background of generalized industrial landscape (echoing “Dance Macabre”- medieval tale of the “dance with the death”) or taking part in bizarre processions and mystical ceremonies, as if the virus has already been defeated, while others are in hysteria and confusion, such as the weary strange beaked-masked figure fishing in the bathroom or the melancholic masked male accompanied by “Doctor Schnabel”, dying rather from tedium of isolation than from the infection itself. One may notice that these odd compositions are in strong contrast with the contemporary depictions of the Italian people enjoying their self-isolation singing and dancing in balconies.

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With a ration of irony, he repels the dark side of the pandemic times with his gloomy palette of cold greys, black and white and impression of dynamism due to the floating strokes. Some of his characters are wearing not the recognizable medical mask of our times, but the beaked-mask of the 14th century bubonic plague, drawing the analogical lines between the past and the present. Some figures are dancing on the background of generalized industrial landscape (echoing “Dance Macabre”- medieval tale of the “dance with the death”) or taking part in bizarre processions and mystical ceremonies, as if the virus has already been defeated, while others are in hysteria and confusion, such as the weary strange beaked-masked figure fishing in the bathroom or the melancholic masked male accompanied by “Doctor Schnabel”, dying rather from tedium of isolation than from the infection itself. One may notice that these odd compositions are in strong contrast with the contemporary depictions of the Italian people enjoying their self-isolation singing and dancing in balconies.

Another interpretation of  coronavirus outbreak by Liu Xiu Lin (柳秀林) (Picture 5) with the close-up view, physical distortions done on purpose, feeling of incompleteness, emotionally drawn lines and strokes of expressive faces and radiating eyes on us profoundly affect the audience with the mixture of feelings: we do not know them, and perhaps we won’t ever recognize them, but the pain, confusion, strength in their eyes and facial features are apparently catharsis for us-the viewers. They are indelible from the memory for long, as insignia of the humans going through coronavirus pandemic.

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Effectively using the social media platforms of WeChat, Weibo, TikTok, QQ, Chinese cartoonists are spreading their own, relatively light vision of the pandemic, some of them have an exciting narrative behind. The crowded compositions of Chen Xiao-Tao tell the story of the start of the outbreak, cure and victory over the virus with the detailed allegorical figurines in the form of Chinese cuisine most representative dishes of different Chinese provinces, missioned to support Wuhan city with the idea that all the corners of this vast country jointly fought the disease with no despair. Among the crowd one can notice the general images of medics, military figures, workers side by side, showing their care to the infected patient. There is also a small but significant detail, uncovering typical Chinese manner: the petite figure of the doctor is intendedly depicted from the back, so that the eyes of the audience could catch the flowers on her protective cloth. It is the reflection of the real story, when in one of Wuhan hospitals an elderly patient expressed her gratitude to her doctor by painting floral ornaments on the latter’s medical uniform.

Chinese artists amidst pandemic do not stash their peculiar feature- devotion to the roots, using the rich materials from their past, creating artworks entirely corresponding to the coronavirus outbreak, at the same time emphasizing the specificity of their traditional culture capable to serve as a source for inspiration even in the period of the global disaster. Thus, Chinese art of pandemic, remaining in the framework of global tendencies of poster-production with propagandistic and encouraging function, artistic language of symbols and metaphors, variety of general images and embodiments of poignant ideas, does not lose its originality at all, serving as a “spiritual lifebuoy” for people of China.

The new coronavirus (COVID-19) has spread to nearly every country in the world since the beginning of the year. About 5 million people are known to be infected and more than 300,000 deaths have been recorded. Art with its all possible forms and disciplines (visual and performing arts, ancient and contemporary) and without supportive intermediaries (museums, galleries, exhibition and concert halls) has leading positions in everyone’s life in lockdown, as if carrying on its shoulders a mission of enlightenment, evoking humanism, sense of equality, keeping human beings spiritually and mentally healthy in these difficult times.

The first known infected patients were recorded in 2019, in Wuhan city, Hubei province, so Chinese art world was the first to react to the total lockdown, mobilization of the medical personnel, temporary closure of factories, schools, stores, museums. The cultural institutions instantly launched online campaigns with the images of their emblematic artefacts wearing medical masks, however, the laurel belongs to the impressive number of poster-art production with the idealized images of healthcare workers and employees of the social sector.