Last October, Minneapolis artist Peng Wu quit his job as a professor at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design and returned home to China. His father had late-stage cancer, and he needed to be there. He didn’t anticipate getting stuck in quarantine with his parents and sister.
“The whole family was in Shanghai helping my father take the medical treatment [in December],” he said by Zoom from his family’s apartment. “I saw some social media posts talking about a virus in Wuhan City that really looked like SARS.”
When the family returned to their hometown of Hefei, about 200 miles northeast of Wuhan, Wu’s father was hospitalized again. Two days after he was discharged, it became a coronavirus hospital. They knew it wasn’t safe to go outside anymore because his father was high-risk. While the whole family was quarantined together, Wu’s father passed away.
In the past six months, the coronavirus has permeated every aspect of Wu’s life, which has been rooted in Minneapolis since 2011, when he came to MCAD to get his MFA. He recently obtained an O-1 visa, and owns a home here.
This winter his artist collective CarryOn Homes created an installation for the Minneapolis Institute of Art’s exhibit “When Home Won’t Let You Stay: Art and Migration.” Titled “Living Room,” it was a space to give visitors time to relax and reflect on the show while listening to audio interviews from immigrants.
Wu virtually attended the opening in February. A month later, Mia — and the exhibit, which was scheduled to continue through May 24 — shut down.
As the virus tore through Wuhan, Wu collaborated with 14 artists to create Pretty Poor Artists team. They raised $1,700 to help health care workers, with contributions from Minnesotans among others.
Last month, Soo Visual Arts Center in Minneapolis commissioned Wu’s “One Sky,” a four-part video for the ongoing series “Virtual Connections: Together From a Distance” on soovac.org. (He’s also having a solo show there in August.)
“I couldn’t accept the reality that I couldn’t go back to Minnesota before the spring, because spring is a huge thing,” he said. “[You’re] waiting for that moment to come, the first flower coming out of the ground.”
He shot three one-minute videos outside his apartment. Hazy people wander or gather in the background against a close, sharp focus on crabapple, maple and peach flowers that he recognizes from China and Minnesota.
In the fourth video, Wu paints an ancient poem: “Mountains and valleys are apart/ Wind and moon share one sky.” This text, written in Chinese, appeared on shipping boxes of face masks sent from Japan to China. The poem can be traced back more than 1,000 years to a gift from Japan to China that compelled Buddhist master Jianzhen to bring Buddhism to Japan. The poem ends: “To the followers of Buddha, karma will connect us one day.”
Karma factors into Wu’s current project, “Gone With COVID,” which he’s working on with an MCAD schoolmate, illustrator Yuanzhou Qian, and Wu’s boyfriend, Youyang Yu (who’s currently in Beijing). It’s a way to grieve virus-related cancellations. They’ll use leftover Wuhan funds to commission Minnesota artists.
“This kind of help comes back and forth in many ways — it’s continuous, it’s like a karma, it never stops,” said Wu. “We were thinking people in Minnesota — they are so kind, they help us when we are in such a bad place. We were like, ‘Can we help when they are in crisis?’ Let’s also learn from what Japanese people did for us.”