The Cave and the Boxes: variations of confinement (quarantine diaries 01)

The Cave and the Boxes: variations of confinement (quarantine diaries 01)

Linda Chiu-han Lai 黎肖嫻

Linda Chiu-han Lai 黎肖嫻

發表於: 17 Oct 2021

For the sake of not forgetting, Linda Lai details her quarantine experience whereby her original 7-day quarantine order was multiplied by three just because Spain was thoughtlessly placed onto a hi-risk list lacking in objective justification. The first of her 21-day quarantine diaries… 中文版另刊。

**feature image: details of a screenshot by Linda Lai from Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010) 

**updated 19 October 2021 | Chinese version (NOT direct translation) 中文版



This is about the pre-quarantine of our 21-day quarantine in Hong Kong.

Young earth, old caves: digressions

We have flown 8-1/2 hours and completed the first half of our return trip, still carrying city LPA’s sunshine and ocean breeze with us. With another eight-hour flight, we shall finally be back in Hong Kong, albeit six weeks late, thanks to the sudden change of quarantine requirement by the HK administration. The continuous volcanic eruption (following earthquakes) in our neighbour island La Palma will probably remain headline in Spanish and European news, but is most likely fading out in most news services.

La Palma is a “young” island, considering that it is only 2 million years old, and the volcanic activities (every 30-40 years) are still in the process of reforming the island’s landscape and changing its coastline as lava keeps flowing to the sea. In contrast with such a grand geological narrative of a supra-epic scale, the loss of homes of several thousand inhabitants and the shutting down of schools are drama of another kind, the human interest focus in journalism. Otherwise, what remains is the visual spectacle of nature in a destructive mode.

The 2-million-year-old island La Palma is young when compared to dinosaurs which scientists believe have lived 165 million years until their total distinction around 65 million years ago. It is a time-scale I cannot fathom. Then, on the 2nd full day of my HK quarantine, we chanced upon Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010, USA, 90m), in which the director’s authorial presence interprets for us what could have been a fascinating episode of the Earth’s material history just for what was there inside an uncovered cave in France, preserved for over 20,000 years. The geological site contains, as the few archaeologists and paleontologists interviewed suggest, the earliest known figurative paintings, so the film claims.

Also available: https://watchdocumentaries.com/cave-of-forgotten-dreams/

Emerging from Herzog’s somewhat editorializing, grand master’s poetics, I was intrigued by many questions that were not of his interest. Why are most of the animals facing the left-hand side as they were captured on camera? What was the raw material used to make the line drawings? Charcoal was mentioned at one point, but what about the marks of palms? (According to Wikipedia, for example, a uranium-thorium method was used in a red hand stencil in Maltravieso cave in Cáceres, Spain, believed to be as old as 52,000 years.) Was the material that made markings produced from what was within the cave, or just by burning? Analysis said the cave was not meant for living but just for ritualistic gathering. So, what was the function of the drawings and why animals only? Was it to valorize the animals as deities, for counting and inventory purpose, for storytelling and teaching, or for documentation of events, and what was it that they wanted to remember? It seems the narrative of animals follow a journey into the depth of the cave — what spatial narrative could that be? What is in the sequential order? In the context that the world back then saw homo sapiens living closely with different kinds of animals, from bears, lions, tigers to bulls and horses, how close was this cave to those other caves, the human habitats?


Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010) shows drawings of horses and other animals in groups. Screen capture by Linda LaiA palm in the Chauvet Cave in France, discovered in 1994, showing the use of a stencil method rather than line-drawing, appearing in Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams. See also the feature image of this article showing a bunch of palm marks of a child on a single stone. Screen capture by Linda Lai


Perhaps the most frustrating is that Herzog did little to let us “hear” the cave and its silence. Instead, music of the Romantic period runs through most part of the film. In my suspicion, that is not because the crew had only four people, but more the impact of Herzog’s persistence in elevating what is concrete and material to the poetic, asking rhetorical humanist questions like “what were they dreaming about?”

I suppose Herzog was born too early, or the work in question, made in 2010, simply missed the growing discussion of the anthropocene whereby one of the re-direction of our critical concern is to look at humans, non-humans and tools/technics (or what we call more-than-human) on a co-agential plane by undoing long held anthropocentric hierarchies.


Stretching inside a box: diversions

Our entire household for 2 persons, all packed onto a small trolley, pushed around as we drifted for 24 hours

After flying 8-1/2 hours from Las Palmas (capital city of the island Gran Canaria) through Madrid to Doha on 11 Oct, we were shocked to find that the Doha-HK leg was cancelled due to a typhoon and we had not been informed. Past midnight, when we finally sorted out what happened, there was no more hotel room inside the airport available, and we were not allowed to leave the airport due to COVID restrictions. That means we had to spend 24 hours plus drifting inside Doha’s Hamad International Airport until 2:50am the following day to board our flight — if in case no more typhoon hindered us (or else Qatar Airway would fly us back to Madrid due to a 24-hour-maximum-stay restriction for the airport).

Twenty-four hours of wandering through the airport was not scary to us. We wasted no time to make plans by first picking a favourable departure hall (with power plugs) as our base, then from there to drift from one cafe to the next and occasionally back to our base to re-charge our computer. We were also gladly taking advantage of the free wi-fi available to us with our reservation code, while pushing our well stacked-up hand-luggage in a trolley. At one point, after finishing a rice dish with Thai chicken and a strawberry smoothie (for the vitamin C it contained), I looked at my phone: it was barely 5:30am but I felt I had been inside the airport for a century. We trusted our resourcefulness. We had with us many good books to read, student assignments to examine, endless video files, our Netflix and Mubi subscriptions, a VPN account, plus our ease with writing any time any place. But it was not as easy as we thought to fight our sleepiness. When you’re sleepy, you can’t read or write. So, by noon, we switched to watching on-line videos that could be enjoyed without sound in a cafe, but we couldn’t help dozing off. It was an irony that the first piece we picked was a Hungarian animation that spoke of realities more than we wanted to admit: a man boxes himself into a tiny room to protect himself from a chase. There is no running away; instead, the man transforms himself  by transforming the space, i.e. the box-like room, to stretch its interiority. The room is elastic, so is the man’s body. To dream is to extract limitless potentials. One’s attention heightens: we begin to notice what we formerly fail to see, and we see the same details differently. You maximize the use of your five senses.



Hé, te! (Hey, you!) (Szoboszlay Péter, 1976, Hungary, animation, 7 minutes)
Also available on Vimeo:

Is idleness indeed so productive? Delimitation forces open our survival capabilities. A locked up room is an empty space for us to fill in, just as an unmarked expansive territory awaits our walking to leave our footprints to create the paths to be. It as well cures our anti-hallucination, that is, not seeing what there is. Concentration. Introspection. Hallucination. Re-connection with the world out there. Concentration. Attention. Introspection. … … It is not one or the other that sustains survival, but their recurrent alternation revitalizes us.

9:00pm, 12 October. We had used up a 6-hour paid lounge service with which we could sit down without changing location to enjoy a few simple snacks. We started to visit all the art works (gigantic sculptures) inside the airport. One of the series echoes with the man in Szoboszlay’s animation, except that the sculptures are super-size children outgrowing the normal space of an airport, with human kids climbing through their joints and intestines.


“Other Worlds” series (8 bronze interactive sculptures) by American Tom Otterness (b.1952). Same below

We spent three hours in a cafe next to this sculptural piece where we watch Hey, You! (1976)


After many rounds of long walks pushing along our trolley, we now have a very good idea of the geography and spatial layout of Doha’s airport and its every corner. We now know how the A-B-C-D-E zones are connected, and where reclining chairs are available for a short lying down.


Boxed in: we have become a specimen 

“I” = specimen

4:00pm, 13 October, our flight landing in Hong Kong…

12:34am, 14 October, waiting for the hotel van to assume our quarantine…

What happened during those eight and half hours? In departure hall G207 we were waiting, each person assigned to an isolated desk with a number, all facing the same direction. Familiar — that’s the public examination hall I had spent some years before and after I finally passed my degree exam for my Bachelor’s. The entire procedure leading to this point was also so familiar — a typical kind of efficiency and orderliness unique to HK — division of labor, crowd management, spatial management and precision in logistic allocations. I couldn’t help wondering how much resource has been put into this neat process meant to “protect” us from the “invasion” of bad viruses from “foreign” lands, which is also a fear-instilling process. I couldn’t help registering that as a tax-payer, all this comes from my pocket. I also wonder: in 10 years down the road, would this sense of accountability and automated orderliness remain? (There was even a team of people to disinfect our baggages before they lifted them onto the van for us, not to mention a single female staff who had to accompany us to our hotel in the middle of the night.)

A fellow passenger, “someone in the know,” said our long retention was due to the discovery of two positive cases from our flight (and he even gave us the exact seat numbers), but that was only confirmed 5 days later in official government announcements. Qatar Airway was penalized one more time for “importing” COVID variants: no landing in Hong Kong until end of October. So, we were pretty lucky, there were only two Doha-HK flights between 13 Oct and 16 Oct. What if we missed it?

The memory of walking in the sun and reading in an outdoor cafe in the city Las Palmas is still fresh — there everyone wears a mask, and for every shop, the entrance and exit are separate with disinfection gels at hand… COVID-19 was treated humanly. Infection figure has continued to go down for two months. The assumption was: COVID-19 is going to be part of us and it would only mutate into more variants than be extinguished. All of a sudden, back home, we became the untouchables. The people who have to come into contact with us are “fully dressed” in blue from head to feet to be protected from us. The zero-case objective is unrealistic and would only sustain isolation. It could just be the node of many levels of control, but, to begin with, it is counter-science.


G207. Waiting for PCR test in a public exam hall-like setting. I remember this used to be one of the lounges in Terminal 1-Satellite where I would embark for flights to mainland China.


The Box of 21

14 October (9:00am). I woke up to a broad window view of half a sea view and the other half construction of high-rises in progress. That evening, we deliberately picked another box, a short existential drama broadcast on regular network TV back then in the 1970s in Spain:

 La Cabina (The Phone Box) (watched on Youtube)
1972, Spain, 37m, dir. Antonio Mercero, script by Antonio Mercero and José Luis Garci

Also available on Vimeo:

I love short films and the short story literary format — a slice of life is often a synchronized moment of an existential crisis; it is either an initiation story, or a warning that “you will perish.” Unlike the main character, we did not walk into a Kafkaesque boxing situation by error. All the same, we have acquired a sense of security that is now subject to review. Our experience could be singular but most likely it isn’t. Wouldn’t we also recognize those other singulars? Smooth procedures do not always equate efficiency: in the case of The Phone Box, it is cold operation that removes empathy and exposes human cruelty. What a strange closure for the first full day of our quarantine.


+++++    +++++

No more 4:00am waking up for 5:00am real-time online teaching. This past gap week returns me to the familiar views of my city — from two big square-size glass panels I shall be observing the construction of more high-rises in the making in front of me, and surveying the variety of sea transport means running under my nose from right to left, from and into the unknown of off frame space. For the first time, thanks to my boxed vision, I have been allowed a view of the artificial island on which the Hong Kong Boundary Crossing Facilities (港珠澳大橋香港口岸人工島) are erected. … Sunshine doesn’t come intrusively into our box, but it kind of warms what’s within the square-size view in front of us. May this continue to be so. (end of quarantine diary 01)


To read the full journal series: Linda Lai’s quarantine journal […]

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