Slant

Letter from Tokyo

Cherry blossom viewing at Tokyo’s Shinjuku Gyoen National Park in Shinjuku on March 21, 2020. Photo: Paul Brown/Alamy Live News.

THINGS HAVE SEEMED CALM in Tokyo during the pandemic. I am tempted to write ominously calm, but in all honesty, things do not feel ominous to me—and this absence of ominousness is what is so discomposing. Yes, there is the constant hum of anxiety emanating from the television, where ongoing criticism of the government’s prevention and containment measures are heard, and where pundits speculate on how the postponement of the Olympics will impact the economy. But everyday life goes on, even despite warnings about a second wave of cases: people dine out, ride trams, and even stop by the galleries who have simply curtailed their hours. Crowds are visiting the cherry blossoms. In fact, aside from masks and disinfectants (sometimes toilet paper, instant noodles, and rice) being perennially sold out in supermarkets, it’s hard to tell any difference. Millions of people have begun working from home, but for the editorial team at artforum.com.cn, who are based in four different cities, this has always been part of our daily routine. Suddenly presented with a surplus of free time due to several work-related March cancelations, I decided to catch up on some reading.  

A friend in Beijing suggested Ring, Suzuki Koji’s acclaimed Japanese thriller series from the 1990s. Unlike in its film adaptations—whose most famous scene features the protagonist being frightened to death by a vengeful ghost crawling out of the TV—what kills in the novels is a virus transmitted via a cursed videotape. Anyone who watches the tape will die within a week, unless he or she makes a copy and shares it with someone else, propagating the infection. In book two, the cursed medium expands to include printed matter and movies, the mass distribution of which helps transform the virus into a global pandemic. The biological infection thus becomes indistinguishable from mediatic circulation of the disease.

It’s hard to find a more apt analogy for what people in China have experienced in the past two months. While the Chinese government, through its compulsory isolation and lockdown edicts, may have effectively choked the domestic spread of the virus offline, the torrent of COVID-19 news, real and fake, proved to be just as contagious as the virus itself, with government attempts to suppress the flow of information stimulating adaptation and mutation in response. On March 11, my WeChat Moments feed was flooded by links to an interview with Ai Fen, the Wuhanese doctor who first leaked the testing reports of the earliest COVID-19 patients to her superiors and colleagues. The piece was, predictably, deleted by WeChat admins, only to almost immediately resurface in various bootleg translations: emoji, braille, Morse code, even in characters from Xu Bing’s Book from the Sky. With everyone caught in the same affective circuit, a strong sense of solidarity was born, but so were intense quarrels over the political implications of the crisis, which always tend to develop into either a complete endorsement or a total condemnation of China’s one-party system. Social media, in China and elsewhere, is a valuable tool for self-organization, information exchange, and establishing a commons outside the system. But these fights about whether we should understand what happened in Wuhan as “China’s Chernobyl” or a twenty-first-century “people’s war” are perhaps the most exhausting part of this experience (apart from the fear of the virus itself). I have heard on more than one occasion about friendships being severed by them.

At artforum.com.cn., we like to contribute to the accumulation of intellectual labor over time, instead of resorting to reactive hot takes or hasty predictions. Some of the writings we’ve published during the past few weeks responded to our alarming moment while also reflecting prolonged thinking and research: Wang Qin’s essay on Japanese sinologist Yoshimi Takeuchi’s conception of the enemy, for instance, or our Shanghai-based editor Hanlu Zhang’s polemic against the notion that art is futile in times of crisis. The latter reminded us that the peril to art lies not only in the paralyzing panic fueled by the spreading virus, but, more gravely perhaps, in underlying social conditions—be they ever-tightening censorship or relentless urban gentrification—and how these threats are inextricably intertwined.

In the third installment of Ring, a deus ex machina is introduced: The world the characters inhabit is not the “real” one, we learn, but a simulation developed by humans. In the end, the protagonist, not unlike Neo in The Matrix, discovers a portal to the outside world and becomes its savior. But for us, as the lyrics of “The Internationale” heeded more than a century ago, Il n'est pas de sauveurs suprêmes . . . sauvons-nous nous-mêmes: “There are no supreme saviors . . . let us save ourselves”). And the road to self-salvation is long and winding.

Du Keke is the editor of Artforum.com.cn and a writer and translator based in Beijing.

Translated from Chinese by Alvin Li.

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