Waiting to exhale: Beijing’s S/ash collective share ‘Body Building Exercise’ along with some insight on life under mass quarantine

, 24 March 2020

“Why sink in a sofa and whine about your misfortune when you can move your body with music, generate some dopamine and sweat your problems away?” reflects Maggie Menghan Chen via email about the inspiration behind S/ash‘s ‘Body Building Exercise’ video, premiering via AQNB today. By her own admission, the Beijing-based art collective co-founder didn’t expect COVID-19 to become the grave global crisis it is right now, but when the novel coronavirus broke out in Wuhan in late January, Chen followed a week of being in bed during lockdown with fresh optimism. “I started devising some dance for myself and found it surprisingly effective in getting a good spirit back,” she writes. “I thought I can make a simple exercise that everybody can practice along with.”

The resulting indoor workout video features Chen and Vivian Yao moving to the clicking, popping, tapping resonance of a bubblegum soundtrack by Shanghai-based producer and PC Music-affiliate felicita. It’s a dance tutorial incorporating elements of zumba, hip hop, krump and vogue that offers an outlet for all the pent up energy of an international community looking out at the coming spring from self-isolation. Echoing the user interface of an arcade dance machine, Liu Cunjun‘s videography follows the accelerating tempo with instructions to “power up… and say no”, while Chen and Yao wear costumes—including ‘self-published S/ash zine pants’—by Yu Wei. Together with stylist Morrissey Yang and S/ash co-founder a1jewel, the project and its restless rhythm comes as a pragmatic message of optimism and solidarity at a particularly trying time in the world.

S/ash, ‘Body Building Exercise’ (2020). Video still. Courtesy the artists.

“The video is actually more spirit-building rather than body-building,” explains an ordinarily New York-based Chen, who is considering what to do next after being prevented from returning to the place she’s called home for the last four years by the coronavirus pandemic. In the meantime, the artist, dancer and choreographer took the time to answer our questions and share some insight on life under lockdown in China and how to stay healthy at home.

**When did the mass quarantine in China, particularly in Wuhan, then Beijing and the rest of the country begin? What measures were taken to control it during this time?

Maggie Menghan Chen: The breakout happened at a peculiar time. It came to public attention around January 20, a few days before Chinese New Year when people were traveling back home to be with families. The massive national-wide transportation made the situation harder to contain. Then the usual month of festivity and relaxation was strangely mixed with alarm and uncertainty. It was encouraged not to visit relatives and friends. The holiday was prolonged. Public places like restaurants and shops remained closed after the New Year break.

**How long were the lockdowns and how did they affect your daily life, was it very strict?

MMC: From my understanding, Beijing is still under lockdown in some degree. Only one of the gates in residential neighborhoods remain open, and you need to show an entry pass and have your temperature measured to get in. Last weekend, my friends and I were asked not to have a picnic in a park. The country is being really cautious, and I respect that.

S/ash, ‘Body Building Exercise’ (2020). Video still. Courtesy the artists.

**Was there a moment, or were there moments of fear and panic for you and the rest of your community and the city during this time?

MMC: At first, it was scary when the incubation, symptoms and the means of transmission of this new virus were still under debate. There was also a moment of fear for food and supply shortage, but none of that happened on a large scale as far as I know.

**How did you keep in touch with each other, what kind of support was there for and between the community to get through this time?

MMC: Sending memes and funny videos to group chats was everything. Exchanging track lists and playing detective games online also helped. I saw multiple free online counseling resources available. Shanghai Community Radio started a stream series called ‘Don’t Go Outside’ in early February, where musicians from all over the country played from home. Lots of similar initiatives took place in China. This forced decentralization somehow bonded us more.

**Now that the quarantine is slowly relaxing in China, what has gone back to normal and how has life changed from before?

MMC: I can dance in a studio and meet friends occasionally. Honestly, with going back to the US canceled, I’m still devising a plan for the next few months. I’m just trying to keep myself busy and entertained during this chaotic time, and hopefully some new opportunities will emerge.

S/ash, ‘Body Building Exercise’ (2020). Video still. Courtesy the artists.

**Has anything changed for you in how you think about, approach or value in life now?

MMC: I think the weather of the universe influences us all. As a droplet devoured by the torrent of the universe, it is the most natural to let yourself float and see where it takes you. No pandemic interrupted your life. The pandemic is a shared trail of life, slowing down time and encouraging introspection.

Each of us is an antenna, receiving energies from space. The more you are willing to feel what the time has to offer, the faster it conducts through you. The purer you are, the easier it is to feel the transformation of the universe. Through the antenna, joy flows by, sadness flows by. You remain yourself but strengthened by pain.

**Is there any advice or message of support you can give to the rest of the global creative community (and beyond) who are only beginning to be directly affected by the virus?

MMC: For starters, follow along with the body-building exercise once a day. If you don’t normally exercise, it’s your opportunity to start trying! Also maybe experiment on a new medium of expression. If you are a musician, get yourself a canvas and make a painting. I find shifting between mediums the most refreshing. Above all, stay safe. Wear a mask and call a friend to check up how they’re doing.**

Maggie Menghan Chen is a New York and Beijing-based artist, performer, choreographer and co-founder of the S/ash art collective.