Liang Xiao thought she would graduate with a project on jellyfish to conclude her MA in Art and Science at the University of the Arts London (UAL) this summer. The sudden outbreak of a pandemic that started right in her hometown changed her plans.
Xiao moved from her native Hubei to the UK because, in her words, "London is a really amazing city to study art." At the outbreak of COVID-19 in Wuhan, the city where she grew up, most people in London were sympathetic. "I found that people were really friendly, because when people knew I came from Wuhan, they would say, 'Oh, are you ok? I hope your family's ok.'
"They wanted to know what has happened. They weren't afraid, they were not like some people who were afraid of me, and they said, 'Oh, you have coronavirus, you are dangerous.'"
She was once walking the streets of Chinatown, in London's city center, wearing a mask, when someone pointed at her telling her she was 'dangerous'. "I know the culture of [wearing] a mask is different between the two countries, because I asked some people, 'Why do you not want to wear the mask?' and some people in the UK just told me: 'Why do you wear a mask, mask are only needed for the sick.' They didn't think it was for self-protection."
Xiao spent lockdown in her student accommodation in 556 Holloway Road - which is also the title of the photobook she produced as part of her project – keeping in touch with her family and friends, whose daily reports ended up being part of her graduation project.
"My creation time and the materials were limited. But at that time, I felt freedom while I created, because I had a long time to think about myself. And in that time I thought about what am I good for? What's my art for?
"I thought I have all my identity and the responsibility - I need to do something and tell the people around me [about the virus], and maybe it's a good chance to show what is true about the coronavirus in the UK.
Because at the time, there was no outbreak, it wasn't dangerous like in Asia in the UK. I wanted to show it. And tell people to not be afraid of it, we can do it, we can protect ourselves or get some ideas about that."
Xiao created four artworks in total, that were then exhibited at her university's virtual graduation showcase and even shortlisted for an award, the MullenLowe NOVA Awards. She filmed a performance on her balcony, reflecting on its role in our society and creating a connection with all the people in the world looking out of their balconies during lockdown for solidarity.
She also made a light installation, and created mockup for posters she would have liked to physically show off in the streets of London, would she have had the means.
"I did some research into the viruses based on their types, the transmission routes, growth trends, development scales and results.
"When I finished my research, I found some words, the main key words on the virus. And put that on Google Photos."
With the image results, she created collages that could speak to everyone about their experience of living through the COVID-19 pandemic. "Every audience, when they see my posters, they have different ideas, different ways of thinking of it," says Xiao. She invited people to tell their own stories, or invent one inspired by her work.
The way she experienced the pandemic in London was quite different from what her family and friends were going through in Wuhan. "People went in voluntary lockdown in the city, and especially in Wuhan people like my family and my friends knew it was really, really dangerous. They knew it as a fact.
"So they really did not go out, it was really different in the UK, because you could see some people going to work, not wearing a mask, they just went running, and exercising in the street."
She also complains about the difficulty of finding face masks, and how prices rocketed out of control. "I remember the medical masks I bought in February, five of them sold for fifty pounds. There were no more masks to buy in March," she says.
After graduation Xiao went back to Wuhan to be closer to her family. She plans on staying for a year, and hopefully come back to London for a PhD.
"When I came back to Hubei, I had conversations with many people, and I wanted to know what's different, and I also did some comparisons between the UK life and the Hubei life.
People wear masks and do everything exactly the same as before the pandemic, because they just work, they study. Not a change, just that they wear the mask, just this point. So you can say something is different. But it is OK. It's a peaceful life now."
Sometimes the most clever thing to say is nothing at all.