The exemptions we suffer, whether forced or chosen, make us who we are.
Or sometimes, make us see who we are.
Lockdown Life: A Contradiction
Speaking about life in lockdown is, at its core, contradictory, since it is a shared condition that is at the same time intimately personal. As we are physically distanced by masks and the walls of our homes, our days may look completely different from one another. Partially disconnected from the outside world, we are forced to create virtual “worlds” between the walls of our homes, and as a result, grouped into those with children or pets or partners or back yards, and those without. Every home is a parallel universe, each orbiting in its individual time frame and struggling in its own way.
But one thing remains universal: the human need to separate and assign meaning to space. With the industrial revolution, we have divided the land into urban and rural territories, and more recently, into the office and the home, work and life. As COVID forces us to desert public spaces and retreat into the cave of our homes, we have resorted to segregating our apartments, flats, or houses into spaces with different functions. A kitchen table becomes a desk, a bedroom becomes an office, a study becomes a conference room, juxtaposing the domestic with business, our private and public personas mixing awkwardly, our onscreen and offscreen selves contradicting, shirts and ties and lipsticks and how-to-instantly-look-awake makeup mismatching our pajama bottoms.
About the Exhibition
The “Work from Home” series is filled with chairs flooding staircases and overflowing from doorways inside of what seems like a residential building. Most of the chairs are office chairs, ones that swivel and include armrests, suggesting alert efficiency, competence, and contribution. Sometimes a wooden chair appears. A dinner chair perhaps? Or ones that come with dressers? Either way, its domesticity seems like a rude contradiction to its dark counterparts. In one of the images, the wooden chair is surrounded on all sides by office chairs, the isolation and almost suffocating crowdedness hinting to how lockdown has forced us to cram our different lives. In another image, the army of office chairs charges into the living room, its upright backs and no-nonsense structures making the soft cozy cushions sink deeper into the sofas. The black-and-white simplicity of these images is a crude reminder of the dissolution of weekends, holidays, off-duty hours, school days and half terms, the structure of our days crumbling into two large heaps: night and day, which are then roughly separated into the four seasons.
“A Year Diary” seems more relaxed in its color, lighting, and composition. Separated by the seasons, I suddenly realize how we have neglected and taken for granted the predictable changes that the natural world has presented to us, changes that I have personally become more aware of after being restricted to my home. However, I am always dubious whenever I hear people say that the pandemic is the world’s way of hitting pause so that we can reflect on the life we are living, and contemplate who we are without the conditioning of the outside world. One of the works in this series features a group of people facing away from the lens, crouching and sitting on what seems like cement surrounded by a body of water. Rule of Six? The unpopular truth may be that we need the various spaces that we create and the presence of others to channel the multifaceted selves that coexist within us, and that we were never fully in charge of our lives to begin with. In other words, maybe there is no isolated “self,” but a combination of how we live and who we share our lives with.
Pre-COVID life seems at the same time like a distant memory and vivid dream. The past 12 months have been an education on loss, adaptation, and the shattering of our naïve illusions of certainty and stability. Despite the drowsiness of our days, the pandemic has in more ways than one yanked us out of sleepwalking through life, forcing us to realize how we’ve been auto-piloted into living and making choices, and how our pre-pandemic lifestyle may have been nothing more than the mercy of the times. The post-pandemic world is constantly filled with irony and obvious metaphors, such as the allusion of compartmentalizing and balancing work and life, productivity as personal achievement, or the rest of the world as nothing more than a plane ticket. Now, we are shoved awake, and what appears before us is the days, nights, and seasons, rotating as they have for eons but are finally seen with a fresh sense of mindfulness.
Heterotopia and the Self
As we resort to learning to bake sourdough bread, rearranging the furniture, or planning career changes, we cannot help but wonder: what are we in this brave new world? Who are we without the spaces that were previously filled with our presence? Perhaps Heterotopia is a more metaphysical state that when manifested, challenges our notions of how we relate to our surroundings. To some extent, “otherness” is an artificial and deeply subjective concept, a judgment call that reveals nothing more than how open we are to the suggestions of our surroundings and the mere triviality of our own being. At the end of the day, a chair is just a chair, its existence innocent, its distinction superficial, no matter how we attribute it to different designs and functions.
In the words of De Beauvoir: “In my being I sum up the earthly inheritance and the state of the world at this moment.” Lockdown and pre-COVID living each has its own unique share of pain, joys, failed endeavors and pleasant surprises, a perspective that is only possible through distancing ourselves. In a way, Chun Yi Huang’s “Lockdown Life in Heterotopia” is a reminder that, in the grand scheme of things, we were never products of our own makings, but a concoction of our circumstances and the spaces we inhabit. Those of us with children know all too well the saying “it takes a village,” but if lockdown life has clarified anything about our state of being, it’s this: it takes “otherness” for us to be ourselves.
View the exhibition at www.chunyihuang.uk/ from March 20 to May 20, 2021
Written by Liz Chang and published on March 27, 2021.