Makeshift Living: on Xin Cheng

Art News, Spring 2017

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Cardboard is warm. On Vulcan Lane there is a blind busker who knows the locals by the sound of their whistles. In Japan, if you are stranded outside in a snowstorm in winter head to the nearest public toilet. The toilets are free and the seats are heated. Unplug the seat and use the socket to charge your phone or boil your kettle. If you set up a tent inside the disabled toilet no one will bother you all night. These are just some of the things that artist Xin Cheng has learned from rambling and making-do.

“I always feel kind of amazed by the coexistence of entirely different realities and how our perspectives are so bound by own life situations,” she says. Xin is currently living in a trailer park – no rent, no internet – trying to demonetise her life. “It is really nice to be living in a place where everyone has built their own dwelling. These houses are on wheels so they move. The trailer I am living in now my friend built herself, from wood. Almost everything has a story about how it got there.”

Xin’s story is one of resourcefulness. She makes things from rubbish, repurposing free materials, junk, waste. Last year she visited Japan on a Zero Yen Research and Doing Tour where she was given tips on surviving a snowstorm, slept outdoors and learned a lot about making and repairing cardboard constructions. Her frugal art raises questions about how we live in the world now and how we take shelter. When I emailed and asked if she’d like to be the subject of this profile, she fired back, “Sure, I’m up for it. Hopefully Art News is interested in some ‘art’ that borders on not-looking-like art but rather uses it ‘as a tool to change the culture of living’.”

We talk at 9pm my time. She’s in Hamburg, participating in Marjetica Potrč’s cross-disciplinary ‘Design for the Living World’ class. I’m in Wellington, studying the initials XC in the centre of her Skype profile: “Ah, perhaps the computer on campus doesn’t have a built-in camera.” Her voice is measured, even, paced. I ask her what she’s made this week with her hands. Breakfast. Kefir, which is like yoghurt but easier to make. Some things on the table in her studio including a structure, “a little like a badly made geodesic dome.” Xin built it from thin sticks she found on the street after New Year’s Eve, fragments of abandoned fireworks now bound together using cut-up bike inner tubes. “At first I thought of gluing it, but I didn’t have any glue. Then I tied it together so the whole structure could move, which I really like.”

Xin can also move. Her family immigrated from China to New Zealand when she was 13 years old and the experience helped shape her nomadic life. Her art is intertwined with walking or rambling and the things she makes are often ramshackle, recycled and prone to flat-pack, or perhaps even collapse. “Art for me is a way of being in the world. Of living.” In the past four years, she has run Widen the margin of Play! workshops with children on a Sa Sa Arts residency in Cambodia; hosted a convivial afternoon in Seoul with maker space FabCOOP; and begun an ongoing series of collaborations with Chris Berthelsen, including their recent Zero Yen Research and Doing Tour, the making do public walks and a temporary shelter built in Vulcan Lane for Changing Lanes, during Artweek 2016.

a welcoming terrain for relaxing, making, eating and being together was a signposted art installation made from locally sourced rubbish that offered a take on Auckland’s goal to be one of the world’s most liveable cities. In response to a police complaint, the work was removed by rubbish contractors, on World Homeless Day. At the time a homeless person was taking shelter inside the structure. It’s the kind of story the mainstream media love, but Xin’s rubbish isn’t just symbolic; she is living by her principles. In one of her reports for Hainamana, a website on Asian New Zealand art and culture, she is sleeping between sheets of cardboard in a Tokyo Park when an earthquake strikes. “In that moment, I felt so incredibly safe.”

I first came across her work in the group show Freedom Farmers at the Auckland Art Gallery in 2013. She had built a tyre tree around a pole in the gallery as part of her installation Propositions, which also included handmade shelves hung from bicycle chains and a homemade structure of edible plants. Propositions transformed the gallery into a DIY horticultural centre. The plants struck me as an example of nature’s own ‘readymades’. However, I didn’t see anyone climb the tyre tree, nor did anyone pick the plants and whip up a salad. Propositions pricked my conscience. In the epoch of the Anthropocene, humanity has caused irreversible changes to the earth and climate. And we know it. Knowing changes the stakes.

“This bigger system is made up of every single thing that we do,” Xin says, “so something I choose to do differently will somehow make a small difference, however small that might be.”

On a 2015 Asia New Zealand Residency in Korea, the power she used every day was generated by nuclear power plants. She felt intense despair. Even buying a T-shirt was a dilemma. “Who are the people who made this T-shirt? Or you could go further back,” she says, “how was the cotton picked?” Her engagement with sustainable design extends back to her undergraduate degree at Elam School of Fine Arts. There, she first read James Hennessey and Victor Papanek’s Nomadic furniture: how to build and where to buy lightweight furniture that folds, collapses, stacks, knocks-down, inflates or can be thrown away and re-cycled (1973).

Papanek’s classic Design for the Real World (1971) was also the inspiration for Potrč’s ‘Design for the Living World’ at the University of Fine Arts Hamburg, where Xin began her Masters last October. This class focuses on working with local communities to develop ideas, rather than objects or spatial designs. A Slovenian-born artist and architect, Potrč’s approach is founded in ‘social architecture’ and ‘participatory practice’; one of her many sustainable projects was the Dry Toilet: an ecologically safe, waterless toilet built with a local community in Caracas. Xin was attracted to the course because of the opportunities to collaborate.

“Art is a very free field where you’re encouraged to always question and try out different things,” Xin says, “There’s no set methodology.”

In March this year, Cheng travelled to Mexico for a two-month project titled In Solidarity: Living, Making, Together. “I guess it was quite a complicated project,” Xin says. Potrč’s class worked across and between four areas: a community garden, a housing collective, and two different neighbourhoods, San Francisquito and America. In the America neighbourhood, Xin and classmates set up a street stall as a way of interacting with locals, asking questions like, “What is solidarity for you?” A solidarity economy is based on efforts to improve the quality of life for a region through not-for-profit means. There Xin interviewed locals like Pere Apolinar, a Vendor selling small goods including hand-carved wooden spoons and garlic at the side of the road. He used to work as a taxi driver, until he became too old, so he created this job for himself – buying garlic from the central market and selling it in the neighbourhood.

But Xin also tells me ‘study’ is just an excuse to tap into resources and connections. In Mexico, she also hosted her evolving small modifications workshop with hackerspace Rancho Electrónico. The activities of the ranch are free and open source, and range from crypto-festivals and book presentations to workshops on vegan cuisine, yoga, drones and dance. The flyer for Xin’s workshop asked: What parallels could we draw between hacking in digital and physical spaces?

For the workshop, she printed out photographs the size of business cards. Each card featured an image of a makeshift structure. Xin has been compiling an online resource of these structures since 2005. The structures she has photographed on her travels include plastic milk containers cut in half and turned into tool storage; biodegradable plant packaging; and a wooden mobile tool workshop fastened to the back of a rickety bike. Xin spreads the cards on a table and asks her companions: How do you feel about these things? Can you relate to them?

For the Brazilian, the makeshift structures look Brazilian. For others, the structures are akin to no. 8 wire and Kiwi ingenuity, car repairs from duct-tape. Some find the structures universal, despite the fact they were made in Cambodia, Japan, Korea, New Zealand, Switzerland and Italy. Xin recently spoke to a German design professional who associates the images with impoverished situations. Her online makeshifting archive features a rustic alleyway in Wat Saravon. Xin returned to this alleyway several times over a two-year period and finally met the elderly man who had made the structures she’d photographed. He’d survived the Khmer Rouge and spends five hours meditating every day. The last time Xin saw him he said, “You must be very wealthy to be able to travel like this. I am 80 years old and I have never even been to Angkor Wat.”

In her last email she asks me to add a little note at the end: Xin thanks the many generous and inspiring people, creatures and things who have accompanied, played and enmeshed in these various projects over the years.