On February 8, a crowd of New York art enthusiasts attended an opening at the alternative art space WhiteBox, in Harlem. They were there for the solo show of Chinese artist Ke Ming, but the artist himself was absent — because he’s currently in isolation in a small room in Wuhan. Ke had been planning the show with the WhiteBox team for months, but with the outbreak of Covid-19, everything changed.
Ke Ming is a conceptual multimedia artist whose work addresses human behavior in different social and cultural systems. He combines elements of film, photography, and performance, often using his own body as a form of primary expression.
His work was introduced to Juan Puntes, founder and artistic director of WhiteBox Harlem, by Lingyuan Hu, a Chinese art student interning at the space. It was an ideal match — WhiteBox is known for featuring provocative African-Caribbean, Latinx, and Asian contemporary art and was about to inaugurate a new room devoted to emerging artists.
Ke Ming’s work on display at WhiteBox in Harlem
“I welcomed Ke Ming’s project because it was radical and held a critique of important Chinese artists that came before him,” says Puntes. “His work is very blatant on the one hand, but it has the essence of ambiguity and ridicule on the other.”
The show was initially entitled Cross, revolving around the subject of globalization and the emergence of China. It was Ke’s second show abroad, his debut in the United States, and he was planning to travel to New York to present it. His flight was on February 2. On January 23, Wuhan was put under lockdown in an effort to contain the spread of the virus.
“At first, I didn’t think that the virus would have anything to do with me, but then I grew increasingly anxious”
“Wuhan has nine million people, of which about 50,000 are infected,” Ke tells us via WeChat from his apartment in Wuhan. “At first, I didn’t think that the virus would have anything to do with me, but then I grew increasingly anxious. So many people I know tested positive, and some have passed away.”
His own health has also fluctuated. Ke says he has had moments of vomiting, fever, nausea, and chest pain, all strong symptoms of Covid-19. He didn’t know whether he had caught the virus or not. To make things worse, his younger brother traveled from Shandong province with his wife and four children, including a three-month-old baby, for Spring Festival celebrations.
Ke Ming’s brother and his family
In a matter of days, Ke’s life changed dramatically. “With death so close to you, all you can think about is how not to get infected and how not to infect others,” he says. “Other than that, you ensure you have what’s necessary to survive and try to stay healthy with a strong immune system. But you still can’t leave the house.”
Ke has now been in isolation for thirty-five days in a room with only a sofa bed, a desk with a chair, and his computer. He has medication at hand and a thermometer. As essential services continue to operate in a restricted manner, he orders food online.
Ke Ming’s room in Wuhan
Lacking energy, Ke wanted to give up on the exhibition altogether. But from New York, Puntes and Hu encouraged him to continue with the show. “I told Ke Ming that we could pull through,” says Puntes. “I live down the street from where World Trade Center towers were; I saw it happen, I walked through the smoke. Humankind is always stricken in one way or another, but we pull through.”
Ke developed a documentary approach to the crisis. He began to scrutinize internet platforms, websites, and group chats and to record everything he could about the epidemic and the lives of people in Wuhan. His urge is to register the facts in real-time before they may disappear.
“I realized that the epidemic had transformed this exhibition into something more profound,” he says. “I suddenly felt like shouting the truth about my circumstances and about what’s happening in my city.” Together, they decided to rename the exhibition Trapped in Wuhan 2020.
“I realized that the epidemic had transformed this exhibition into something more profound”
Although Ke Ming created the works before the outbreak, they’ve gained a new layer of meaning since. A particularly striking piece is “The Great Wall,” a twenty-two-meter class picture of six thousand teachers and students from the Central China Normal University in Wuhan, with Ke sitting right at its center, naked. This work has gained a sad connotation by accidentally showing the human dimension and the sheer size of the epidemic and its effects.
Detail from Ke Ming’s “The Great Wall”
Another touching piece is “Cross,” a photograph of Ke on a red crucifix against a white backdrop. After the outbreak, he photoshopped a mask onto his face and produced a video clip combining the making-of footage of the piece with some of the material he’d compiled about the coronavirus. The video also puts forward his “manifesto,” a moving account of his circumstances. “When visitors see the movie, they cringe,” says Puntes. “They get truly shocked by the scenes from Wuhan.”
Ke Ming’s “Cross” on display at WhiteBox
Also accompanied by a making-of, “Add Another Meter to an Anonymous Mountain” is Ke’s 2018 interpretation of the iconic 1995 performance by legendarily provocative artist Zhang Huan. In the original, Zhang formed a human pyramid by laying naked on top of other artists. In Ke’s version, he’s naked on top of a pyramid of drunken and sedated pigs, which also references musician and artist Zuoxiao Zuzhou’s 2007 reinterpretation of Zhang’s work using just pigs (which you can see as the cover image here). Ke’s work is a critique of the social structure that has changed little in the more than twenty years that has elapsed between his piece and the original.
Ke Ming’s “To Add One Meter to an Unknown Mountain”
Ke’s appearance without clothing in all works is significant; it gives a sense of vulnerability to his figure. In these pictures, he’s still in good shape and healthy. For the time being, Ke and his brother’s family remain in confinement in their Wuhan apartments. Everyone is in good health, but eagerly awaiting the end of quarantine so that they can go for proper medical checks.
With the material collected, Ke Ming hopes to create a memorial to the victims of Covid-19. “I know at least a dozen people that have died, friends or relatives of friends,” he says. “After the epidemic, I want to do something for them and their loved ones.”
Trapped in Wuhan 2020 is at WhiteBox until March 1.
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