As the number of coronavirus cases climbed and the world fell into chaos this past spring, Boston College student artists Van Xu, CSOM ’21, and Kaitong Hu, CSOM ’21, picked up their cameras. Through their lenses, Xu and Hu question what has happened to our lives since the pandemic began and how we have coped. Their collaborative exhibit Sheng, now on display in Carney’s Gallery 203, provides an abstract yet honest view of life in 2020.
The 11 large prints line the gallery’s white walls, their clear order guiding viewers through the room. The first section of the exhibit, shot by Xu, is a series of four photographs that feature a person figuring out how to function with the latest accessories: a face mask and bright blue medical gloves. Hand sanitizer sits among other common bathroom products in the second photograph as Xu focuses on small details scattered throughout the subject’s space. The inescapable disinfectant is also hidden among condiment containers and casually rests between two figures on a couch in two other pieces that elicit a knowing chuckle.
Xu’s off-campus apartment became a makeshift studio when he set up the backdrop and lights that were used to create the dark and moody images, he said in an email to The Heights. Disorienting blue and purple lighting expresses the strangeness of the new normal that people have had to build.
“I decided to use a very cinematic, hyperbolic, dramatic, or ominous color scheme, in order to stress the weirdness or bizarreness that we might have nowadays under the pandemic,” Xu said.
Empty shelves and masked figures lit by harsh department store lights interrupt the first wall of dark and more personal photographs. Hu’s work occupies the second wall of the gallery and captures a gray, plastic-shielded environment. A haunting shot of bare shelves in a department store triggers memories of frantic shopping done in an even more uncertain time. In another striking photograph, shocking headlines pop out against the gray walls of a convenience store. The shift from Xu’s depiction of a single character dealing with personal lifestyle changes to the wider public scenes in Hu’s work reminds the viewer that the pandemic is also a shared experience.
The naturalistic style of Hu’s pictures depicts how common public spaces have been altered by the pandemic. Hu took the photographs in local convenience, grocery, and retail stores. The unstaged and unsaturated images are meant to express the dismal state of the economy.
The third wall of the gallery features lurid close-up images of Xu’s character as he shows how people have come to cope with the stress of the pandemic. Under the intense blue and pink lights, a drop of disinfectant falls and the model closes his eyes, suffocating under his mask. Dark humor that seems to run throughout some of Xu’s pieces returns in the final photograph, as the model faces the camera and sips wine through a hole in his mask.
The exhibit takes advantage of the spacious gallery walls, allowing a visitor to step back and observe all the pieces with their varying colors and subjects. The order of the images astutely guides a visitor through the different parts of our lives that have been upended by the pandemic: our personal living spaces, public places, and emotional states.
The title of the exhibit, Sheng, refers to a Chinese character that encapsulates the existence and lifestyles of living beings. After deciding to combine their photographs, Xu and Hu realized that both of their works explore the evolution of this nuanced character. As explained in their artist statement, Sheng Ming refers to the lives of humans from beginning to end. Sheng Huo describes everything that happens in between, including all the events and activities that take up our time. The exhibit examines how the character’s meaning has shifted over these past months as the conditions of human life have drastically changed. Xu and Hu deliver a visually interesting reminder that even the language people use every day is being reshaped by the pandemic.
In their artist statement, Xu and Hu perfectly summarize their exhibit, which can be viewed weekdays through Oct. 30, as a “candid and almost deadpan portrait of where we are and what has happened at this specific point in history.”
Featured images by Erin Pender / For The Heights
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