︎ Peng Wu
Social practice artist and design activist
April,2019 / Hefei, China
translated by Peng Wu
In the beginning of April, my mother finally started to organize my father's book cabinet.
My father's book collection filled the two cabinets of ceiling height. Most of the books are work related: from Optics to Quantum Physics, college textbooks and problem sets. The rest of the books are martial arts novels, Chinese calligraphy books, and drawing learning books. I remember when I was little, father's book cabinets are paradise for me and my sister. We were so addicted to reading the classic martial arts novels by Jin Yong that we wouldn't move for hours and wouldn't notice the sky got darker and darker till the text got barely legible. Right after the sunset mother would announce the time for dinner. After a few times of failures to gather us to the dining table, she would yell at us if we were still not moving.
Hidden among the books on the bottom shelf of the book cabinet there are the belongings of our entire family. Handwritten on a piece of shabby copy paper, there are bank account numbers, receipts of financial products, and a pile of expired commodity ration coupons for grain, and cooking oil. There are around forty to fifty pieces of coupons tied together with a cheap rubber band - evidence of the hungry years. If Jobs grew up in those years, he may not have encouraged the young college students "stay hungry, stay foolish". He would be like my mom - can't stop asking "already full? have more!"
When I found this antique, I posted to instagram. My mentor at graduate school Piotr Szyhalski - an installation artist originally from Poland - commented on it with excitement that he is very familiar with the object and told me the english name of them. I guess for his Poland, and for the China of my parent‘s generation, hunger was part of "the normal". What is normal? The topic has been repetitively brought up in a few projects of mine lately. In the entire world that is deep in the turmoil of the COVID-19, everybody wakes up in the morning asks him/herself: when can we go back to normal?
For my case, I left "the normal" a bit earlier than most people. I quit my job and left for China in October 2019 to help take care of my father who was diagnosed with late stage cancer. To me, leaving my home and friends in the U.S. where I have lived for nine years was leaving "the normal". The plan of returning to "the normal" has been postponed again and again by my father's situation getting worse, and the outbreak of the COVID-19 in China and its becoming a global pandemic. While far away from "the normal", life must go on.
Spring arrived. Surprisingly I started to find a daily routine in this “temporary life” and enjoy my quarantine days. The gated community I was quarantined in is so small that you can walk around it within ten minutes. After my morning yoga and breakfast I wonder around the tiny gated community and spend hours drawing a flower or a few leaves. I have been amazed by the limitless beauty you can find in the limited amount of plants if you look close enough with enough attention. The rediscovery of the beauty of the new world may have happened at the end of the winter. Around the time, my father was in the last stage of the cancer and no treatment had shown any effect. He insisted on checking himself out of hospital and went home, which has been proven to be the right decision. As the COVID-19 was spreading so rapidly that the hospital my father was in became a designated COVID hospital a few days after we left. Back then the world knew so little about the virus. Fear was spreading even faster than the virus on social media. The only thing we knew was to avoid going to hospital at any cost. Even we had no idea how to handle a patient in his last stage of life. At one point, my father can barely eat anything. Much later after my father passed away my mother told me that he asked her why we were still at home instead of being in the hospital. My mother explained we could not go to hospital as the virus would put our entire family in deadly danger. After hearing my mother's answer my father didn't say anything. In one of these desperate days, I sometimes felt the need to open the window of the balcony to breathe in some fresh cold air. One time suddenly I detected a hint of fragrance like a little firefly in the pitch dark night. I looked around and found there were dozens of tiny white flower buds on the black tree branches right underneath the balcony. "Look, there is plum blossom!" I announced to everyone, "smell really good!" My father came back to consciousness briefly and corrected me that it should be apricot blossom as plum blossom should be much later in the year. I think this would be the last joyful conversation I had with my father. After the apricot blossom, it came the peach blossom, then magnolia, and crap apple. One after another they came to announce the arrival of spring, while my father was no longer in consciousness for the most time.
Since quarantine, It has been my job - as I was supposed to have the strongest immunity system as the youngest of my family - to pick up the grocery downstairs. I sometimes took advantage of the precious opportunity of going outdoors to wonder a bit longer in the community. I would pick a flower with fragrance and put it by the bed of my father and that's the only thing I could do to comfort his pain. My appreciation for the flowers and plants somehow became an interest in drawing them. In the morning I leave home for drawing everyday on time, carrying my folding stool, sun umbrella, and ipad. I was joking with a friend that I feel like a painter from Barbizon school. After an entire morning of drawing in nature I eat for lunch, and take a noon nap. Then doing some work for projects. And everyday I would spend around two hours’ "virtual together" time with my boyfriend who was quarantined in a different city. We invented many fun games such as doing video chat while following the exercise programs in the KEEP app or watching movies together. Sometimes, I play Ping Pang with my mother and sister with bare hands, another game my sister invented - Ping Pang balls are hit by hands instead of the rackets. My sister believes the health benefit of getting hands hit in this way equals to getting acupuncture, which increases your immunity system and keeps you away from COVID infection. The family game heals the small wounds of constant small arguments in the past few months of living together.
These are some details of the new "normal" for me. Compared to the "normal" of pre-COVID era, there might be some insufficiency or even hunger, things happen slower and quieter. But isn't it inevitable to have some kind of turning point (maybe something else if not COVID) that would force us to reconsider the idea of "the normal" dictated by the economic progression and consumerism, and ask: will “this normal” still be there tomorrow. Or maybe the better question is: what part of “the normal” is sustainable? Are food delivery Apps sustainable? Is the flawless green grass lawn sustainable? Not rushing back to the normal but reconsidering the details of the normal might be a more responsible attitude to hundreds of thousands lives lost in the COVID-19.
The pandemic could enlighten us a way out of this unsustainable modernism economic progress. A way of making progress by walking backwards - a movement suggested in the statement of the 12th Shanghai Biennale: Proregress——Art in an Age of Historical Ambivalence:
“In fact, we have grown used to experiencing historical time as a constant swing between moments of transformation and stagnation...The promise of technoscience in shaping our civilization has become inseparable from the dangers posed by climate change in the anthropocene, which now threaten us with the end of times.
For the Chinese title of the Biennale, we have chosen the concept of 禹步（YUBU), the basic mystic dance step of Daoist ritual in ancient China. This dancing technique makes the dancer look like he or she is moving forward while going backwards at the same time. Beyond translating a concept made of western binary concepts into Chinese, this figure also suggests the importance of the pursuit of a way of thinking and culture that ought to help us thrive despite the ambivalence of our era.”
2019 四月 / 合肥, 中国
隐藏在书柜的最下层夹在书本之间有一个旧旧的化纤袋子，里面就是我家的全部财产：磨得毛了边的复印纸上写着银行存款的号码，理财产品的合同，还有这用橡皮筋捆着的厚厚一打早已作废的粮票。粮票约莫四五十张，大多发行于六十年代，做为那个饥饿年代的证据。乔帮主要是成长于那个年代大概不会激励美国的年轻人要“stay hungery, stay foolish”. 而是会像我妈那样说：“already full? have more!”
刚发现这样的古董时，我发到Instagram上，我研究生时候的导师—来自波兰的装置艺术家—Piotr Schalski兴奋的回应，说他也非常熟悉粮票，还告诉我英文正确的叫法。想来在他年轻时代的波兰，一如我父辈的中国，饥饿曾是一种常态。What's normal? 是最近许多项目讨论中反复出现的话题。全世界所有受到疫情影响的人们每天早上眼睛睁开大概都会问自己：什么时候生活才会回到正常？ 我个人体验到离开正常生活会比大部分人早一些。19年十月份我因为父亲癌症晚期，而辞去工作暂时回中国帮助母亲照顾父亲。离开生活了九年的美国的家和朋友们，对我意味着离开“正常”。向“正常”的回归因为父亲的病重，疫情的爆发和在全世界蔓延而一拖再拖。然而即使离开了“正常”, 生活仍然要过下去。
隔离以来每几天会由我-全家免疫力较高的成员-去楼下拿网上买的菜。借着这珍贵的出门机会，我偶尔会摘一朵有香味的花放在父亲的床头。这似乎是在不能去医院的日子里唯一能为临终的父亲缓解痛苦所做的努力。这样对植物的感激似乎在父亲过世以后以绘画的形式保留下来。我和朋友开玩笑说，每天戴着草帽，提着折叠凳子按时出门的我简直是我们小区的“巴比松画派”。巴比松整个上午，午饭，然后到了我们全家的懒洋洋的午休时间。午休起来处理邮件做一些项目的文字或者设计工作。下午晚饭前会满怀期待的和异地的爱人视频连线一起在KEEP app上做家庭健身运动。有些日子还会和姐姐和母亲一起玩我姐姐发明的空手乒乓球 — 就是不用球拍而是用手掌打乒乓球。据我姐的说法是有按摩手掌穴位的中医健身功效，可以增强免疫力预防新冠也未可知。全家人一起游戏让这半年以来焦虑和冲突不断的共同生活舒缓起来，稀释了父亲过世的阴霾和疫情的沉重。
这些，就是我“Since COVID-19”的“新正常”生活。 相比前COVID时代的normal，可能有一点饥饿匮乏，有一点安静缓慢。然而COVID难道不是一个迟早到来的人类历史节点，让我们真正去反思以消费主义和所谓“发展观“主导下的“正常”生活，是否是可持续的。外卖App是可持续的么？完美的绿色草坪是可持续的么？不去匆忙的尝试回到前COVID时代的“正常”，而是去学习去改变，这可能是我们面对全世界因新冠而逝去的几十万个鲜活生命应有的态度。
禹步 - 艺术在充满矛盾的时代中：