Artist Cang Xin's serial work Identity Exchange. Cang (right) says his interaction with audiences overseas helps him think deeply. Provided to China Daily
Contemporary Chinese artists have found popularity overseas, but their work remains unknown in most of China. Cang Xin, a controversial performance artist, talks about the path to local artistic acknowledgement.
Chinese contemporary art seems to be entering its springtime. Overseas buyers - both individuals and institutions - have begun to take a keen interest in the genre in recent years, with work being snapped up and shipped abroad. And Chinese cities too appear to have embraced it, with areas such as Beijing's 789 Art District dedicated to providing a space for artists to be inspired and create.
But Cang Xin, one of China's more controversial art figures, is not so certain that a golden summer awaits.
"High auction prices don't represent a boom in contemporary Chinese art because they are part of a bubble," says Cang, 46.
He was among the first contemporary artists to use space in the 798 Art District, but chose to leave on the grounds that it had become too commercial.
"The major reason why Chinese contemporary artwork is popular overseas is curiosity about China," Cang says. "After years of reform and opening-up policy in China, people from overseas are still curious about the real China, which they probably can't find on the news, television or in literature. Contemporary art, unlike mainstream culture, reflects a piece of China they are interested in."
Cang's serial work Identity Exchange from 2004, dealt with the rapid changes in Chinese society brought about by economic reform. For it, he collected photographs of himself wearing the clothes of other people, from all walks of life.
"At that time, the economy of China was taking off and many people were seeking business opportunities in different fields," he says.
The work, which captures an image of profession, social status and identity at a particular time in China's development, was popular with overseas audiences.
Cang's other work, which includes performance art, paintings, sculptures, installations, videos and photography, has also grabbed the attention of individual and institutional collectors from abroad. Red Mansion Foundation in London, Partner for Art Foundation in New York and the Czech Prague International Museum all display his artwork.
Cang says his interaction with audiences overseas has helped him to think more deeply about what he creates.
Much of his work shows a respect for nature and is influenced by shamanism and Cang's experience of travelling to the northern territories in Australia, where he says on one occasion he witnessed local people playing music at home which drove out flies "like magic".
Talking with Cang, it is clear the path of a contemporary artist in China can be a tough one.
Cang, a Manchurian, was born in Inner Mongolia and moved to Hebei province with his parents when he was five. He first moved to Beijing to pursue his dream of being an artist in 1992, when the city was still far from becoming the metropolis is it today, and took up residence in a village close to the city that was populated by artists and people who lived by scavenging in rubbish dumps for things to sell.
"Life for the artist was very tough; we could hardly afford to eat and were always looking for somewhere to scrounge a meal," he says.
"I was working at a photo agency, so I had a little regular income each month. We all borrowed money from each other and helped each other out.
"The village was in a much marginalized area and not many people knew about the work we were doing."
The village was later shut down for holding nude art performances.
Living conditions have improved for Cang and most other contemporary artists, but public indifference continues to be an issue. While traditional art is welcomed, contemporary art is usually shunned, he says.
Edward Sanderson, a British curator and writer based in Beijing, who is writing a major book on Cang, says he has learnt much about the misunderstandings Cang's work has created.
"One of Cang's series of artworks titled Communication, is a collection of photographs of Cang licking different things: photos, a snake, even the Great Wall. This is beyond our common-sense understanding because culture teaches us not to put something unclean in our mouth," says Sanderson.
"Things like this become a stereotype and we can easily dismiss it due to misunderstandings. But artists have their reasons and they want to push us to think. This is the charm of contemporary art."
Cang isn't annoyed by misunderstandings. Instead he takes it as an opportunity to explain his art. When a language barrier made this difficult abroad, he used body language and invited people to become a part of his performance art.
According to Gu Zhenqing, an independent exhibition planner, contemporary art has a long way to go in terms of gaining acceptance and widespread popularity in China.
"The understanding of contemporary art needs theoretical grounding, which means education in school and university should focus on more categories of different art," he says. "And the Chinese need more diversified entertainment instead of the spa and karaoke. More art institutions and museums should be open to more citizens."
The government has supported contemporary art by funding spaces such as Beijing's 798 Art District, but Cang believes this is not the right direction.
"The core of art is freedom," he says. "An artist needs to express something freely. The way to support us is to leave us alone. Governments should be tolerant of artistic expression. Targeting problems is the nature of contemporary art because we are always thinking critically. This is good for our country to find and solve problems."
While contemporary artists still face struggles, there is no doubt that times are better. Cang no longer scrounges for food, but enjoys a large workshop in Beijing with several assistants. He is currently working on a giant piece of artwork with a Buddhist theme.
Sanderson believes Cang and other contemporary artists should be more patient about artistic development in China.
"Right now in China we can see that contemporary art isn't strongly supported by the government and also there are not enough spaces for cutting edge contemporary art, so many artists feel they don't receive enough opportunities from the art system," he says. "But on the other hand, there are some artists who can be problematic to deal with, and they are not quite fit for galleries.
"Some performance arts can also be very controversial, which cannot be easily supported by the gallery system."
The short history of contemporary art in China - just over 30 years - is also a factor in the lack of support for it, he adds.
"It is just much easier for them to get great feedback from other countries. It takes time for artists like Cang Xin to find a good range of places to show themselves."
Contact the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org.