The Photographer’s New Clothes: An Interview with Cang Xin regarding Identity Exchange (2002-2007)
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Cang Xin’s Identity Exchange series (2000–2003) comprises twenty-six photos of Cang, standing next to another person. In the photographs, Cang Xin is wearing the clothes of the other person, who remains in his or her underwear. The original series has also inspired Cang to exchange clothes as live performance action and to produce oil paintings of unachieved exchanges — with Pope John Paul II and with a Buddhist monk (both 2004).
We met with Cang Xin on July 2, 2011, at his home in Beijing. Like many artists, Cang lives in the suburb of Caochangdi, in a self-designed space that also serves as his studio. To the right of the entrance lie the private spaces, including a mezzanine dedicated to a Buddhist altar. To the left is the studio, currently filled with charred wood sculptures, parts of Cang’s Metamorphosis series. We sipped delicate tea and spent the evening in conversation. Yomi was accompanied by three students of his summer program in Chinese film history and criticism, including Wang Xiaolu, who joined the discussion.
YB: When did you start the Identity Exchange series?
CX: In 2000. It has much to do with my earlier experience, with the search for identity. I was living in East Village [an artist community in Beijing’s suburbs - YB] from 1993 to 1995. In 1989, I was deeply involved in the Tiananmen Square protests and was incarcerated for two months in Tianjin. I stepped into the world after being kicked out of school, so I was unsure of my own identity and didn’t know what I was going to do. The system couldn’t acknowledge the social role of my generation. We wanted to do things on our own, but society had transformed. We felt depressed and stifled, unable to find our own identity. In particular, after the student movement of 1989, we felt that our humanity, our bodies, and our identities were being persecuted. So in my Virus series (1994) I produced [replicas of] my face and asked people to step over them. That work is connected to the conditions in 1989. Actually, we have been especially interested in our identity all along. Our generation was always examining itself; after [Mao’s death and the end of the Cultural Revolution in] 1976 we matured. In our 30s and 40s we were searching for a defined place in society, family, work – in every respect.
YB: What kept you from working on the Identity Exchange series in the 1990s? Why didn’t you start working on it until 2000?
CX: Because I was changing identities and jobs all the time. As an artist, I had no identity. [By 2000] I was interested in feeling what it was like to change clothes with a person who had an identity.
YB: Did you still feel that you were a person without identity in 2002?
YB: When did your life become more stable?
CX: Around 2005 or 2006. It depends on what you mean by stability – mental or material. In China there is no mental stability, the situation is the same as before. I think there are two major problems in China now: first, there is no legal protection of personal property, and secondly, there is no legal protection of personal safety. Do you feel safe without these two protections? Certainly not. Ai Weiwei and I have been discussing these problems for many years. I also got arrested many times. Nobody reported my arrest since I’m not as famous. Do you think the Chinese government has changed? It hasn’t. Perhaps because of the 90th anniversary of the CCP the tension is more perceptible. But it is almost the same in terms of one’s state of mind.
YB: Can’t the material aspect influence one’s mental state?
CX: I don’t think so.
YB: How did the Identity Exchange series start, with which photo?
CX: The first one was accomplished through a friend. He found a white-collar worker, and we went to shoot the photo. It was relatively easy.
YB: Could you be more specific?
CX: I and my friend told the guy that I was going to make an artwork. The guy needed to know that I was an artist, not just anybody without a plan. It’s really violent to take off someone’s clothes, and very uncomfortable. So you need to tell the person that this is going to be an artwork, made by someone very familiar with art. After that, I gave him some money and invited him for dinner. East Asian people are very private, very reserved when it comes to their bodies. They think that their bodies belong to the domestic sphere, to themselves, not to be seen by outsiders. So this guy was very cautious and asked if the photograph would be published, if it would violate copyright, etc. This had to be done through a friend; it would have been impossible to approach this person directly. Most of the people were introduced to me by my friends. I could also show them my previous photographs and tell them that these were artworks. Otherwise they would be very wary.
YB: So this was the first one in the series?
CX: Yes, the white collar worker. Then the photos of industrial workers.
YB: All were introduced by friends?
CX: Yes. To make art in China, this sort of social thing, you must have a friend to introduce you.
YB: Could you tell me more about the scrap collector?
CX: I just went to the site of garbage collection and gave him some money in hand. I told him this was an artwork, and the problem was solved with 200 yuan.
YB: How about this peasant?
CX: I and my photographer came across this peasant on the way back to my hometown of Handan, where we were shooting steel workers. We said, we’ll give you money and we’ll take a picture; then we took it. Chinese peasants are very straightforward. It was a lucky coincidence.
YB: Are these works photography or performance art?
CX: I call these works “staged photography action art (baipai xingwei yishu).” There are many kinds of action art. Some are recorded in real time, while others are pose-and-shoot. My works are staged photography. I don’t need an audience, I don’t need anything. All I need is to shoot a photo and explain the issue through it.
YB: For me performance art isn’t about the audience but rather about the process. Which one is more important for you — the photo or the entire process of talking with the people and exchanging clothes with them?
CX: They are both important. By definition, action art prioritizes the process over the outcome. In the process of experiencing through your body, you learn the meaning and establish an interactive relationship with the artwork. But I intentionally provide the audiences only with the outcome. It’s impossible for the audience to follow me; I went to Hebei and all over the country. Few are interested in travelling; they’re busy doing their own stuff. If someone wanted to follow me, I wouldn’t mind.
WXL: Were there many onlookers when you were working? How did you explain it to them?
CX: I have made many identity exchanges. Many people were just curious. In China, they never asked me questions; they just looked on. But in England, in the West, it’s not the same. Westerners tend to express their personal opinions directly. When I took a photo with an English white-collar guy, we shot at the entrance to the Tate Modern. It was at 6 or 7 in the morning, we exchanged clothes . . .
YB: Just a minute, how did you find this person?
CX: The Red Mansion Foundation helped find this person. They posted an announcement on their website for volunteers about half a year before the shooting.
YB: How did that person express his opinion?
CX: The guy gave me his clothes, remaining in his underwear. A biker passed by and said it was improper to take off one’s clothes in the early morning. Westerners tend to express their opinions directly, but East Asians don’t like to express their ideas in public spaces. They are reserved and seldom speak in public. When drivers in Beijing run a red light, Westerners will come up and say it’s wrong, while Chinese people never come to speak up.
WXL: Have you felt more resonance with Chinese or Western audiences and artists?
CX: They’re different. It depends on the kind of resonance you’re talking about.
WXL: People abroad have helped you enthusiastically and voluntarily, without any compensation.
CX: They were involved on an entirely voluntary basis — enthusiastic about art, feeling that it was interesting, so they came. From childhood, they were educated in modern and contemporary art, visiting museums and galleries. This aspect didn’t exist in China — that’s a huge difference.
YB: So why did you go abroad to exchange clothes with foreigners?
CX: The Red Mansion Foundation saw my work and invited me over. They found it very interesting.
WXL: Did you get any insight into your identity from this work?
CX: I believe that Westerners’ view of identity, especially concerning education and occupation, is essentially different from the Chinese. The Chinese education system is full of theories, and it’s very difficult to step into the world; it’s totally out of touch. I tried many occupations before settling for being an artist. I don't know why.
YB: I don't think you’ve answered Wang Xiaolu’s question yet. What influence did your experiments have on your identity?
CX: Artists don’t have an identity in China; I found that out in the end. So I’ve been trying to create an identity for myself. One of the first identities that I wanted to exchange with was a policeman’s, because policemen have power. When I put on the police uniform my entire body was shaking. I knew that it was fake and that I was only consoling myself. But there was a subtle mental change when I walked down the street wearing the police uniform. Such a change was scary.
YB: It was enchanting...
CX: I was infatuated. Actually, identity is fake, endowed by society. Artists should be apart from society, keeping a distance to observe clearly. I think all identities are fabricated, and human beings are the same once they take off their clothes.
YB: Is it the same to exchange clothes with foreigners and Chinese?
CX: There are differences. For the Chinese the first thing was emotions. They were introduced by friends. I also had to pay them, treat them to meals, and talk about my art with them. The Westerners were volunteers. The foundation put out the ad, and then they participated. It was very relaxed. It was an interactive participation; it was art. It’s an essential difference.
YB: Does it make a difference in terms of the concept of identity?
CX: Of course. I was taking a photo in front of Buckingham Palace. You know the guards wearing fur hats? The state can’t lend the real uniforms, so finally we rented a fake costume. This is the only fake clothing in my photos. There was no other way — the guards can’t take their uniforms off and give it to you to wear. I was standing there for a while wearing the costume — it’s a different feeling. The way tourists looked at me was different. All the guards are either white or black; there are no yellow people among them, and none has a moustache. People found it very strange. It was a different feeling. Standing there in uniform was very different from walking around in everyday clothing. So clothing is an interesting thing — it’s only after the experience that you perceive a subtle mental change.
YB: I’ve been wondering why the original people are still in the photo. Their presence can demonstrate that the clothes aren’t yours, but do they play any other role?
CX: After we take off our clothes we’re all equal. It’s all fake — identity is provided by society, it’s not really what it seems.
YB: But aren’t their identities erased in the process?
CX: No. At the time, I gave these works two titles: Identity Exchange and My Identity as a Tourist. Johnson Chang [of HanartTZ, HK] prefers the second one, since it is more relaxed — I’m no more than a tourist. It’s like Chinese religions — life is like a dream, wandering in a garden. Johnson wrote a short, but very interesting piece on this work.
YB: Are you going to continue this series?
CX: Yes, if I have the opportunity. If other countries invite me, I’ll go.
YB: So you don’t intend to look for opportunities on your own?
CX: No, I won’t. The matter follows its course, there’s no need for it. I’m more interested in other projects now. These are earlier works. I like the newer ideas.
YB: What part does the video recording play in your performance? What performances do you film, and why?
CX: I film every time. I don't choose what to film. That includes the Identity Exchange series, in China and abroad.
YB: Is it just for the purpose of keeping a record for yourself? Or is it part of the performance?
CX: To keep record for myself, I guess.
YB: You’ve never screened it in a gallery?
CX: Occasionally I have.
YB: Do you consider the series as self-portraits? If so, what kind of ‘self’ are we speaking of? Are you still ‘yourself’ after exchanging clothes? Moreover, what is the role of the image? In addition to how you’ve been influenced by putting on other people’s clothes, have you felt any change due to being photographed, or upon seeing the photo? Does it matter that a photo was taken? Does it matter that it is a sort of self-portrait?
CX: Of course there’s a difference: I am an artist — by taking the photo the artwork is accomplished. Before taking the photo the artwork is still unfinished.
YB: How so? Performance art doesn’t necessarily require taking photos.
CX: There’s a difference between action art (xingwei yishu) and performance art (biaoyan yishu). In English there’s body art, action art, and performance art. Performance involves acting and dancing. But body art and action art use the body and actions to express art; it’s more specific than performance. Actions and the body are necessary to complete the artwork; performance isn’t sufficient.
YB: So isn’t it enough to have experienced the piece with your body? Why do you need to take photos?
CX: The meaning is represented for the viewers through photos. I believe this is a more direct way, more fit for my purpose. Photos are only a vehicle, a form. The key is the hidden meaning behind the photo, as every viewer’s interpretation is different. But there must be a vehicle for people to view. This is a form of communication, a conduit.
YB: That’s a way to communicate with others, not necessarily with yourself. What are your thoughts after performing and taking the photos, these self-portraits?
CX: Self-portraits depict my real condition. Whether my state of mind or my physical condition, it’s all real. If it weren’t real it would be depicting someone else. I use my own body in the photos because I am the only one who knows me. That’s why it involves identity. I am looking for an identity, so I have to take photos of myself, to make myself clear. I may make myself clear or not, but in any case I record my real condition.
WXL: We say in Chinese, “to put yourself in someone else’s shoes”. When you put on someone else’s clothes, do you really place yourself outside your body and feel these people?
CX: Sometimes. For example, I shot several photos of steel workers and oilfield workers on site. They took their clothes off right there, stained with mud and oil and whatnot. The feeling of being on site was very strong. You can see in the photos the extreme heat from the furnace. You could feel the filth and fatigue of this job. It was a very strong feeling.
WXL: What about the photos taken in Japan?
CX: Those were taken during an action art festival, where artists were using action to convey a concept. I toured five Japanese cities. I put out ads in advance, and on each occasion I asked two people from the audience to exchange their working clothes with me on site. The concept was to look at the process of exchanging clothes. For example, there was a pretty woman wearing a kimono. Kimonos are very intricate and complicated to wear; the sense of ritual is very strong. It takes some forty minutes to put on. I recorded the entire process. The audience was very quiet, looking at me putting on the woman’s clothes. The ritualistic wearing of a kimono doesn’t come from nowhere — it is a fine Chinese garb going back to the Tang dynasty. It gives you the feeling of a sacred ritual. There’s a big difference among clothes coming from different environments. It is very meaningful to single out a certain form of clothing.
YB: Did you have any other artists in mind when creating the Identity Exchange series? Does your work engage in a dialog with any other artwork?
CX: Joseph Beuys’s action art influenced me a lot. Later on I found out about others. Very early on, a famous photographer [August Sander? YB] recorded the late nineteenth century in Germany. He photographed bricklayers, a bread maker — a big fat man holding a loaf of bread; a gentleman with a cane and white gloves. He was photographing the differences between identities and classes — at that time, class and clothing were strongly interconnected. You could tell by the photo if its subject was an aristocrat, a layman, a handyman, or a white collar worker. Then, at the Guangzhou photo biennial [of 2007] a French curator [Alain Sayag] put me in the same space with another photographer who looks at identity, comparing the two of us. The other photographer looked at identity from the viewpoint of the Indian caste system. He took photos of the different castes’ clothing. The caste system is older and is connected to ethnicity, occupation, and social status. So I have one wish, that is to exchange clothes with Indians of different castes — that would be interesting. Their clothing and social status are closely connected. In China that was gone after the Maoist revolution. Mao was really something — he made us all equal.
YB: Not necessarily...
CX: Now it’s more complicated. Those in power have money, they have everything. But you can’t tell by looking at them; you can’t tell by their clothes.
WXL: The way you describe the process made me think that it’s as if you’re walking through a market, freely choosing your occupation. Have you thought about which occupation particularly attracts you? Have you thought what you would want to be if you weren’t an artist?
CX: Yes, I have. But I haven’t taken a photo of it. I’d especially like to be an air force pilot. It would be great to be a fighter pilot. But I never had the chance, because the air force regulations are very strict. Fighter pilot suits are so cool.
WXL: Was that your childhood fantasy?
YB: But not all the clothes were your fantasies, right?
CX: I finally found that my ultimate fantasy is still to be an artist, wandering outside society...
WXL: The exchange of clothes is temporary; you can’t try on a person’s entire life. In the end, have you found your real self?
CX: This is my way to enlightenment. You may use another way to find your true self.
Yomi Braester is Professor of Comparative Literature and Cinema Studies at the University of Washington in Seattle. He is the author of Witness against History: Literature, Film, and Public Discourse in Twentieth-Century China (2003) and Painting the City Red: Chinese Cinema and the Urban Contract (2010).