The Self and Confirmation

“Cultural Identity” has become a catchphrase nowadays. In English, the phrase is often heard of. When translated into Chinese, however, it becomes foreign and strange. It reminded me of the Chinese citizenship ID card for no apparent reason. When I was an “educated youth”, even though I was a proud “communard”, I didn’t have a residence certificate, let alone the prevailing national ID cards that came later. After leaving the Chinese rural community and go live in a foreign community, I simply started to refer to myself as an “international migrant”[1] until this day.

I do know my own name, age and gender. What do I do for a living? I draw. Based on the latter, my “identity” probably has some sense of “culture” in it. Yet every time when I cross the customs at Chinese national borders, the officials take a brief look at my face, then move their eyes to the one-inch photograph of me on the passport, “verifying my identity”. Then they would wave to let me pass, not caring what my profession is, as long as there are no bombs or drugs in my luggage.

That is why the idea of “cultural identity” still remains obscure to me. Perhaps it is due to the fact that many artists in China are able to show their face on the “international stage,” which gives rise to a so called “sense of identity.” It is hard to say whether if it makes us comfortable or uneasy. Regardless, we put on our ties and prepare ourselves to see what the “international” looks like. Yet it seems as if we ran into a mirror, when we rather abruptly saw ourselves among the “international.” I have heard quite a few of big names in the Chinese art scene complaining in New York: how come they are not arranging some meetings with the American art circles for cultural exchange? It seems that they were unsatisfied with the poor “reception standards”.

Presumably, this is the meaning of a “cultural identity.”

I often see foreigners, or the so-called “Gui lao” in the hotels, restaurants and private parties in Beijing. For a moment, the scene brings me back to twenty years ago, as if I had never been abroad: back then, foreigners were rare; everybody would give extra attention on them and they were treated as honored guests. Nowadays, I realize that Chinese people stopped dealing with the foreigners deliberately. People would talk and laugh, not caring if they have ignored the foreigners. I have seen an American girl who quietly sat with a glass of liquor in hand at a party in Beijing. She seemed to want to join the conversation, yet she didn’t know how to speak Chinese. People would suddenly burst into laughter, yet she doesn’t understand a word of it. Finally, when another “Gui lao[2]” arrived, she became lively as there’s finally someone she could talk to. At supermarkets such as Carrefour, I would see foreigners in the line ups in a lonely posture, and the Beijing residents don’t even look at him.

At this point it made me recall of myself: in the many years I spent in America, wasn’t I like a lonely foreign ghost too, just like the foreigner in queue at Carrefour?

There are only Chinese faces on Gu Xiong’s series of large, juxtaposing portraits, but every one of these Chinese faces targets two types of people: foreigners abroad, and Chinese in China. Needless to say, we could recognize their identity as oversea Chinese at the first glance. Twenty years ago, oversea Chinese were also a rare species; anyone who marries an overseas Chinese, the neighbors would be chitchatting about it for months. However, who could really understand the true feelings of the generations of oversea Chinese and their lives on foreign land?

Gu Xiong certainly does. He is just like me, being one of the flows of people who went abroad in the past two decades and settled down in a foreign place. On the foreign land, our communal visual experience is: the faces of the Chinese is lost when surrounded by countless foreigners, yet also for this reason, they actually stands out: oh, it turns out that that is who “we” are. We also share the communal psychological experience: one Chinese female student studying in London writes in her diary of an experience at a movie theatre — after the movie ended, suddenly she heard people speaking Beijing dialect, she ran towards the source of voice and asked: “Beijinger?” When she got an affirmative answer, tears rolled down her cheeks. Another senior classmate of mine made a fortune always, yet he often sighs: “Boring! The most boring thing of coming abroad is that we suddenly become the minority!”

As a matter of fact, even though some overseas Chinese do return to the motherland, but they are still of a “minority”. Myself counts an overseas Chinese. My roots go back to Taishan in Guangdong, so that the first generation of North American Chinese workers were my ancestors. Yet I never touch on the theme of overseas Chinese. Why? Exactly for the reason that we are a “minority” and rely on the limited communal experience we have; except for people who are also oversea Chinese, who would want to partake in this experience, and who would actually be able to sympathize with this experience?

Gu Xiong’s large portrait series made me, for the first time, confront the theme of the overseas: he did not indulge in the grievances and losses of the Chinese immigrants–that has already become a cliché among similar works. Instead he used the most direct yet emotional way to let us observe the faces Chinese immigrants. In the portraits of different generations of oversea Chinese, Gu presented a subject matter that is both rarely touched upon and difficult to grasp at the same time. That subject matter being the pride of the self.

This is a series of hanged images that lie between photography, advertisement, and propaganda imagery. Every portrait is assigned a phrase, almost a slogan, which is a habitual trick used in postmodern image cultures: you interpret them while observing at the images. Starting from the first portrait, everyone in portraits gives a statement, almost like reporting the names in a row:

“I have paid the head tax”
“I cannot vote”
“I struggled”

Sour and bitter words! These words write a history of the Chinese immigrants, a history of immigration as well as that of the human rights.

But the following phrases seemed unperturbed and full of pride:

“I built the Chinatown”
“I joined the second world war”
“I stood on my own feet”.

But Gu Xiong obviously had no intention of creating an illustration of the history of struggling. Except for a few photographs of the early Chinese laborers, the rest of his portraits feature local contemporary immigrants. Let’s continue listening to their calm soliloquies:

“I raised my family”
“This is my home”
“I am mixed”
“I am an ordinary person”
“I am who I am.”

Are these said by the individuals in the portraits? No, these are the lines that Gu assigned to each character. However, the expressions on their faces seem to willingly agree with the “explanations” in the image: they are either smiling or looking seriously at us, almost replying: “Yes, that’s exactly how it is”.

I’ve seen works dealing with similar theme in the past. Gu’s faces of the overseas Chinese surpasses the usual tragic pattern in the theme. Calmly face up, short and bold statements, Gu Xiong’s texts are clearly of a “bourgeois tragedy,” whereas the faces construct a friendly “comedy”. What we see and what we read create a “synchronic” effect: The portraits of the characters first grasp our attention, and then we move on to the texts in the image; afterwards, when we look at the same individual again, the face then responds to the text –faces and texts, they are speaking individually, yet they become the subject of each other; we look at the portraits, and the people in portraits look back at us, this mutual gazing, miraculously and naturally, making every portrait gradually transform from their identity as overseas Chinese and becoming restored to their ordinary yet concrete faces, constituting a “subtext” behind the slogans: we are who you are, and you are who we are.

As the ending of the portrait series and the period to the texts, in the last portrait, the artist intentionally make the character move his gaze away, looking upwards, the emotions comfortable and serene, reacting towards the virtual texts from the artist, creating a sense of self pride, although with a bit of ridicule, yet it is still solemn. When we arrive at this final portrait from reading the series in sequence, we would smile knowingly and suddenly be touched: this last face has taken our vision and train of thought away from the hundreds years of history of the oversea Chinese; instead we reflect back upon ourselves, back to each and every one of us.

Gu Xiong’s work is rooted in the immigration experience, but surpasses it. It has also surpassed its imagery and texts: we saw our brothers and sisters on foreign lands, and we read their minds. With the juxtaposition of the two, what we see is actually the “human” and the “self”—the concept of “man” and “self” actually originate in the West. There is not one foreigner in Gu’s work, but the bitterness and happiness of the immigrant life gradually introduces the western culture to him, just like the generations of Chinese immigrants before him. He evolves from a stranger in a strange country to the simplest confirmation of the self. The twenty five portraits he shot does not represent the “number of population”, and his “characters” were not only speaking of themselves, but inviting us as viewers to face our own self confirmation. Because of this, his portrait series are not finished: the purpose of the work will only be realized when the portraits gaze towards their Chinese brothers and sisters in China. This will surpass the boast and empty sayings of the “descendants of the Yan and Huang”. When these faces communicate with us through their gazes, we will then be able to, for the first time, understand the oversea Chinese from a whole new perspective: to see them not only as oversea Chinese, but as something that all the people in the portraits seemed to be saying:

“I am who I am”. Other than that, there are no such people as “overseas Chinese” in this world.

– Chen Danqing

[1] Guoji mangliu (国际盲流), mangliu here refers rural migrants into the city without definite prospect.
[2] Foreigner.