On March 7, 2020, Chinese calligraphy artist Qian Geng and experimental musician Wang Ziheng flew from Beijing to Germany, to launch their European tour. At that time, the coronavirus outbreak in China had been controlled to a certain extent, while the outbreak in Europe was still in its early stages. On March 11, they learned that their flight back to Beijing at the end of the month was canceled, and they were forced to suspend the rest of their tour. Now two Chinese artists are trapped in Berlin at the moment. Subtropical Asia got in touch with them, to get an idea of their situation, their mental state, and their thoughts. 

Chinese calligraphy artist Qian Geng

Chinese experimental musician Wang Ziheng

The following dictation is compiled from the interviews by Qian Geng 

In the summer of 2019, a German friend Adam Langer who I only met once in Beijing wrote to me and asked if we wanted to tour Germany in March 2020. I slapped my thigh and said “Oh yeah!”

According to the original plan, there were a total of 4 performances in 4 cities, plus an exhibition and a graffiti renovation. The performance in Ingolstadt was especially exciting for us, because we were to have an opening performance at a modern dance festival, and have the opportunity to improvise with German experimental music pioneer Anton Kaun and 30 dancers.

The name of our tour was “The Iron Arhan”, cause we figured that we needed to be tougher in all aspects when we are touring outside of China. The form of the show is that I would perform puppet calligraphy, head writing, pen fairy calligraphy and the first public performance of leg writing. Ziheng and Anton helped me complete the field of energy in terms of live sound, and I responded with my body language and visualized the sound.

We flew from Beijing to Munich on the early morning of March 7. Before leaving Beijing, we were self-quarantined at home for about 20 days to ensure that our physical condition would not affect the plan. But we never seemed to think about canceling this trip. The airport in Beijing that day was extremely empty. On the contrary, the German airport was packed and we were the only two humans wearing masks.

The empty Beijing airport

We completed our first performance in Hamburg as planned. In the words of our inviter Adam, Germans are used to using their own knowledge and experience to explain and express what they feel. But after the Hamburg show, almost everyone just opened their mouths and were speechless, with giddy smiles across their faces. They gave us four applauses after the encore – we felt so touched. The second performance was on the 10th. After we first met Anton in Munich, he invited Ziheng to his improv performance later in the evening. It was a bar run by a white-haired Japanese gentleman. The theme of that night was “Against Nuclear Weapons”. The cooperation between Anton and Ziheng made us feel that the word ” bosom friend ” really exists, and in terms of an effective way of human communication, music definitely trumps language.

Once when we took the subway in Munich, we sat directly opposite two European young boys. When one of the boys noticed that we were two Asians wearing masks, he used his eyes to signal to the other boy and put his hand in front of his nose. When our eyes matched, we felt their anxiety, Zi Heng said: “We are healthy, don’t worry.” The two young boys were relieved and finally smiled at us.

But it wasn’t until March 12 that we really realized that the European continent had fallen under the pandemic. That day Anton took the train with us to Ingolstadt. After we arrived there, we got the announcement that the dance festival had canceled all the live performances, that the audience was not allowed to participate, and the performance could only be recorded. The three of us sat by the Danube river beside the venue and watched the wild ducks chasing the sunset. Anton said many of his friends recently canceled all of their performances in recent months, and he didn’t want to be the kind of fool who still waved the flag when the whole world is shut down. That day, we also decided to cancel all the remaining shows and make this recording as the end of the tour. We put the wine in a large bowl, like Three Kingdoms heroes, drank in one sip, and then returned to the recording venue.

The no audience show in Ingolstadt

Our original plan was to fly back from Frankfurt to Beijing on March 31, yet on March 11, we were told that the return flight was canceled. On March 17, we went to the Air China Berlin office to inquire about the situation. The staff was unable to give any definitive answers or arrangements. We also contacted the Chinese Embassy in Germany, the embassy wrote back and suggested that we contact the cultural department in Germany. We took these suggestions to the cultural department, reported personal circumstances in the WeChat apps, and paid attention to all flight options immediately. Soon, the Ministry of Culture arranged for us to return to China on April 5. But within a few days, the flight was canceled again. At present, the government only arranges one plane per week, so far we do not know when it will be possible for us to return to China. 

We currently live in a space near Berlin’s White Lake, hosted by a German couple, who had lived in China for 16 years. Lao Yang is a photographer. He has taken many documentary photos in China and is a good father who tells stories before his daughter goes to bed. He said that the building hosted a strange silent film shooting 100 years ago, the film is called “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.”

Currently, we are living and creating art in this residency. For the first time, the two of us co-recorded on music and express the feelings of this time with sound. Two songs have been completed. Zi Heng is preparing for the recording of his solo album. For the first time, I published the compositive writing works which I created 5 years ago on the wall of this space. Our daily routine is: wake up, eat, write, record, drink, take a bath then go to bed.

Because the supermarkets here have sufficient supplies, sometimes we go out to buy food reserves for a few days. There are very few people on the streets in Berlin, and people in supermarkets also consciously keep their distance from others. The same atmosphere and feeling between the two of us are that we are very much like the Jews who were taken care of by the kind people during World War II. We feel truly thankful and touched.

If you view the pandemic as a battle, the first battle that we both experienced completely was in China, and the second battle was in Europe. I don’t know if the third battle will be the quarantine after we return to China. I hope nothing else.

The whole virus thing did not change my original perception about the world but deepened it. Kobayashi Kazuchi said, “See the flowers in the middle of the world, the hell in the world.” (世の中は地獄の上の花見哉。)