Artists on Coping: JinJin Xu & Jiaoyang Li (Silkworm Pupas)

During the Coronavirus pandemic, Art Spiel is reaching out to artists to learn how they are coping.

Performance still from “In America, You are Asked Why Leaves are Green,” February, 2020; from left, artists JinJin Xu, Jiaoyang Li. Photo courtesy of artists

Silkworm Pupas is a new media arts collective consisting of NYC based Chinese poets Jiaoyang Li and JinJin Xu. Our projects strive for intimate ways to envision attainable, inclusive, and bleeding-edge futures through innovative storytelling, documentary poetics practice, sound installation and video-performance art.

Jiaoyang Li is a Chinese poet and visual artist. Her literary work has appeared in LA Reviews of Books-China channel, 3:AM, Spittoon Magazine, Voice and Verse poetry magazine, and others. Her interdisciplinary practices have been supported by the New York Foundation of Art, The Immigrants Artist Biennial and others. She co-founded the interdisciplinary poetry journal 叵CLIP.

JinJin Xu is a poet and filmmaker from Shanghai invested in docu-poetics. Her work has been featured in The High Line Public Arts, The Harun Farocki Institute, The Immigrant Artist Biennial, and anthologized in Nasty Women Poets. Honors include The Poetry Society of America’s George Borgin Prize and fellowships from The Thomas J. Watson Foundation and the Flaherty Seminar. She teaches hybrid workshops at NYU where she is a Lillian Vernon Fellow.

AS: How are you coping?

JL: I taught an undergraduate writing class through May, then I joined the NYU ITP camp for the rest of the summer. Talking to people and learning something new helped to fill up my empty head. With everything going on in the world, I find it’s hard to really focus on work in general. Luckily I ended up finishing up a few collaborative work with friends, with Sonja Bjelic, and with Jinjin, the most. Otherwise, I did some drawings on IPad. The last time I became obsessed with drawing was back in my childhood, I don’t know what brings me back to this abstract, safe and intuitive space. I am still writing poems, at a very slow pace. I constantly query the poems I wrote.

JJX:I have not written a poem since March as I am currently unable to sustain the kind of vulnerability and openness poems require of me. Instead, I started writing these “pandemic diaries” against forgetting, to hold onto and document this period, because soon, we will be eager to move on. I want to hold myself accountable as a witness to the constant erasure of memory and grief around us. As for healing, I read fantasy novels from my childhood (the most comforting things!) while taking a hot bath every night.

Still from live Zoom performance, “When the Young Disappear into Birch” May, 2020. Photo courtesy of artists.

AS: How has your routine changed?

JL: I cancelled my summer trip flight ticket to hawaii, instead, I listen to the ocean waves in my island in Animal Crossing. My sleep probably becomes a portable battery, I charge myself only when it’s needed, often a few times in a day, with no specific day and night differences. Somehow I like it this way, as the boring locked-in daytime can be squandered easily, then at night, either calm or excited, I can spend my energy on work, and I won’t feel lonely, as all my Chinese world is awake, Jinjin is awake.

JJX: I made the choice to go back to my family in China as the borders were closing and all future flights were indefinitely canceled. Trying to sustain my sense of self at home is its own sort of isolation and resistance. As most of my commitments still take place in the New York time zone, twelve hours earlier, I find the isolation warping across time and dissonance. Now, I wake up at 5AM to teach—I teach an intro to creative writing class, and another writing workshop for ballet dancers. Molding a fluid syllabus in response to the grief we are sharing, whether to the pandemic or to police brutality, while striving to create space for tenderness in my classrooms has kept me awake and hopeful.

After teaching, I spend the other precious overlap hours (my mornings and late nights) working with Jiaoyang. As collaborators, we have never worked together so closely and constantly. Now we check in daily, sometimes twice a day — at the cusps of reversing our waking hours. Our collaboration has been a gift during these times as I am always inspired by our ordinary conversations—left alone, my days slip by without notice. Somehow, without really meaning to, our chatter always leads to a fresh idea, or a renewed desire to create something together.

AS: Can you describe some of your feelings about all this?

JL: I felt upset, angry, exhausted, then exhausted about being exhausted, confused.

JJX: I am trying to make space for all of this collective grief. Not necessarily to understand it, but just to remember, to avoid that encroaching numbness.

Video still from “In America, You are Asked Why Leaves are Green,” 2020. Photo courtesy of artists

AS: What matters most right now?

JL: Health. Spend decent time with important people.

JJX: I saw a tweet that says “my year of rest and radicalization.” This rings true. And of course, checking in with loved ones.

Still from live Zoom performance of “When the Young Disappear into Birch” May, 2020. Photo courtesy of artists

AS: Any thoughts about the road ahead?

JL: I respect what my fate chooses for me.

JJX: Yes, and timing. I often feel my way towards futures along a trust of narrative flow (perhaps due to being raised by books). I give thanks to a timing larger than myself for the fortunate mish-mash of encounters, friends, and joys that have found me.

Right now feels like a much needed time for us to willfully take a break from the capitalist engine, and radically reimagine futures beyond what is plausible, into what is possible, especially in regards to the prison industrial complex and police abolition movements worldwide. I read this passage from Harvard psychiatrist Dr. Srini Pallay, “Once the brain believes that something is possible, it will chart a path towards your goals that is radically different from the course it would chart without hope.”

I want to rest well, and continue to wake with hope.

Silkworm Pupas collective. From left, Jiaoyang Li, JinJin Xu. Photo courtesy of artists

Etty Yaniv works on her art, art writing and curatorial projects in Brooklyn. She founded Art Spiel as a platform for highlighting the work of contemporary artists, including art reviews, studio visits, interviews with artists, curators, and gallerists. For more details contact by Email: