Chinese cultural heritage


"Is there a difference between how Chinese speaking audience with Chinese cultural heritage interprets Cang Xin's work as opposed to English speaking audience with no Chinese cultural heritage?"

During October 2008 a group of fifteen international students and three teachers from Yew Chung International School of Shanghai visited Beijing and met with contemporary artist and important historical figure Cang Xin. The purpose of this paper is to compare the experience and understanding of the group. Within this group some of the students were Chinese speakers with Chinese roots and others non Chinese speakers with no Chinese origin. The importance of the distinction here is two-fold. The artist spoke in Chinese so the Chinese speakers were able to hear his words first hand while the other students heard a translated version of his words. The Chinese speaking students originate from Taiwan, Hong Kong or China. China is their ancestral homeland and therefore they may have deeper understanding of this artists work from a cultural perspective.

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In order to find the answer to this issue asking the artist in question what his views are on his work and how it is interpreted must be done. When posed with the question "How do western and eastern audience respond differently to your work?" Cang Xin replied that among eastern audience, some elders think that he is conducting superstitious activities instead of creating artwork. He refers to them as being "brainwashed by the old system." As for the Western audience Cang Xin states that most western audiences are curious towards the works. They are interested in participating and have many questions about them, but they don't find themselves very close to the works.

Also when asked "What difference does it make between the audience who are able to understand Chinese and those who have to listen to the translation? Will different cultural understanding make a difference?" the artist states that "To me translations means interpretation" When something is translated the interpretation of it gets altered and that leads to different understandings. But Cang Xin considers that this kind of misunderstanding also part of the significance of his work, and he thinks that what he is trying to say need to be interpreted in different ways. Furthermore Xin always thinks that I his works are not meant to be understood by the ordinary public, he says that "I set many codes in my works and the audience must have keys to decode them. Not many people have keys, not few either." According to Cang Xin it all depends on whether the audiences are "concerned about the growth and development of intellect, spirit and soul and in which way." And if their concern is the same way as his, they'll be able to 'decode' what message he is trying to convey.

Cang Xin is a famous and highly recognized contemporary artist in China today. His performance as well as his drawing and photographic work has showed great reactions amounts his audience all over the world. His performance work ranges from getting people to stomp on plaster masks of his own face; licking a variety of multiple objects, places and people; changing clothes with numerous people of different identities, and in one of his most recent works he portrays himself transformed into a part of a variety of different things. Mainly looking at Cang Xin's 'Communication' piece and relating back to the topic on how Chinese speakers and non speakers interpret his work, knowledge and understanding of the terms 'performance art' and 'conceptual art' is required.

The definition of performance art lays in the name. It is an action performed by the artist, either with or without live audience. Performance art first came to China in the late 1980s, but really become popular in 1994 in Beijing's East village artist community. The next year, Cang Xin and a group of other artists did a performance piece called 'To Add One Meter To An Unknown Mountain' which really was what established Chinese performance art.

In the early 1990's, much Chinese art was inspired by European and American conceptual art. Originally conceptual art comes from America; it is basically art that focuses on the meaning behind the art more than anything else. The concept behind an art piece is what this movement held very high, an art piece can still exist even though it doesn't visually. Just the concept or idea is considered art. It originates from philosophical European perception of art. So a lot of Cang Xin's work is inspired by this idea, although his interpretation of this art movement leaned more towards emphasizing the presents and the experiences of the body. Because during a live performance the body may experience something that goes beyond the concept and that you cannot anticipate, besides performance art needs some kind of spontaneity.

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Cang Xin also uses the body as a medium to communicate with the world around him and objects, this especially relating to his 'Communication' piece. In 1996 Cang Xin began licking various objects with the tip of his tongue. Over the years he's come to lick millions of objects and the ground of many places, such as the Great Wall, the Forbidden City as well as the grounds of Western places, such as Oslo capital of Norway and London. Cang Xin calls these actions 'contacts' or 'communication' with the objects, or places. His licking and the reason for it has raised a lot of questions over the past years, and many people don't quite understand it. So what is the meaning behind this seemingly random licking? To truly understand the answer to this questions and the value of his licking it is essential to know his religious views and principles, which is the foundation to the reason for Cang Xin's licking.

When posed with the question: "How do you hope that people will react to your work?" Cang Xin replied that "the charm of it is to raise all these new questions and to provoke people to think." with this response Cang Xin highlights the fact that it's not just his interpretation he wants to convey it's how the audience interprets it too and how the audience apply their own background and culture to his work. This statement enhances the argument that it doesn't matter what language you speak or what culture you come from when it comes to understanding and interpreting Cang Xin's works or art. And coming from the artist himself this is a solid argument towards that you don't need to speak Chinese or need to know Chinese culture to understand his work.

With his Manchurian background and living in northeast of China where Shamanism is very common Cang Xin has developed certain sensitivity to the top of his tongue. First this was more of a ritualised action which came from the conceptual art movement, but later it became more personalised and more related to his Shamanistic background and roots. So he abandoned the Western conceptual ideas of art and adopted instead a strong physical performance action in search for the true conceptual meaning of art.

The 'Communication' series was the first art series where Cang Xin really started to connect with his Manchurian roots and Shamanism, so although the series presents itself as modern art it is in fact more of a series that has a lot to do with Oriental concepts of the soul. In this art series he started to experiment with the concept of spiritual communication between man and the 'ten thousand things'. In ancient China and also across the Far East, the 'ten thousand things' or also called the 'myriad objects' were believed to be vessels which contained life. A plant or a table was a living object containing a spirit, and in previous life this spirit embodied a human being or an animal. In order to communicate with these spirit's Cang Xin began to lick the myriad objects and therefore became a channel for spiritual communication. And through this he achieves a certain understanding of the spirit's embodied by objects around him and the various types of cultures which he comes in contact with. With this concept Cang Xin is following the direction of Western art but also returning to his Oriental roots.

When it comes to what types of objects he licks it comes down to the fact that the series was based on psychological interaction so Cang Xin gradually reduced the objects he chose to lick to those who had a particular kind of identity or symbolic quality. The things that he chose to lick were symbolic objects, or the objects were licked in front of or at very symbolic and meaningful places. Cang Xin's own opinion on the reason behind his 'Communication' piece is to explore the many possibilities of the senses taste and touch, which then again consists of two main aspects; first one is social reasons and the second is physiological reasons.

In 1993 when he first moved into the East Village art community in Beijing he did a lot of performance using his body in quite violent ways which resulted in some disagreement with the local police and he was two times arrested. Due to these events Cang Xin sunk into a depression, and the whole of the year 1995 he removed himself from society and sat inside just captivated in his own thoughts and reading. The second aspect of the 'Communication' series occurred from physiological reasons due to the long time being inside alone, the need for communication became overwhelming. So after just sitting and looking around in his home he started licking things, or according to himself, communicating with them. "The things that gave me the most profound taste experiences were living substances and animals." He really did feel the communication between himself and the objects and after a while he started being more selective about the objects, he stated choosing objects that represented Chinese culture or licking them in front of symbolic buildings.

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The culture of eating is profoundly important in Chinese culture as a whole, it is one of the ways Chinese seek physiological pleasure. Cang Xin states that Chinese people consider the taste of food very important rather than the nutritional content. While in Western cultures the nutritional content of the food is more important than the way it tastes. Cang Xin interprets this as "Chinese culture is an upper body culture while Western is a lower body culture. Works that involve licking is therefore best done by a Chinese person."

'CEng's Gymnastics' is a work that came after the 'Communication' series, but is much related to his 'Communication' work. In fact one can find 'Gymnastics' to be a result of his 'Communication' series. This new approach to the series is a performance act where Xin performs a series of exercises or movements, which is then copied by a group of participants. 'Gymnastics' is divided into two sections: 'Prone' and 'Upright'. Prone consist of five movements, while upright includes these five movements only in reverse order.

Lift up the body, supported by the arms; 3. Step the left (or right) foot forward; 4. Stand up; 5. Bring the left (or right) foot back.]

When Cang Xin has completed the last movement of the Prone series he touches the floor with his tongue, although the participants are not required to do this unless they want to or feel moved.

As stated earlier, one can find 'Gymnastics' to be a result of Cang Xin's 'Communication' series; this is because 'Communication' only emphasizes the single action of touching the object with the tip of his tongue. While 'Gymnastics' emphasizes not only the action of the tongue but also each movement and part of the body as well. The act of licking is simply part of the ritual, and is not stressed as much as in 'Communication'. In fact during the performances the participants are not even required to stick out their tongues and touch the ground.

Taking a closer look at the question in focus, 'is there a difference in how Chinese speakers interpret Cang Xin's work as opposed to how non-Chinese speakers interpret his work?' will also pose other underlying questions like 'does the viewer need to be familiar with Chinese culture to be able to fully appreciate and understand Cang Xin's work?'

Dealing with this issue Cang Xin's responses is an essential part in this investigation as well as the responses from viewers of his work.

To the question "Have you observed different responses in the different countries and cultures you've visited?" Cang Xin replies that in the west, Europe and the US, people tend to be more outgoing and curious towards his work and are therefore more willing to try. Whiles back in Asia people are more shy, especially in Japan where the audience would first bow and then present him with the object to 'lick'. Cang Xin thinks that this "Shows the difference between the nations and the nationalities." So judging from the different types of reactions Xin has received from various audiences in different parts of the world, this would indicate that there therefore will be a difference in interpretations towards his work in general when it comes to Chinese speakers and non-Chinese speakers. But also from this statement one can draw that there would be a bigger difference between Western non-Chinese speakers and Asian non-Chinese speakers interpretation as well.

To obtain more information on this topic, international student who met with Cang Xin face to face and had the opportunity of asking him questions first hand were surveyed. Within this small group of students, cultural background and ethnicity vary from all over the world, so the group had a big diversity which will therefore produce a variety in responses to Xin's work. The nationalities range from Chinese and Korean to Finnish and Brazilian.

The majority of the non-Chinese speakers found Cang Xin's work very interesting and therefore being very curious towards it. This being due to the fact that it's very different from Western art forms. His work is based on Shamanism and the body becoming one with the object it is not known very well in Western societies and therefore he becomes some sort of enigma which most of the audience find very intriguing.

But although the majority of this group of people found his work very interesting, when posed with the question "Did his work provoke you to think?" Again the majority answered "no" and the reasons being difficulties in fully understand his work and his objective behind it.

When it comes to the Chinese speakers interpretation of his work on the other hand, overall their responses to the whole survey were more insightful and carried a sense of deeper understand as well.

The first question in the survey asked the viewers what was their first impression of Cang Xin's art work. The word "impressed" was a word applied a lot in response to this question, as well as the powerful statement that "photographs of his work just don't do him justice" which enhances the fact that his work will be more powerful if you do get to meet him I person no matter if you speak Chinese or not. Although taken the fact that this is a Chinese speaker it may have had some influence to this statement that she understood what he said and received the messages he was trying to convey first hand as opposed to second hand through a translator.

The same Taiwanese girl also responds to question two which states: "Cang Xin does provocative performance art. Why do you think he does this?" that you get the chance to not understand the artist from a distance but to understand him as he is in front of you. An element which also effects the interpretations of his work from different viewers, but is also a very essential part of the surveyed student's interpretations.

The third question in the survey posed the question of personal interpretation of his 'Communication' pieces. The answers included responses such as "raising awareness to the lack of communication in our society" and "everyone has different ideas and ways of sending messages" but all the responses demonstrated understanding of the main message of communication, if not necessarily between the artist and objects around him, then about the general communication within societies and the Chinese people.

It can be concluded that the Chinese speakers seemed to possess more general understand about Cang Xin's work and the messages he is trying to convey to the audience and they seem more affected by his attempts in trying to provoke the audience to think.

In the fifth and sixth question of the survey are just directed to the Chinese speakers they pose the questions whether the viewers considers a lot of meaning lost in the translation of Cang Xin's answers. All of the Chinese speakers agreed with this statement. "Definitely", most of them elaborated that the messages got through more direct and personal when they heard what he had to say first hand, because there is always meaning lost in translation, no matter how experienced the translator may be. According to one of the Chinese audience, she brings up an important point for this discussion, "It's not only the problem of language but culture as well. We already have some idea on what his ideas are based on." This is a valid point on how Chinese speakers or Chinese citizens for that matter interpret Cang Xin's work. Furthermore she states that "I believe the part about his religion - Shamanism and 'five elements' might be hard to understand." So again culture and understanding of the culture will be a factor in how well you understand the work of art, although Cang Xin says, as stated earlier, that he thinks the charm of his work is to raise new questions and provoke his audience to think. So one can conclude, according to this that no prior knowledge of any of his background is needed to appreciate his work. Not saying that it wouldn't help, according to the surveys a lot of the Chinese speakers consider it quite essential to have understanding of Chinese culture to fully appreciate his work.

Li Shou, art student at Tonging University Shanghai, is another source to either support or contradict the research question. She was one of Cang Xin's participants from one of his 'Gymnastics' performances, more specifically the Gymnastics performance he did in Fuxing Park, Shanghai in 2009.

When interviewed and asked whether she enjoyed taking part in Cang Xin's performance, the response was "I don't know if I can say I was enjoying it because I was laying on the ground. And maybe the ground is dirty. I think in some extent I should try to find a clean space. " Through this statement Li Shou clearly shows a lack of understanding and appreciation of Cang Xin's performance and work. Even though she is in fact Chinese she does not possess any signs of appreciation towards his work, she is more worried about the ground being dirty than the actual beauty of the art. One can conclude that this contradicts the previous founding throughout this essay which states that being Chinese or understanding the language enhances the appreciation of Cang Xin's work.

Although one could argue that during these 'Gymnastics' performances Cang Xin does in fact not speak to his participants or followers at all. "After doing this I wanted to find out what this means, I asked Cang Xin and he said nothing to me" This is how Li Shou interpreted Cang Xin behaviour. Cang Xin on the other hand says, like stated earlier, that he does this in order for the participants and audience get a chance to incorporate their own ideas and feelings into his work and give them space and opportunity to think. But by doing this he also quite clearly runs the risk of coming off as arrogant and unwilling to answer questions instead.

Overall it can be concluded that it does help, to a certain extent, to be a Chinese speaker when it comes to understanding and fully appreciating Cang Xin's work. This according to the 15 students and 3 teachers visiting Cang Xin in person and getting information first hand from in Chinese. Within this group the students that spoke and understood Chinese obtained a deeper and more complex understanding of the meaning and purpose of the artist's work. While the students who did not speak nor understand Chinese had more difficulty with fully understanding and therefore appreciating Cang Xin's work and the principle behind it.