I’m interested in the psychology of a place and how it makes you feel. So I don’t really see myself as a map-maker – even though I draw maps. It’s about the process of travelling through a place to capture a sense of it. First, I walk for hundreds of miles and make all sorts of notes, and then take thousands of photos to use as triggers for my memory.
I walked more than 840 miles around Beijing when researching the map that became part of my Purposeful Wandering series. I circumnavigated the city and then walked around each ring road. Beijing (where I’ve lived for three years) is built on a Central Axis, and the map is, too. A lot of the drawing is literal, but I also built in personal experiences, references, visual puns and semiotics.
As I spend so much time walking, it seems ironic to be trapped indoors. When I returned to Beijing from Kuala Lumpur, on 3 March, I knew life wasn’t normal, but I didn’t know I’d be stuck in quarantine. I wasn’t allowed to leave the house for 14 days.
So I decided to map the experience of home quarantine. Each day, I created a map of how I was thinking and feeling. I wanted it to be a useful document: a commentary of what it was like to go through that journey.
On day one there was a feeling of novelty, so I drew a calm picture featuring my sofa. I drew a decontamination zone on day two, including the swimming goggles some people in China had started wearing. I also introduced a character, Kevin the cockroach. Throughout history, when people have kept diaries in isolation, they have often created pet friends.
I showed the laying down of boundaries on day three: my wife’s side of the room and my side – and the inspiring book I’d started reading, A Journey Around my Room by Xavier de Maistre. He was put under house arrest in the 18th century for duelling and spent 42 days talking and learning and philosophising about all the items in his room. Things took a turn for the worse on day eight: I gave myself food poisoning and cut my foot. I was hiding from Covid-19 but still managed to make myself really sick!
A more fantastical map materialised … featuring the Sea of Sanitiser Bottles, the Dirty Old Town, the Bridge Over Troubled Water and the Mountains of Loo Roll – this marked day nine. On Day 14, I pulled out a fact from each day of my quarantine. I called it 14 Days Later – a play on the film 28 Days Later.
I had this overwhelming feeling of helplessness after I came out of quarantine, and I felt so far from home. I started the tongue-in-cheek Quarantine + Pandemic Survival Map immediately after – I wanted to offer back all the things I’d been thinking about in a visual form.
I listened to Our House by Madness when I was drawing the map. There’s a house in the centre, representing the need to stay at home and rebuild community spirit. There is a Heroes Hospital for key workers with M&S sandwiches and a Cummings and Going car park. A shop is still open to sell essentials: coffee, beer and wine. Shame Street has panic-buying and greedy supermarkets, and a warning against eating endangered animals.
BS Lane takes you to the Misinformation Treatment and Sewage Works. The Grave Reality represents people who have sadly been taken by the virus – the funeral directors are doing a two-for-one deal.
A mountain range represents the idea of remote working, and there is a data mine nearby. The closed school suggests this could be a great life lesson for children. There are some pokes at Boris Johnson and Donald Trump, such as Top Trump’s Crazy Golf: One Player.
No art can fully address the magnitude of the journey we are all now embarking on. The map is meant to be a piece of escapism, with a lot of humour. Yes, it is a journey through a horrific disaster, a crisis, but I hope it allows people to have a bit of enjoyment, too. And I hope it inspires people to make and create at home. There is definitely a therapeutic side to creating art at this moment in time. It’s empowering to be able to document what we’re all going through.
Beijing is coming back to life now. Everyone is wearing a mask, everybody is cleaning their hands going in and out of buildings, there are sanitiser sprays everywhere, and there are tracing apps on phones. It does feel bizarre, having to clock in and out of everywhere you go, scanning QR codes, but it makes you feel safe.
I’m a kind of urban explorer – even if I can only explore what’s happening in my apartment and my mind right now. I’m still very much in self-quarantine and only going out on vital trips. I don’t think it would be right to be out walking around yet. Even so, my work will always be about travel.
Interview by Rachel Dixon