Overseas Art Students Under the Pandemic IV

TEXT:CAFA ART INFO    TIME: 2020.4.15

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Editor’s Note:

With the grim situation of the COVID-19 pandemic spreading through the global community, students from overseas art schools are facing increased anxiety. How to solve the problems such as the suspension of their school, graduation work as well as the dormitory closure? For international students from all over the world, when they confront various pandemic prevention policies in different countries, either staying where they are or going back to their own country, could be a tough decision for them. No matter what choice they make, they are under tremendous psychological and social pressure.

During this special period, CAFA ART INFO hopes to share real life situations and opinions from this group of students. What is the status of the pandemic situation in the country they are staying? We pay attention to the current state of affairs. All questions are expected to be answered by each individual. All the concerns and encouragement we would like to share with them is presented as follows: 

CAFA ART INFO: Can you briefly introduce your situation in studying abroad?

Zhihui ZHANG: My name is Zhihui ZHANG, from Harbin, China. I received my BFA degree from the Central Academy of Fine Arts. Now I am a second-year MFA Fine Art student studying at Wimbledon College of Art, which is a part of University of the Arts London in the UK. 

Yuan Annie Zhuang: I’m Yuan Annie Zhuang from Beijing. I’m an undergraduate freshman in the BA/BFA program at The New School, where I major in Integrated Design at Parsons School of Design and Philosophy at Eugene Lang College in New York. I came to NYC after I graduated from high school in Beijing. My work involves installations, new media, fashion design/alteration and tattoos.

Wang Qunyuan: I come from Songyuan, a small city in Jilin Province, China. Currently, I am at the sixth semester of Film und Video, der Studiengänge Freie Kunst in Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, Germany. It is a Combined Bachelor’s/Master’s Degree Program that requires seven to ten semesters to graduate.

Jiaqi Li: I am Jiaqi, from Guangdong and I am pursuing my MFA degree at the Print Media Department, SAIC (USA).

Li Ye: After graduating from CAFA, I chose to study at the Royal College of Art in London, where I studied the two-year MA painting.

Li Jiacheng: I am from Singapore and am currently studying in Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, China.

CAFA ART INFO: Where are you currently? How does the COVID-19 pandemic directly influence you? What is your current situation and state of mind?

Zhihui ZHANG: I am currently with two classmates/roommates—there were three roommates, a Thai girl who has returned to her country, in our double-storey cottage in London. I move from my room, kitchen, study and bathroom to the backyard. The epidemic-prone area has moved from domestic to overseas areas. From the beginning, I was worried about my relatives and friends in China, and later I started to be concerned about the pandemic situation in London. I clearly remember that May 13 was the last day of our class at my school. I originally wanted to experiment with a new work in the school’s green screen room. I didn’t take the technology equipment and I left it all in the school. Everyone has taken to isolation seriously.

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Zhihui ZHANG, Tracking 1

I gradually calmed down from being anxious with all the overwhelming online information. I hope I am a slow information user though paradoxically I am curious about everything interesting and unfamiliar. I can mute the WeChat notifications, but I still enjoy researching interesting things that I have not known about before from internet information. Although due to the pandemic, my social activities are largely restricted and many plans are forced to stop, I did not expect the pandemic to be the only part of my life. I have been in quarantine for about 2 weeks, I have almost finished reading 15 books that I borrowed from the library, and at the same time, I started reading some digital versions of books. The sense of quiet during isolation time seems to "simplify" the difficulty of English for me. Meanwhile, since my art experiment mainly deals with ready-made visual information, plus I have some materials at home so I could continue my art experiments with robotic stuff and inkjet print, with the help of my roommate Kai. A few days ago, I produced a tongue-out optical drive. My roommate, who loved the assembly of the four-wheel drive in her childhood, helped me a lot.

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Zhihui ZHANG, Sticking tongue out& CD-ROM driver

found image, CD-ROM driver,arduino, motor driver, printable CD, inkjet print, 2020

Yuan Annie Zhuang: I remain in the City for now. The pandemic directly influences me by shutting down the school, shifting to online teaching, rationing the purchase of certain products, and having to sanitize every single object that comes from outside of my apartment door. Psychologically I’m actually feeling better than before. The New School was about to have its spring break just around the time many schools in New York decided to go online and shut down. So we got a two-week break instead of one, which allowed me sufficient time and energy to stock up and prepare (both physically and mentally) for the coronavirus. As many friends of mine decided to head back to China, they left me with a lot of groceries that are helping me a lot during isolation. After preparing for the quarantine by stocking up on food and sanitation supplies, I have plenty of time to enjoy my life. This is time that I never had before, not during the first year of college or any time in high school. I began to cook, bake and tidy up my apartment which frankly, hasn’t been tidied since the day I moved in. It is fun for me to approach my life from a different perspective—an apocalyptic one in this case. By tidying up my place, I have “encountered” many things I bought in the past year that I have already forgotten about. These things came to me as nice little surprises: I have this sick Japanese eel sauce that I’ve bought ages ago, the aluminum foil I bought for a project last semester can be used to make sculptures now. However, I do get upset over the news and concern from my family and friends around me.

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Various types of food cooked by Yuan Annie Zhuang during the pandemic

Wang Qunyuan: I currently live in a small city called Mülheim near Düsseldorf, Germany. The pandemic has a huge impact on me, such as not being able to go out normally, postponing the exhibition and the opening of the school, as well as the inconvenience of daily life. Instead of living in the dormitory, I live in a private house. The school is currently closed, but our class has sent an e-mail notification in preparation for online classes. The visa cannot be extended because the Landesamt für Einwanderung has suspended business, but the resident permit is valid. We are still waiting for normal business to be announced.

Jiaqi Li: I’m staying in Chicago. During this pandemic, I am not able to go outside as usual. I have paused what I was doing before school spring closure. Fortunately, there are still food delivery services, for me, that means I avoid unnecessary contacts.

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Empty subway in Chicago. Image provided by Jiaqi Li

Li Ye: I returned to China on March 14th as I received a strong request from my family. Since I will graduate in three months, I had no intention to return to China. However, my parents gave me great emotional pressure and hoped that I could return to China as soon as possible. At that time, I was very hesitant. The situation in Italy was already very serious, and we were watching from the sidelines in the UK, watching the UK goes the way of Italy. After the announcement, I decided to return home immediately in the face of the absurd plan for universal immunization announced by the prime minister.

Now I just finished the isolation period after returning to China, during which I passed four nucleic acid tests, blood routine, CT and so on. Fortunately, everything is okay. Soon after I came back to China, our school suspended all classes, and some tutorials were transferred to online teaching. Now I am concentrating on doing my graduation work at home, and the graduation show has also been turned into an online exhibition. In the end, I will be issued with an online graduation certificate.

Li Jiacheng: I am currently back in my own country, Singapore. COVID-19 has caused my school to shut down and not being able to return to my university has been the biggest set back for me. I stay at home mostly.

CAFA ART INFO: What is the current pandemic prevention policy in the country you are studying/staying?

Zhihui ZHANG: UK citizens should remain inside and only go out to take care of essential needs.

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Zhihui ZHANG and her roommate were enjoying the sunshine at their backyard.


Yuan Annie Zhuang: I heard that Manhattan had arranged police officers at every block in Midtown and some roads are closed, but I haven’t been out except for dumping trashes and picking up deliveries for weeks because all restaurants and cultural/entertainment organizations are closed.

Wang Qunyuan: Germany currently adopts the measures of closing all national borders, prohibiting the export of protective materials, suspension of schooling, forbidding large-scale activities. It also emphasizes no gatherings of more than two people in public places, closure of shops, restaurants and all unproductive entertainment activities. Meanwhile, the governor reinforces the protection of older people, which is specifically embodied in the measure that visiting a nursing home by family members is not allowed. By doing so, it helps to avoid a cluster of infections and also they conduct a large number of screening tests.

Jiaqi: Illinois has announced the “Stay at Home” order. But it is believed that it won’t reach its peak for two weeks and the number of patients is still growing. During the period of self-isolation, people are more desperate to see other human beings than usual. Some of them may use sticky notes to spell words to communicate with a “neighbor” across the street.

Li Ye: Britain is now largely in lockdown and people are being kept in their homes. Due to the delay of the prime minister's policy, it is estimated that minor cases will not be treated in time, but it is said that more effort will be made in the near future.

Li Jiacheng: Beijing has shut off its borders for most travellers, even if they have a long-term VISA.

CAFA ART INFO: How is your university responding to the outbreak of the pandemic? Does your school start a contactless model, such as online classes?

Zhihui ZHANG: As far as I know, major colleges, galleries and well-known art institutions have begun to look for online virtual models. London is now on Easter holiday at this moment, so there is no further notice when the next term will start. It is a pity that the graduation ceremony initially scheduled for July was cancelled because the school wanted to ensure that graduates successfully completed the course.

Yuan Annie Zhuang: All classes have been taught remotely. My professors use various approaches to ensure we get the practical hands-on education we paid for by using Zoom, Canvas, making YouTube videos, and so on. All of the planned lectures offered by different departments in the school are conducted with Zoom as well. Each department also offers extra Q&A sessions to answer any questions we might have.

Wang Qunyuan: My school is now completely closed and no entry is allowed. The Secretariat sent an email to everyone at the beginning of the outbreak to inform students of the severity of the current pandemic, news issued by authorities, precautions, and personal pandemic prevention methods. Also, the school has set up various places for alcohol hand sanitizers at the entrance of the Secretariat, at the guards entrance and places where people frequently gather.

The new email indicates that the main building, flanking workshops and studios were closed from March 18. The main building no longer accepts foreigners and everyone that needs to enter must be registered with a student ID. From April 20, all symposiums, one-on-one discussions, and lectures will be stopped. New public travel and short-term travel will not be approved and the previous business travel permits will be revoked. Our class originally planned to go to Munich in May and it has been cancelled. The opening ceremony of the new semester was cancelled and the review date of the freshman portfolio of the jury committee was postponed. The principal provided an email address for all university members to send their questions about the COVID-19. The school hopes to collect, clarify and answer questions centrally and strives to respond quickly according to the current situation.

Jiaqi Li: I have just ended a three-week spring break and started online learning. It is barely impossible to learn what was planned. And students are encouraged to continue their practices using the materials and resources around them.

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Jiaqi Li was taking online classes. It's like Robinson on the isolated Internet island.

Li Ye: The School has started online one-to-one classes and has been sending emails to communicate with students.

Li Jiacheng: Online classes.

CAFA ART INFO: In this special period, will the school support you in terms of medical advice or hospitalization, or assist with other things, if you were feeling unwell?

Zhihui ZHANG: My college gave suggestions via e-mail during the time of the outbreak in China. The NHS medical team is also working hard in the UK.

Yuan Annie Zhuang: The school offers online psychological counseling. We can discuss with our student life advisors if we need any help with looking for a doctor or finding out the best way to deal with any physical illness.

Wang Qunyuan: If you are unwell, you should deal with it yourself. People who are afraid of being infected should follow the pandemic prevention measures issued by the authorities. The school may help as much as possible. The German Federal Government and the cultural department of the North Rhine-Westphalia Government, where I am located, have set up application channels for grants. Not only for Germans, as long as people live in Germany (part of students are not included), they can apply and obtain grants.

Jiaqi Li: The school may be able to help students who had health insurance to locate a hospital. I’m not sure if they can really help while the school’s Health Center is closed during this time.

Li Ye: If you feel unwell in the UK, you can only rely on your friends to have anti-inflammatory drugs.

Li Jiacheng: I am not sure as I am not in Beijing.

CAFA ART INFO: Do you confront various social and public pressures during the different stages of the pandemic before and after the international outbreak?

Zhihui ZHANG: There is no pressure on me as an individual. But some have heard about discrimination when“wearing a mask.” Because there are some older students in our class, we all care about their health via Whatsup.

Yuan Annie Zhuang: The news surely spread with many social and public pressures. Although I haven’t personally experienced an assault, many of my friends were attacked physically or verbally because of their ethnicity.

Wang Qunyuan: No pressure on me. Being myself is my opinion.

Jiaqi Li: I prepared for the pandemic at an early stage. Self-isolation isolated me from various social and public pressures as well.

Li Ye: In the early days of the British outbreak, I think many Chinese students had predicted that the pandemic would definitely erupt in UK. Therefore, I had to wear a mask regardless of the look from British people and discrimination. I also advised my friends about the importance of masks. After coming back to China, I received a lot of kindness and comfort. Everyone felt that I had endured hardship coming back and offered me a lot of care.

Li Jiacheng: None in Singapore.

CAFA ART INFO: How do you plan to spend this special period?

Zhihui ZHANG: Daily life has changed from getting up early, rushing to get ready and dress every day and then taking the No.152 bus to Wimbledon College of Art in 20 minutes, to taking a nap in the middle of the day and waking up naturally, not having to eat three meals a day, ordering food online (I don't have much desire to buy new clothes because I can't go out) and to negotiate with my roommate to exchange two boxes of eggs for a few onions and soy milk.

In terms of artistic creation, on the one hand, I will continue to read, and slowly organize the creative ideas on this state of emergency. On the other hand, I am obsessed with watching some online video tutorials to unlock new skills. My work basically needs the space between the plane and the three-dimensional, so the exploration of the virtual space lets me play for a long time. Then, after a while, I would like to apply for some online residency programs and I am a little excited to see a lot differences with the standard online virtual display.

Yuan Annie Zhuang: Do tattoos, make stuff, upcycle used clothes, cook/bake, watch movies, organize my apartment, and most importantly: getting all the sleep I had been deprived of since forever! I have also been doing the #quarantinefashionweek on Instagram. Making garments then modeling or shooting them is exciting for me.

Wang Qunyuan: Reading books and news, creating art, doing research, watching dramas and playing games as usual.

Jiaqi Li: I plan to spend more time on my practice theory. I need time to review my work. It would be good to gather some materials before I am available for work. And using the cyberspace like the internet as the place for my practice is worth considering.

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Jiaqi Li was archiving his work My Work Will Be Art on the bed.

Li Ye: During this period of time, I would step by step prepare for the graduation work. When I go home, I feel at ease, not as anxious as in London.

Li Jiacheng: Hopefully I can do the things that I have never had the time to do.

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A recent work by Li Jiacheng

CAFA ART INFO: Will the experience of the COVID-19 pandemic influence your art creation?

Zhihui ZHANG: The time of isolation reminds me of one of my previous pieces ‘walking the dog.’ I remember two months ago when China was still at the peak of COVID-19 outbreak, Yande, who graduated last year from WCA, thought this work was very interesting. Because at that time, some people suspected that pets and people could infect each other and spread the virus. Walking dogs was banned in many places. There are two versions of this work, and the web version seems to be particularly relevant right now. I am not sure that I will be particularly concerned about the topic of the epidemic, but I think that the time of the epidemic has made me learn a lot of information and I will continue my exploration.

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Zhihui ZHANG,Web version of Walking the Dog

Yuan Annie Zhuang: Yes, it sort of already influences my art creations. For a class project, I took an XXXL shirt and upcycled it into a defense system for the virus. This is called a Rona Shirt. I altered the sleeves, so they actually have gloves attached so that you can take them on or off with Velcro. The lower part of the shorts is cut off and sewn to the collar so it can act as a scarf that either becomes a physical barrier like a mask or covers up the mask you are wearing to avoid social pressure.

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Left: Photographed and edited Yuan Annie Zhuang, Model: You Xiaolong

Right: Photographed by You Xiaolong, Model: Yuan Annie Zhuang

Another project I made is with airbags that is packaging material from deliveries. I have made numerous online orders since outbreak and I love to collect weird things. So my apartment ended up being entangled with overlapping strands of airbags on the ceiling. Then I created a look from old clothes from a friend of my mom’s which includes four stuffed toys I made with the airbags and of course, I had to sanitize every single one of them before doing anything with them.

Wang Qunyuan: I won’t deny the possibility.

Jiaqi Li: It may not. But the current situation—people are keeping a distance from each other—which has affected the making and consumption of art. I should adjust myself to that.

Li Ye: It is a coincidence that from the first year when I came to the UK, I have been creating the concept of masks. I am using a series of materials such as masks, make-up and facial masks to create works. Therefore, the experience of this outbreak will also be in the context of my creation.

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Li Ye created this work by facial masks.

Li Jiacheng: We will see.

CAFA ART INFO: Will you graduate this year? Will the degree show be changed or postponed?

Zhihui ZHANG: I’m graduating this year. The graduation exhibition will be in two off-campus exhibition spaces, which is very exciting, but it may be postponed. The school currently says they will try their best to ensure an offline physical display. 

Yuan Annie Zhuang: I’m in my freshman year, so graduation is faraway. But I did hear that the senior exhibition will be held online and Eugene Lang has shifted its Dean’s Honor Symposium to Zoom.

Wang Qunyuan: I am not graduating this year. But I heard that the BA/BFA degree show was stopped this year. In terms of the MA/MFA degree show, it cannot be realized offline.

Jiaqi Li: I plan to graduate in May next year. This year, SAIC’s gallery is closed while BFA student’s work is still inside the exhibition space. It seems to be impossible to do an MFA show in that gallery.

Li Ye: Yes, I am graduating this year. The graduation show will become an online exhibition.

Li Jiacheng: No, and not too sure.

Interview conducted by CAFA ART INFO

Dates: 2020/03/23 – 2020/04/10

Edited by Sue and Emily Weimeng Zhou

Image provided by the interviewees