Xin Cheng, Propositions for Freedom Farmers, installation view, Auckland Art Gallery, 2013. Photo: Jennifer French

Xin Cheng: Art as permaculture and localist utopia

Xin Cheng with Chris Berthelsen
Xin Cheng in collaboration with Chris Berthelsen and companions, Making do, walks and workshops, supported by ArtspaceNZ, Auckland. March 2014 (ongoing). 

Xin Cheng’s art is closer to permaculture and an open-handed survivalism than contemporary art culture. She practises sustainable horticulture and numerous crafts, curates salads and collates muesli recipes, photographs sausage-curing wires and portable cooking stations and records different designs for bivouacs and road-side petrol vending stands – all as if outside the greedy purview of contemporary art. She gathers unwanted things like an urban beachcomber, while teaching and talking about making do and doing more with less. Although her interest in any physical system is never reducible to that system’s solely aesthetic appeal, Xin also collects real and photographed textures, variegated surfaces of the material world as patterns and indices of change. She advocates necessary protections for a world that, paradoxically, precedes and outlasts all human initiatives.

Xin’s interest in craft traditions is voracious – craft understood as shared or collaborative practices from different social and geographical settings; craft understood as the ability to invent, adapt, and improvise with limited means; and craft understood as human-scaled, environmentally attuned technology. Over the last decade or so, contemporary art has paid a great deal of attention to the often overlooked or undervalued cultures of craft. Xin’s practice has some relation to this current artworld attention; but the thoroughness and hands-on nature of her inquiries lead to something very different than a passing high-art condescension to folk, regional, traditional, and localist handicraft histories. As a compulsive maker, Xin seems always to be teaching herself some new skill in fabrication, learning to interact with yet another material, yet another layer of the natural world, or a new community of people seeking value in non-monetised economies.

When discussing her contribution to Auckland Art Gallery’s Freedom Farmers exhibition in 2013, Xin explained how on a recent trip to China she visited a town apparently tasked with supplying “the whole world’s $2 shops”. In its “endless malls with ... massive amounts of things that are all the same”, she found the town’s over-production “really sickening”. “Whenever I need to purchase something”, Xin explained, “I try and avoid having to buy it from the shops”. If things included in an exhibition can’t be adapted to some new use after the event, Xin frets about the burden of storing more and more inert things. She counters capitalist economies of surcharged surpluses with her own compulsive productivity.

Xin’s benign retaliation to consumerist excess prompts her to weave and dye fabrics, make her own charcoal, learn traditional crafts such as spinning, felting, candle-making, basketry, pottery, ceramics and concrete casting, bookbinding, papermaking and leatherwork. She nurtures worm farms to aid organic gardening and uses wheat grass juice and rice flour paste to make printing ink. She makes a rope woven from toilet paper following news reports of US escapees. She becomes absorbed in studying Scandinavian knitting patterns and shingle tiles. She learns woodworking with an eye on Shaker furniture and thinks about craft as supporting forms of spirituality rather than consumer demand, also to demonstrate how impoverishment can stimulate ingenious adaptations of material and method. She teaches Sellotape-and-slotted-cardboard construction to school children in Cambodia and photographs the silver duct tape used to mend broken windows and wing mirrors. Xin’s archives of ad-hoc and opportunistic repairs, like her playgrounds constructed with neighbourhood detritus and help from the locals, are all signs of utopia made visible through shared inventions and communal participation.

Xin’s blogs and web pages show dozens of makeshift constructions, such as those used by street vendors as display stands or panniers for bicycles, drying racks in precarious dwellings or climbing frames in urban gardens in Tokyo, Phnom Penh, West Auckland and Berlin. There are numerous instances of collaboration with like-minded re-cyclers, precarity specialists and frugal improvisers.

Xin Cheng, Phnom Pen
Widen the margin of play! A series of workshops and activities with the local community, using frugal materials in public spaces around the residency at Sa Sa Art Projects, Phnom Penh, Cambodia. June 2014. Photo: Xin Cheng | |

Allan Smith teaches at the University of Auckland and writes on art and related things.