Zheyi Zhou is a Chinese artist who just completed a Fine Arts MA at UAL. The lockdown struck her in the English capital just before moving back to China. Can you tell me a little bit about this?
I stayed in London until 23rd March and arrived in China on the 24th. Two months after the outbreak in China, Covid-19 was basically under control. People could already go out at their wish in most cities and most stores had already re-opened when I arrived.
At that time, the increases of cases were coming from people returning to China from other countries. The government requested people returning from other countries to isolate at a designated hotel for 14 days. I needed to measure my body temperature twice a day and meals were left outside the door 3 times. There were no other regulations except that I couldn’t leave the room.
In fact, not having to worry about what I had to eat every day solved a large part of my troubles! Considering the fourteen days of quarantine, half of my suitcase was filled with painting tools at the time, which was the same as going to a place for art residency. I basically didn’t need to consider other things beside of creating and sleeping in a month.
I’ve seen that you are working on a series of watercolor faces, a project that you have been working on for a while now. Can you tell me a little bit about it?
Face to Face is a series of watercolor paintings that I have been creating for nearly two years. During a boring lecture I only found a sketchbook and a white crayon and I started to draw my classmates and tutor. As both the paper and the crayon were white, I couldn’t see what it was like. After returning home and filling with ink, I got specific images. It’s very interesting. It’s like drawing a feeling because it’s invisible; so you can only follow the intuition when drawing.
Studying in London was my first long-term contact with people from different countries. I found that people were quite different when expressing their emotions. Their facial expressions and body language were very rich.
Each facial expression of a person is conveying different emotions. There is a saying that the face is also a mask. The emotions under the mask are invisible to other people. That’s why I started to feel interested in the facial expressions.
Can you tell me a little bit more about this mask?
A literati in China wrote: “在羊面前显狼相，在狼面前显羊相.” - Act like the wolf in front of the sheep, act like the sheep in front of the wolf-
This means that everyone will have different face masks when facing different people. The same facial expression can express different emotions.
I’m a sensitive person and I can feel different people may have different attitudes towards me. For example, when people smile at me when I communicate with them. Some people really think it’s interesting, some are just polite and some are bored but still listening patiently… I find this very interesting: the same expression may originate from completely different states.
Public figures of all countries, especially famous stars in the entertainment industry, take a course called facial expression management. Professionals teach them how to show the best facial expressions in public. No matter the angle they are photographed from: they easily get perfect and comfortable expressions. Are their facial expressions showing their real emotions? - I don’t think so.
Since childhood, elders and teachers have taught us to be polite and modest. Sometimes these face masks protect us from showing timidity and fear in some important moments. Sometimes they avoid hurting other people’s feelings. It has two sides, positive and negative, it’s flexible and complex.
You previously compared this situation to a residency. Can you tell me a little bit more?
In 2017, I participated in an artist residential program at Ordos for a month. It was similar to this situation. Because of the unusually cold winter in that place I just went out two or three times during that month.
So I saw quarantine as another way of staying in inside the house to create art
fully. I was prepared before I left London. I even used GoPro to record the whole journey from London to China trying to make a video work about it. During this period, I didn’t need to think about other things, I just needed to create.
Do you think that the intensity of the time has affected your practice?
I had the necessity of creation. Previously creation was a way for me to express myself, but during that period changed to be a way to calm my anxiety.
Looking back at the works and the manuscripts painted in this period, I am more focused on soothing my nervousness and paying attention to the current affairs. I also recorded the data of Covid-19 in China and the UK during that period on the back of the paintings.
Her work at: @zheyizhou_art