The Art of Lockdown: a story of isolation and creativity

‚The calligraphy of the law of change‘ by Qian Geng and Wang Ziheng

The coronavirus crisis has been, and continues to be for many all over the globe, associated with separation, isolation, and shutdown. But for a creative workshop space in Berlin, the pandemic has brought with it a unique gift. Over the course of 6 weeks, the bright white walls of C*SPACE have undergone a beautifully intricate and bold transformation, turning a classic atelier into a refuge for two artists, as well as a canvas for their powerful artwork, ‘The calligraphy of the law of change’.

Back in March, Chinese calligraphy and sound artists Qian Geng and Wang Ziheng took part in a tour of Germany, curated by Adam Langer of Agency&. They gave talks and exclusive live performances of their art, merging sound and calligraphy with space and colour. But as the crisis worsened towards the end of the month, the pair became stranded, unable to get a flight back home to Beijing and on a limited budget. 

Struggling to find accommodation for both them and their materials, Qian and Wang turned to C*SPACE, one of the venues they were due to speak on their tour. It was agreed initially that the artists could stay in the workshop for two weeks. The space is not designed to be lived in full-time, so with sleeping bags on mattresses for beds and a last-minute purchase of a rainwater collector for their showers, the pair were set to ride out the storm.

Qian and Wang with their finished pieces

‘It’s difficult to have someone in your space, when you can’t get close to them,’ says Jan Siefke, who hosts C*SPACE with his partner Katja Hellkötter. They would meet from across the courtyard, or do a weekly shop together. But unable to get back to their families, friends and art studio in China and living in a new city in lockdown, it was a dislocating and uncertain period of time. 

‘So at first, like everyone else, they were in a kind of coma state,’ continues Jan. ‘But then, their energy reemerged, they got into the mood and started to paint and write poems.’ The airy loft in Berlin provided room to delve deeper into their projects and a blank space to explore their artistic styles; the strict lockdown measures formed a kind of artistic retreat inside (and on) the walls of C*SPACE. And out of this artistic retreat sparked their new idea: a striking mural, combining their poetry and Qian’s skilled calligraphy. 

C*SPACE comprises three creative spaces, the third atelier being the most recent addition, with renovation finishing not long before the lockdown in Germany began. And it was in this new space that Qian and Wang wanted to create their art. ‘I just said, if this is the right space for your idea, go ahead,’ says Jan. 

Qian working on the walls of C*SPACE

In the weeks following, the space came to life. Both of the Beijing-based artists perform live; Qian’s performance calligraphy project – The 8 Immortals – is dark and ritualistic, characterised by thick black brush strokes telling oriental folklores. Sitting by his side during these performances is the puppet of The 8 Immortals, Qian’s ‘alter ego’, which he uses to create a distance between himself and his art installations, to observe his work from an outside perspective. 

Wang accompanies the visual journey with futuristic soundscapes. Part of the new generation of Beijing’s underground music scene, he experiments with saxophone, voice and instruments he builds himself from everyday materials. In performance, the two are in an artistic dialogue, dynamically responding to each other’s movements, energy, crescendos and diminuendos.

The 8 Immortals alter ego

‘They started with just one wall,’ explains Jan. An interpretation of the traditional Chinese poem ‘The Thousand Character Classic’, which has been used to teach children Chinese characters since the 6th Century, dominates the western wall and became the epicentre of the installation. The original rhyming poem contains exactly 1000 characters, each only used once; The 8 Immortals installation combines the characters in a Taoist style to form new words and interweaves Qian’s own reflections from ‘the perspective of a three dimensional space’.  

The energy conjured during their performances simply could not be displayed on just one wall. The installation began to grow, with more classic poems deeply rooted in Chinese culture being performed each evening. Wall by wall, the atelier tells a story of the development of the self; poems by 6th Century poet Li Bai, whose work embodies freedom, spontaneity and defiance of convention and the Buddhist teachings, warning of the ‘Eight Winds’ on the path to enlightenment.

The Thousand Character Classic poem is combined with Qian’s own reflections

Six weeks after the artists took refuge in the workshop space, Jan and Katja went to visit the powerful finished piece. ‘Standing in the atelier, you get a very strong feeling that there is energy all around you,’ Jan describes. Creating the piece in such extraordinary circumstances, in Berlin and unsure when they will return home, has had a profound effect on the artists’ work. It is one-of-a-kind; although they may have had the same vision elsewhere, the live performance art ensures it would have taken different forms, with a different spirit and journey. ‘The works left in C*SPACE are absolutely unique and cannot be copied,’ says Qian.

For Jan and Katja, this incredibly detailed installation is more than a work of art – it connects on a more personal level. Before moving to Berlin, the couple lived in Hong Kong and Shanghai and have since set up multiple projects that encourage a stronger social bond between China and Europe. C*SPACE, located in up-and-coming Weisßensee, celebrates and regularly hosts Sino-European events, acting as a shared space for cross-cultural and interdisciplinary learning, creation and reflection. 

Now, after the generosity of Jan and Katja, both artists have made it safely back home to China. And what will happen to their installation? ‘We’re going to preserve the atelier space,’ says Jan, ‘to use as a creative artist space for thinking, reflecting on their projects, just as Qian and Wang did. It gives an impression of what is possible in lockdown. We are all facing the same difficulties, so this is a positive story to tell.’

Wang (left) and Qian have now made it safely back home to China

C*SPACE atelier, as well as two further creative workshop spaces, are all available to book on Spacebase now. The atelier is now open to visit; contact Jan or Katja to organise viewings.