Misplaced Self in the Misplaced City

Tan Tan*

This essay was originally written in response to German artist Tanja Ostojić’s invitation at the beginning of April, when my city, Wuhan, was in the eye of the maelstrom of the global coronavirus pandemic. She hoped to have an inside look into Wuhan’s lockdown. Coincidently, I kept a diary for sixty-six days to document my confinement and my encounters with the lockdown and the disaster. I found writing this text a good opportunity to relate my diary and end this personal ritual. The initial outcome of this work was edited and published on April 5, 2020, by Tanja Ostojić on the blog of the “Misplaced Women?” project. Five months, after many huge changes in the world, in Wuhan and even to myself, I decided to revise and republish this essay.
Keywords: Wuhan, Lumo Road Rescue Group, Li Wenliang, lockdown, diary

I am in Wuhan, central China, where I was born and raised. This was perhaps not a famous city around the world, but from mid-January 2020, Wuhan has received global exposure, accidentally, due to a newly discovered virus which threatened millions of human lives with mind-blowing speed. Today, this virus, already known as coronavirus (COVID-19), has become an unbelievable and overwhelming international pandemic. As Slavoj Zizek wrote in Clear Racist Element to Hysteria over New Coronavirus, “the more our world is connected, the more a local disaster can trigger global fear and eventually a catastrophe.” Today, everyone is living a precarious life regardless of nationalities, identities, positions and classes—statistics show that the disease disproportionately affects the working class and the poor.

Tan Tan’s diary of 66 days was exhibited at “Under the Rock” Exhibition and Charity, The museum of creative minds, Shanghai, April, 2020. Photo: Tan Tan

Although it is still not scientifically proven that Wuhan was the place of origin of the virus, due to the broadcasting of the international mass media, many people prefer to believe it was. The coronavirus lay over the city (with a massive area of 8.494,41 km²) and its inhabitants (about 12 million) like a stain, generated by a deficient domestic approach and venomous foreign tongues. Wuhan is also a beautiful city, which contains the most urban lakes in China, and the well-known Yangtze River runs right through the city center. Fortunately and unfortunately, as the virus has spread quickly throughout the world, Wuhan seems to have been almost forgotten by the international media.

Yangtze River bank in Wuhan after the lockdown in April. “Be strong, Wuhan,” written on the Second Yangtze River Bridge. Photo: Tan Tan

Since the beginning of the lockdown on January 23, every day before midnight, I posted a short diary entry on the WeChat friends circle (a popular mobile-based social networking platform in China) with a photo. The composition is a framed view of each day from the same window at my parents’ home. In the picture, the building complex across the lake is Central South Hospital of Wuhan University, which was one of the most prestigious hospitals treating the coronavirus epidemic in Wuhan.

I decided to end this daily log on March 28, because from that day on people from outside have been permitted to enter Wuhan conditionally. Finally, the lockdown was totally withdrawn on April 8. I would like to share my personal experience during the hard times by extracting six principal emotions from my diary. I hope these might prove helpful to some of you who are still struggling with an uneasy situation.

From Tan Tan’s online diary on January 23: View to the Central South Hospital of Wuhan University from the home of Tan Tan’s parents. Photo: Tan Tan

Panic. I guess everyone in the world had more or less the same panic when suddenly confronting an unknown disease. In China, at the beginning, we heard from some reports that COVID-19 is much more contagious than SARS, MERS, or many other known infectious diseases. But, in the first half month of the lockdown in Wuhan, the panic was even greater because, before the disease spread rapidly to other cities, we were alone in facing this unknown catastrophe. Shortly after January 21, my cellphone became a container for this hell. Almost every hour, some scary news or rumor popped up on the screen, including the hospitals begging for support, the doctors and nurses crying and the increasing number of patients that had no way to be saved. From January 24 to 31, I spent the worst Chinese New Year I could remember, with panic rising day by day.

From Tan Tan’s online diary on March 28. Photo: Tan Tan

Anxiety. During the first month of the outbreak, there was a massive lack of medical supplies, such as masks and protective clothing. Consequently, the prevailing and dominating mood among the people of Wuhan was one of anxiety. As an artist, I felt so useless when confronting this kind of crisis, which was an even worse feeling than panic. Fortunately, an exit from such a negative state opened its door for me.

From January 26 on, I joined the volunteer team Lumo Road Rescue Group to do some online work assisting the donation of supplies to the hospitals. Lumo Road is the landmark of live-houses and hippy culture in Wuhan. It is a collective comprised mainly of rock fans, artists, musicians, university students and others engaged in grassroots nightlife. I am one of them, in a way. Surprisingly, these partygoers facilitated serious and effective teamwork, connecting donors and ones in need, and have arranged for thousands of products per day to be sent to the hospitals.

Perhaps our biggest advantage is that we are all the type of people that want to skip the bureaucratic (sometimes ridiculous) administration and deliver things directly into the hands of those in need. However, after one week of this work, I found that my anxiety was not decreasing, but, on the contrary, it was growing. The lack of supplies was too great to be met by the work of this spontaneous group of individuals, and several members of our collective got infected while delivering the supplies. Consequently, our Robin Hood-style actions began to gradually decrease.

Anger. Anger comes and goes in my diary. I think there are different reasons for being furious in every nation under such an epidemic situation. In China, especially in the early days of the virus spreading in Wuhan, I was so angry about our system that was trying to cover-up the bad news. Li Wenliang, one of the “whistleblowers” who tried to warn people of the suspicious virus, became internationally acclaimed as a Chinese hero oppressed by the “Big Brother” state in December 2019. He was killed by coronavirus in February. Thankfully, the government heard the cries of the mass of the people and ratified Li a martyr at the beginning of April.

During my work as a volunteer, I became even angrier day by day over many inefficient and inhuman measures from some authorities. My rage was also provoked by various prejudices present among the people. Some of the international media had insisted on the stigma of “Wuhan Pneumonia” until April, although the scientific name (COVID-19) had already been designated to the virus in January. Consequently, some Westerners liked to shout insults related to coronavirus at Chinese people (or even East Asian-looking people) on the street. Within China, people from Wuhan and Hubei (the province of Wuhan) were discriminated against by those from other areas. Even in my own building, my neighbors did not allow a resident return to his home when he came back to Wuhan from another city; they feared he might bring the virus into this “zero infected building.”

From Tan Tan’s online diary on February 15. Photo: Tan Tan

Sadness. Sadness never leaves. As in Wuhan, this mood is present among people all over the world. By mid-September, nearly 30 million people had been infected by the virus worldwide, of whom over 900,000 had died. Moreover, at the time of writing, new daily cases continue to increase rapidly in the U.S., India and several countries in South America. Apart from coronavirus patients, we cannot count the many other victims. How many people have been killed by other diseases because they could not access regular treatment in hospitals? How many people became homeless because of the sudden lockdown? How many people lost their jobs or are facing bankruptcy? Last, but not least, how many pets have been abandoned and killed by vicious rumors and cold hearts?

Viewed from the perspective of the present situation [in the late autumn of 2020], the 3,869 casualties in Wuhan becomes a relatively “small” number. Nevertheless, there is no “small” human life, everyone is a precious being on earth. This pandemic has grown into something more than a disaster. It has become a “sad truth” to every human being; a reminder that human life is not endless and, indeed, that the life of our planet might be not endless either. The virus could be a “alarm bell” for all of us, to remind us that the world could be destroyed, as envisioned in the Bible’s Book of Revelation.

Depression. Depression must be a common feeling among people under quarantine. We are all vulnerable, useless and uninformed/over-informed. We all find ourselves isolated and “misplaced” in a situation we have never experienced before. For my part, I lived with my parents in their home for more than two months, without seeing anyone else. This was a big challenge, rather than a happy family reunion for me, as my parents and I have almost opposite lifestyles and opposite opinions and values most of the time. During those months, I almost forgot my career as an artist engaged in cutting-edge art forms. I disguised myself as a “normal person” to meet their expectations.

The sudden narrowing of the sphere of my activities brought with it, and continues to bring, some depression. In recent years, I have lived a nomadic life between China and Europe for artistic and educational reasons, and I do love traveling abroad. But the circumstances have changed. It is obvious that we are facing a more closed world, due not only to the virus, but as a consequence of a global economic crash and political conflicts. Nationalism, populism and extreme right forces are reshaping the international situation that we have been building up for hundreds of years. In other words, the fairytale of globalization might be terminated.

Redemption. Hopefully, in parallel with all these negative emotions, there is also a force that supports each of us, that of rescue and self-rescue. Apart from joining the volunteers to serve the hospitals, many people chose to pursue more personal, less tangible forms of redemption. We see this manifested artistically, in the countless online exhibitions and live music performances. We also see it in spiritual terms, in the various forms of psychological assistance and religious support. During the lockdown of Wuhan, I participated in two exhibitions and published three texts that linked with the epidemic situation.

Belgium weekly magazine Bruzz published an interview with Tan Tan: “An inside look at the Wuhan lockdown,” May 20, 2020

Moreover, I have altered my plans for making art, because this catastrophe has assigned me with new “missions.” I hope I can stop being a “useless artist,” by going out of my “comfort zone” and do some good for the world (whether artistic or otherwise). For instance, during this year, I have already created two performances on the theme of environmental protection and spiritual healing, and I am planning a long-time project about animal protection.

Today, because of capitalism, overconsumption and the “society of the spectacle,” we have become more and more reckless towards plants and animals, and, indeed, towards all of the natural principles. As an evident result, not only in Wuhan and China, this wild animal-derived virus has triumphed over our anthropocentrism. Meanwhile, locust plagues, mountain fires, hurricanes and floods are occurring, one after another, in every corner of the world. Hence, I think it is time for us to re-respect the natural elements of our world. This is a more fundamental redemption than any vaccine. 

Tan Tan’s theatre performance Sound Recycling used recycled trash to create musical instruments, first performed on September 5, 2020. Photo: Tan Tan

Eventually, after so many traumas, and thanks to the strong spirit and contribution of the Chinese people, Wuhan has survived this war (so far). Today, Wuhan no longer looks like a ”misplaced city.” It seems like a “normal place”; it is as if nothing happened here before. People work, study and have fun as before. But something has changed secretly, as we all know we are survivors, and we could be in danger overnight again. When I look at the whole world and the universe, I feel as if I am still a prisoner. I don’t know where else I can go, and eventually, how to board Noah’s Ark. When will my days of “misplaced self” come to an end?

Tan Tan’s theatre performance Inhale the Qi focuses on the reciprocity between humans and nature, first performed on March 31, 2019

Finally, I would like to offer a quote from my diary: “This troubled world would no longer allow us to wait, we will start the process of healing.” 


*Tan Tan is a Chinese intermedia artist and a PhD researcher at Research Center S: PAM (Studies in Performing Arts & Media), Department of Art Studies of Ghent University (Belgium). Her oeuvre covers experimental film/video art, performance/theater, music/sound art, installation and cyber art. She has had several solo exhibitions and has taken part in numerous art events internationally, such as: 60th Berlinale, 2010; International Film Festival Rotterdam, 2011 (IFFR); Images Festival, 2012 (Canada); 43rd Tampere Film Festival, 2013 (Finland); Asian Art Top Show, 2010 (China); 1st ASEAN Biennial, 2013 (China); Wuzhen Theatre Festival, 2016 (China); and Creative China Festival at La Mama Experimental theater, 2019 (U.S.A)

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