Art in times of pandemic – CERCLE MARISTE
Over the past two years, artists around the world have made the COVID-19 pandemic an art form. Called “pandemic art”, this type of expression is built on an artist’s reactions to the rapidly changing global landscape. Some have used their art as a form of educational material on COVID-19, while others have used it to illustrate their emotional response to the challenges posed by the pandemic.
For Joyce Yu-Jean Lee, professor of art and digital media at Marist College, her interpretation of the pandemic translated into social and political commentary on the underlying impact of the virus.
Currently on display at the faculty’s exhibition at the Marist College Art Gallery, his piece China / Wuhan virus, Kung flu presents Lee’s creative perspective on the societal consequences of the pandemic. Diptych in the shape of a coronavirus, it tells the impact of the pandemic on China. Composed of two coherent pieces, the diptych comments on the racial tensions and social movements that were deeply involved in the pandemic chaos.
Each piece uses photographs Lee took on a pre-pandemic trip to China. The first piece is a snapshot of a construction site in a new arts district. The modernity of the arts district juxtaposes the traditional use of bamboo for Chinese scaffolding. The image serves to showcase China’s history, culture, and progress, but then becomes nothing more than its title once the photograph takes the form of the virus.
The photograph in the next room shows a temple which is a popular tourist spot for both foreigners and locals. Lee took this photo after being surprised by China’s use of cell phones. Separately, the pictures of a group of Chinese people and the shape of the coronavirus have two different meanings. But when they come together, they make a statement. They tell a story that actually fits the pejorative nicknames of the virus.
“I thought it was an interesting visual that the faces of the Chinese were pinned to the meaning of this virus, and I think that nickname is really intentional and had a big impact,” Lee said.
Using a photograph, Lee humanizes the people who have been affected by these harmful nicknames and hate crimes. But she illustrates the reality of dehumanization in these situations by cutting out the faces or partial faces of some of the people photographed. “There are so many ways these people have been hijacked by us,” Lee said.
Yet, like the pandemic, none of these works of art were planned.
Lee’s work which is now on display in the Marist Art Gallery was originally created for an exhibition at a local gallery in Poughkeepsie, Women’s Work Arts. Lee received a grant in October 2020 from Arts Mid Hudson to fund this art.
His pre-pandemic vision was to create an exhibit on transnational identity, with a particular focus on the Chinese diaspora present in the Hudson Valley. As a Chinese-Taiwanese-American artist, Lee was interested in exploring the social and political boundaries of transnational communities in his work.
But as the overall condition worsened, Lee’s work evolved.
COVID-19 has added a whole new layer to its artwork. The work Lee was creating before the pandemic began to strike him as irrelevant and futile.
Lee asked Arts Mid Hudson if she could change her exhibit given that the pandemic greatly affected her plans for the exhibit, and they supported her. His work developed from there.
Lee knew she wanted her show to react to what was going on in the world – it had to be timely and relevant. It was a stressful process to completely change the whole show, but it was also very exciting for her. “It seemed necessary,” Lee said.
The artwork evolved because of the pandemic, but also because Lee wanted to capture the Black Lives Matter movement and the anti-Asian hate crimes that were all happening at the same time. She saw an overlap in the history of the two groups with racism, so it all came together to inform her pieces. “Thinking of all the racial tensions that have arisen during the pandemic, this is the diaper that I think struck closest to me,” Lee said.
When Lee was asked to exhibit works in Marist’s gallery, she knew she wanted to include this diptych. Because Lee has been teaching remotely for the past few semesters, she decided this article seemed relevant to her, given that the pandemic consumed her life and greatly affected her teaching. “The faculty, because of my high regard for them, always bring incredible work and their selection process is impeccable,” said Ed Smith, gallery director and art professor at Marist.
Lee chose the form of the coronavirus because the form didn’t exist before the pandemic, but suddenly makes so much sense now. This figure is at the heart of his work and was produced using an innovative technique. The pieces were created through a UV printing process, where the ink in the photograph was cured in ultraviolet light. Lee wanted to return to objectivity, so she focused on doing concrete work. The photograph was printed on Dibond, a material made from two thin pieces of aluminum that cover a plastic center. Dibond allows art to be rigid, but also bendable and bendable. So while Dibond may be naturally flat, Lee was able to cut it in a way where it acted like a sculpture. She wanted to create something that was both 2D and 3D. Thus, leaving room for what she calls a “wall relief”.
“It’s so innovative how she turned a political statement into art and even took the form of the virus as inspiration,” said Sasha Tuddenham ’23. “I think it just shows how art, politics and science have always intersected.”
Today, Lee revisits his exploration of transnational identity. She worked in Marist’s fabrication lab using laser cutters and creating woodblock prints. Her COVID pieces have echoed in her current art and directly inspired her to do even more experimentation.