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Audiovisual Artists’ New Project Breaks the Silence of Shanghai Lockdown

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Audiovisual artists Yu Miao and Wang Meng have been losing sleep as of late. Not only have their shows been canceled, bringing their flow of income to a standstill, but they also can’t get over how eerily quiet Shanghai is during the lockdown

From their 24th-floor apartment, Yu, who is known for her modern innovations on the traditional Chinese guzheng, and Wang, an avant-garde visual artist, experience unusual acoustics.

For instance, the voice of a deliveryman on his phone is amplified as he drives by on his scooter. Without the reassuring background bustle of the Shanghai she knows, Yu is sometimes unable to fall asleep until dawn. The chirping of birds at this hour is “a sound I’ve never heard from my apartment before,” says Yu.

But the pair have broken this silence with Impressions of Shanghai, which was uploaded onto Yu’s Instagram page on May 17.

A striking feature of the audiovisual work is distortion: Yu’s guzheng strums are altered — though not beyond recognition — using an effector and other hardware. The genre-defying music is paired with abstract visual renderings of Shanghai’s skyline that Wang created with the help of AI. 

Some scenes, like one of the city’s avenues teeming with vibrantly colored passersby, resemble oil paintings. Others are more like inkblots depicting a barren cityscape. Even for Yu, who was familiar with AI visual art, her partner’s new approach felt completely novel.

A scene from audiovisual work Impressions of Shanghai

Impressions of Shanghai is a culmination of the duo’s lockdown projects and performances. In the early days of quarantine, Wang and Yu livestreamed an ambient music performance with the purpose of healing. “We had hoped for our music to comfort everyone in lockdown,” explains Wang.

But as Shanghai’s lockdown continued to drag on, Wang’s mental health “began to deteriorate.” 

“Now I create more for my own comfort,” confides the artist in RADII.

Both Wang and Yu have every reason to be anxious. Last year, Yu signed a promising deal with record label Pollux, and had aimed to release an album and embark on a music tour this spring. While she struggles to accept her botched plans, her partner’s prospects are considerably worse. 

Wang’s visual design and performance company still covers operational costs but lacks online alternatives to organizing high-grossing live shows. “None of us are very good earners,” admits the artist. “We don’t have much savings, and if we go on like this, we won’t be able to hold on.”

Even so, the tech-savvy creator has been resourceful. Livestreaming aside, Wang, Yu, and their fellow artists have staged performances on the metaverse platform Voxels. 

Unlike Wang’s bleak visuals in Impressions of Shanghai, his outlook is optimistic, especially when the conversation turns to NFTs and web3. He’d like to believe that “blockchain technology will bring revolutionary changes to artists’ work.”

Audiovisual artists Wang Meng and Yu Miao

“I hope that online art sales will become a way out of our present economy,” says Wang, who is shockingly sanguine. After all, none of the metaverse performances put on by him and his crew have generated any earnings.

Despite uploading several works to NFT marketplace OpenSea, Wang and Yu have only made a single sale so far. Wang recalls being “very happy on the day it was sold.”

Yu puts this down to the artistic limitations of virtual experiences. “The internet might make for experiences that cannot be achieved offline, but this will never replace the atmosphere of offline events and the energy between people,” she says.

One component of Impressions of Shanghai is a virtual exhibition

The pair have been pondering how to make up for lost opportunities in light of lockdown, which has been a “subversive blow” to Wang’s perception of Shanghai.

“The refrain of countless residents has been: ‘How did our city get like this?’” Wang tells RADII.

Yu relocated from Beijing last year, as China’s capital had become “more and more boring” and “fun people left one after the other after many venues closed” due to Covid outbreaks.

At first, China’s ‘Paris of the East’ seemed a considerable improvement with its vibrant art venues. And it was — until the end of March.

Yu Miao and Wang Meng performing at Changjiang Theater, Shanghai, before the lockdown

She is upfront about the possibility of moving again, even after the lockdown is lifted. “Although we still believe in this city, I don’t know if we will be able to sustain ourselves until things get much better.”

“We can’t tell what will happen in the future, but I hope Shanghai can get better soon,” adds Wang, ever optimistically.

All photos courtesy of the artists

Kyle Mullin
    Kyle Mullin is a Beijing-based Canadian freelancer who has written for National Geographic, The Guardian, Wired, Spin, Forbes Asia, and is a former editor at theBeijinger. Follow him on Twitter @MulKyle

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