There are many layers to 12 Square Meters. Through his performance, Zhang highlighted the economic inequality and desolate urban life of 1990s Beijing, as well as the transformations taking place in the capital. He pointed to the relationship between an individual and society, as well as how vulnerability and persistence can comingle within a person. Five years after the performance, Zhang said in an interview with art historian Qian Zhijian, “Each time I finish a performance, I feel a great sense of release of fear.”
And what about all the flies that I struggled to get rid of? It turned out that in an apartment two floors above mine, a corpse had been festering and decomposing for a week. An asthmatic man had gotten sick and died. His family members decided to leave his body there without notifying the relevant authorities, so his wife could travel from northern China and see him before a precautionary cremation.
Upon viewing the state of the corpse, his wife dashed out of the apartment and broke her mandatory two-week quarantine period. This was the woman I’d been messaged about. Police cornered her on the street and she was detained after a two-hour standoff.
The episode set off many days of paranoia among tenants in the building. The man who died is not listed among Hong Kong’s casualties due to COVID-19, but that has not dampened the belief shared by many residents that he was killed by the coronavirus. Even now, a month and a half after the incident, the flies still linger. Whenever one lands near me, I think of the hour Zhang spent tolerating their high-pitched collective hum and twitches.
Right now, as public health and economic crises continue to ensnare entire countries and continents, art won’t show us the way out. But just as Zhang submerged his filthy, dipteran-covered body in still water, we can, at least, hope for ultimate renewal.