Cang Xin

This Case Study was developed in conjunction with Cang Xin's visit to Sydney in 2017.

This Case Study is focused on:

o Reading and analysing extracts of art critical writing
o Understanding ‘visual codes’ – applying the structural frame to understand how artists create meanings in their works through their choices of materials and their visual language.
o Understanding how contemporary artists are informed by cultural traditions and belief systems as well as by present day issues in society, and how art historians explain works in their contexts.
o Developing art writing skills in analysis, interpretation and evaluation of selected artworks.
o Comparative writing – learning how to compare works (by the same or different artists) in order to make informed connections and deductions.

Note to teachers and students

 This Case Study focuses on the practices of the artist and the critic.
 In the first instance, students encounter artworks, in the gallery and/or in reproduction or online.
 A sequence of learning activities begins with a discussion of selected works and/or video clips, followed by the examples of art writing provided, with focus questions. These function as models of critical practice. Whole class and small group tasks are provided, with links to other artists for consideration.
 An extended response question, with marking guidelines, requires students to develop an argument that demonstrates their understanding of the artist’s practice in his social and historical context.
 The Case Study may be implemented over 4 -10 hours, depending on teacher and student interests and needs. It may be modified or adapted as needed.

Teaching / Learning

This Case Study may be approached in a range of different ways, depending on the particular interests of teachers and students. Strategies may include:
o Independent research or collaborative investigations
o ‘Socratic Dialogues’ that unpack a range of meanings in specific works
o Debates or dialogues exploring Cang Xin’s transition from physical performance art to photography, drawing, painting and sculpture (often created by hired assistants and artisans)
o The creation of student blogs or websites for the publication of critical art writing

START with a comparison of Cang Xin’s ‘Exotic Flowers and Herbs’ sculptures with:

1. Ricky Swallow, ‘Killing Time’ (2003-2004), also carved from Jelutong timber. Check the AGNSW website for images and useful information about this work:
2.  Patricia Piccinini whose work explores themes of hybridity and biotechnology. Look
particularly at the exhibitions ‘We Are Family’
( and ‘Relativity’
( You may find this education resource from the Art Gallery of South Australia, designed for the exhibition ‘Once Upon a Time’ helpful:
3. Ken Thaiday, in particular his hammer-head shark headdresses, which relate to ritual and ceremony, to traditional culture in the contemporary world:

Students work independently or in pairs to determine connections, before writing a brief explanation of how Cang Xin’s sculptures differ from the other examples in significant ways.

NEXT: Students read three texts and answer focus questions before attempting the extended response.

NEXT: To extend this case study, students may choose to investigate a specific aspect of contemporary practice, challenging ‘authorship’. Some contemporary artists employ assistants, fabricators or artisans to make their work. Possible (and sometimes controversial) examples to compare with Cang Xin include Ai Weiwei, Xu Zhen, Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons, Patricia Piccinini, and Kehinde Wiley. Explore some examples and discuss/debate this practice.


Beijing-based conceptual artist Cang Xin was born in 1967 in Baotou, Inner Mongolia. He entered the Tianjin Academy of Music in 1988 and began to paint (self-taught) in 1991. In 1993, he moved to Beijing’s ‘East Village’, a bohemian artists’ community on the city outskirts. Here, he joined a group of artists who were famous for their challenging performance art. One of their group performances, To Add One Metre to an Anonymous Mountain (1995), became a defining image of Chinese contemporary art. In his own Communications series (1996 – 2006), Cang Xin engaged with
the world through his tongue – he licked objects and places including the Great Wall of China, Tiananmen Square, and the Temple of Heaven, as well as paper money, birds, flowers and a gun. In 2002 he moved to the 798 art district and began to research the religious beliefs and practices of hunting nomads from northern China, expanding his practice from performance art to a plethora of art media including painting, sculpture, installation and photography, often fabricated by assistantsand collaborators. Cang Xin believes that art is a way of life that sits easily with his identity as a modern-day shaman, heir to the nature-magic tradition of his native Mongolia.

Useful References and Resources;view=fulltext

Essential Vocabulary for this Case Study 

Shaman / Shamanism  Animism 
Conceptual Art 
Performance Art 
Staged Photography  Body Art 

Readings and Questions

Reading #1

Glossary of terms:

Shamanism: Shamanism is an animist religion that can be traced back to the ancient Nuchen people, ancestors of the Manchus. Shamanists believe that everything in the world has a soul, and that there is no real divide between the various creatures and things that inhabit the world. Humans are not separate from animals, gods, plants, or even heaven and the underworld.
Shaman: a person believed to have access to the world of spirits, who typically enters into a trance state during a ritual, and practices divination and healing.
Tiananmen Square: On June 4, 1989, troops of the People’s Liberation Army entered Beijing to quell the demonstrations by student-led pro-democracy demonstrators who had occupied Tiananmen Square for 7 weeks. The crackdown became known as the Tiananmen Square Massacre, as troops in armoured vehicles inflicted casualties on unarmed civilians. The number of civilian deaths is unknown, but is estimated between hundreds and thousands. The Chinese government condemned the protests as a counter-revolutionary riot; discussion and remembrance of the events is forbidden in China.

When Cang Xin was a child, he went to the fish market one day with his mother, a devout Buddhist. She told him how each of the ‘ten thousand things’ in Creation contains a spirit that after death can migrate into another life form or be liberated from reincarnation by prayer. It suddenly came to Cang Xin that “I could be the fish and they could be me.” That view sustains his philosophy and his art. So does the spirit of his Mongolian birthplace. Cang Xin wears his hair in traditional style, shaved in front and long at the back. And he likens himself to a shaman, one of the soothsaying-sorcerers who remain powerful figures among Mongolia’s nomadic herdsmen. Using drumming and chants,shamans work themselves into ecstatic frenzies in which they commune with the spirits. Life’s pattern, the artist says, is “ritual, sacrifice, immolation…regeneration” After attending music school, where he immersed himself in mythology, Buddhism and rock and roll, Cang Xin moved to Beijing’s East Village artists’ colony, where residents were given to wild
revelry and occasional nudity. Unschooled in drawing or painting, and eking out a living with odd jobs, he began to express himself through performance art.

His themes from the start were identity and essence. In a work inspired by the Tiananmen uprising of 1989, he made 1500 plaster masks of his face and invited people to trample on them. Each mask, he said, was “an object that represented the individual, that I could place on the ground and over which people would walk, crushing ‘me’ and destroying my identity.”

In the Communication series (1996 – 2006) Cang Xin ritualistically licked hundreds of objects, from China’s Great Wall to a lotus flower and a portrait of Friedrich Nietzsche…In Identity Exchange (2000) he was photographed standing beside random strangers – a Beijing opera performer, a policeman, a mental patient, a butcher – he wearing their clothes, they in their underwear. Was their uniform their identity, he seemed to ask, or does truth lie in nakedness? “Perhaps my final performance,” Cang Xin says, “will be exchanging my clothes for those of a shaman.”

Elizabeth Keenan, an extract from ‘The Big Bang: Contemporary Chinese Art from the White Rabbit Collection, 2010.

Focus Questions

1. What elements of Cang Xin’s life story are most significant in understanding his practice?
2. Find more about the Communication series (the staged photographs/performances for which the artist is best known, in which he used his tongue to lick all kinds of inanimate objects and places.) Discuss in a small group some reasons why this series should be taken seriously as conceptual / performance art practice.
3. The writer says that from the beginning his themes were ‘identity and essence’. What does she mean? How can you see these themes in the Identity Exchange series?
4. Watch the short video (in Chinese with subtitles) ‘About Performance Art’ on the Vermilion Art Gallery site: (scroll to the bottom of the page.) Cang Xin discusses his performance art practice (in Chinese, this is often called ‘behaviour art’) and likens it to the magical practice of the shaman. What does he identify as the connection?
5.In the video you see the starting point of sculptural works like the Exotic Flowers and Rare Herbs series shown above. For this menagerie of invented, hybrid life forms, with luxuriant plants growing from the bodies of
creatures including porcupines, cockroaches and scorpions, the artist hired a team of highly skilled wood carvers who made the works to his specifications.

a. What do you think was Cang Xin’s inspiration for these works?
b. Write a paragraph describing the works as an introduction to a critical analysis and interpretation using the structural frame. Think carefully about using precise language and adjectives that capture their whimsical qualities.

6. As sculptures, the works owe much to traditions of wood-carving in China, which dates back to ancient times and reached a peak of skill and refinement in the Song Dynasty. Wood was used to carve religious Buddhist sculptures, as well as highly detailed decorative items for Imperial Palaces. Cang Xin’s sculptures are carved (by artisans) from Jelutong timber, a species of oleander found in Malaysia, Borneo, Sumatra and parts of Thailand.
Technically a hardwood, it is prized by woodcarvers because of its straight grain and fine texture, which makes it easy to carve. Consider the appropriateness of Cang Xin’s use of wood (rather than stone, metal or fibreglass), the scale of Cang Xin’s sculptures, their tactile surface qualities and the natural forms that have been combined to represent transformation and metamorphosis.

a. What aesthetic and technical decisions has Cang Xin made that reveal his
conceptual intentions?
b. What features make these sculptures engaging and interesting?

7. Write a short wall text (200 words) for a hypothetical exhibition of these sculptures in an art museum. 

Reading #2

‘Something from Nothing’ [an exhibition in May/June 2016 at a commercial gallery in Sydney, Vermilion Art] features paintings, sculptures and video by Cang Xin, whom readers may remember as the artist who went around the world licking famous monuments. He was also part of the mound
of naked flesh called To add one metre to an anonymous mountain (1995) that has become an iconic image for the new Chinese art.

Cang Xin is a philosophical artist with a longstanding interest in Shamanism, which posits underlying 
relationships between all life forms. This has resulted in a series in which the artist has painted himself into copies of Old Master paintings, along with over scaled seeds and plants. These are
highly eccentric exercises to both western and Chinese eyes, but Cang Xin has never aspired to be part of the mainstream. His work is a personal quest that has taken him far away from the monumental ambitions of Chinese communism or capitalism. Who needs Mao or designer labels when you’re searching for the origins of life? 
(John McDonald, Sydney Morning Herald, May 2016)

Cang Xin, ‘I Can See the Existence of Eternity’, 2013, oil on canvas,
90 x 60cm, image courtesy the artist and Vermilion Art

Here the artist represents himself in the guise of a Renaissance saint, with the secrets of the universe revealed to him by an angel. Working with his long-time, highly skilled assistants, Cang Xin monitors every aspect of the process, providing the concept, draft
sketches, colour palette, seeing himself in a role akin to a movie director.

By inserting himself into the western canon of oil painting, how does Cang Xin challenge art history?

Practising a shamanic vision of art located between sorcery, performance art and interaction, Cang Xin says, ‘art, philosophy and religion are the three basic components for human spiritual life and the meaning of our existence.’

Glossary of Terms

Animist: The belief that non-human entities such as animals, plants, and even inanimate objects,
possess a spiritual essence.
Manchu: A Chinese ethnic minority from north-east China, the people who gave Manchuria its
name. In the 17th century the Manchu conquered China and ruled for more than 250 years.

Cang Xin’s performance art works have involved inviting people to stamp on plaster masks of his
face, licking a multitude of different objects and people, changing clothes with many people of
different identities, lying down in various different environments, in addition to his most recent
works in which he depicts himself transformed into various different things. Apart from the famous group performance by East Village artists titled ‘To Add One Meter to an Unknown Mountain’ [usually called ‘To Add One Meter to an Anonymous Mountain’] Cang Xin’s many works are on the whole difficult to assign to the Western-style categories of performance art or conceptual art.

The Chinese idea of performance art is somewhat different to that of the West, partly because the term generally used in China is xingwei yishu, which translates literally as ‘action art’ or ‘behaviour art’, and Cang Xin has redefined the meaning of action art in his own way. His way is a shamanic vision of art located somewhere between sorcery, performance art and interaction; or to put it another way, Cang Xin’s art and identity move between the revelations of the shaman, the expression of the artist and the social experiments of the paranormal scientist…
… [The East Village artists emphasized] the live presence and experience of the body, and art
actions as an individual response to local reality. This change of direction was probably instinctive
for some of the East Village artists, because during live performances, the body often
experiences things that transcend the concept and could not be anticipated in advance. At the
same time, live performance art must have an element of spontaneity

In ‘Trampling Faces’, Cang Xin reproduced numerous identical plaster masks of his own face, laid
them out on the floor and then let the audience walk on them, crushing them all to pieces. This
performance combined various forms including site-specific installation, audience participation
and conceptual art, the original concept being a symbolic criticism of the enforced uniformity of
industrialised society and the mass reproduction of culture. Even though the form had been
decided in advance, many non-conceptual parts of this work, such as the live experiential quality,
the audience’s spontaneous reactions, and the unique spiritual sense of the work actually
surpassed the concept when the work was realised. It is these non-conceptual parts that became
the main orientation of Cang Xin’s later performance work.

In the ‘Masks’ series, the symbolism of the masks was originally the core concept of this work,
but in practice what made this work interesting was not the concept of the masks, but the action
of trampling them. The action of trampling not only emphasised a sense of physical contact in
performance art, but there was also a spiritual quality about the feet coming into contact with
the masks… The masks cast from Cang Xin’s own face lay in a neat and orderly arrangement
under the audience’s feet, and induced a feeling of nervous tension in the people who walked
over them. This kind of interactive ritual became the basic method of Cang Xin’s later
performance art works, a method that emphasises bodily experience and breaking through the
boundaries of communication with others.

Cang Xin’s sensitivity to the tip of the tongue seems to be part of his nature. This could be
because of his Manchurian background and exposure to the shamanist religious practices of
northeast China. Cang Xin began using his tongue to lick various objects as early as 1996, and
since then has licked myriad objects, a virtual encyclopedia of the things that exist in his world.
He has licked books, cups, carved seals, exhibition catalogues, paper money, cameras, light
bulbs, bricks, shoes, even portraits of Sartre and Nietzsche, not to mention the Great Wall, the
Forbidden City and the ground in Oslo, Norway. During a performance in Oslo, he also interacted
on-site with a Norwegian woman by touching tongues with her. Cang Xin refers to these actions
as ‘contacts’ or ‘communications’.

This series was also where Cang Xin officially began to engage and experiment with the mystic
spirituality of shamanist culture, and the idea of spiritual communication between the ‘ten
thousand things’… In ancient China and across the Far East, the so-called ‘myriad objects’ or ‘ten
thousand things’ were vessels that contained life. A tree or a chair was a living object with a
spirit, and in a previous existence a person or even a pig may have been the vessel that embodied
that same spirit. This idea occurred to Cang Xin one day when he was still a child. He was at the
market buying fish with his mother, a devout Buddhist. There in the market, his mother related
to him the traditional practice of lowering a banner on a certain day of the year to release the
spirits of the ‘ten thousand things’ from their vessels. Like a revelation of sorts, he came to the
realisation that ‘I could be them (the fish) and they (the fish) could be me’, and he has been
intrigued by this concept ever since…

Cang Xin‘s recent works are transcendent, imaginative images inspired by shamanism. He
envisions himself hanging from the branches of a tree like fruit, or as the stamens of water lilies
covering a pond; he imagines himself sleeping curled in a foetal position inside a block of ice, or
that a giant crocodile has already swallowed the lower half of his body while he remains
absorbed in his writing. He imagines that his head is separated from his body, that he is encircled
by a tribe of natives engaged in a magic ritual, or that his head is buried in the earth and tree
branches are sprouting from his back.

If we say that performance art is limited to contact on a physical and material level, this would
seem to be a level distant from the shamanic imagination. Shamanism is an animist religion that
can be traced back to the ancient Nuchen people, ancestors of the Manchus. Shamanists believe
that everything in the world has a soul, and that there is no real divide between the various
creatures and things that inhabit the world. Humans are not separate from animals, gods, plants,
or even heaven and the underworld. In shamanist mythology, their ancestors were a tribe of
animals who possessed the ‘three souls’ of life, thought and reincarnation. These souls could
pass between different worlds, beings and things in the process of reincarnation.

Cang Xin’s ‘Shaman’ series employs the method of drawing to create pictures in which he
appears to be doing performance art. In these imagined performances, Cang Xin goes beyond
the physical and material limitations of performance art and enters into visions that transcend
experience. This not only lets his imagination work with a powerful and unrestrained style, it also
brings him closer to the transcendent spirit of shamanism.

With the ‘Shaman’ series, Cang Xin has found a way to transcend those limitations of presence
and reality. In these images he can be even more like a sorcerer, transforming himself into many
different incarnations – animals, plants, and hybrid monsters that are half-man half-animal, or
half-man half-plant. He can also carry out a range of mystical shamanic actions and experiences,
such as burying his head in the earth, sitting cross-legged in the air, swallowing huge insects,
lying amid a pile of corpses, walking on the leaves of a tree, hibernating in an icy crevice and so
on…These ‘shamanic visions’ make Cang Xin seem less like a contemporary artist and more like a
sorcerer who appears in modern society wearing the guise of an artist. In shamanist culture, the
shaman is an important figure who is able to communicate with souls in the three realms – the
realm of heaven, the realm of man and the realm of earth. Only the shaman can communicate
with souls across these three realms.

Cang Xin has previously played a similar role in the ‘Licking’ series, by using his tongue to communicate with the internal spirit of each kind of object or substance, and in the ‘Identity Exchange’ series, in which a mysterious connection was established between Cang Xin and the people whose identities he entered by changing clothes with them. However, in those performances, Cang Xin was acting more as a messenger between different objects or members of society, and did not become a part of them. Shamans are seen as mysterious spiritual envoys who can traverse the boundaries of life and death, going in and out of different bodies; this is also the shamanic ideal of free movement of the soul. Cang Xin’s ‘Shaman’ series goes beyond the identity of ‘artist’ to ask the following questions: What kind of person is an artist, after all? In a spiritual sense, are they modern-day shamans? Of course, Cang Xin does not define himself in this way, but in his imaginative experimentation with ‘shamanic’ images, he more or less presents himself as a shaman of the imagination, who can freely experience different forms of life and death, penetrate different
geographic spaces, enter and exit all kinds of different bodies and become one with them…

…You could say that Cang Xin’s performance art has walked a road unique to itself. The core of
this road lies in searching for the conceptual foundation of performance art and the individual
roots of physical experience in his native society. He draws on the roles of shaman and modern
scientist, and the possibility of direct soul communication with others. He has gradually broken
away from the modes of Western conceptual art, and searched more consciously in the inner
depths of his soul for the ideological or philosophical origins of action. By constantly forcing his
body past its perceived boundaries, he has repeatedly challenged, with his own experiences,
existing concepts about art and the identity of the artist.

Focus Questions

1. List the various elements of Cang Xin’s practice as outlined in the article.
2. What is surprising or unusual about his practice?
3. How does the writer of this article establish a connection between Cang Xin’s art practice
and the practice of shamanism? Is it a persuasive and convincing connection? Why/Why not?
4. How does Cang Xin himself see the role of the artist as akin to that of a shaman, a magician
or a sorcerer?
5. Look up Cang Xin’s photographic ‘Identity Exchange’ series, in which he wears the clothes
of diverse strangers, from coal miners to Peking Opera performers. How is this series
connected to his ideas about spirituality and shamanism?
6. How does the writer perceive that Cang Xin challenges existing concepts about art?
7. How do YOU think Cang Xin provokes audiences to consider the role of the contemporary
artist in new ways?

 The Case Study ends with this extended response question:

Comparative Art Criticism – an Essay/Comparative Study 

NSW Preliminary or HSC Students: Answer the extended response question with reference to  AT LEAST TWO works by Cang Xin compared with a work, or works, by one or more of the  following artists (or another appropriate contemporary artist you have studied.) Remember that  writing a good critical essay is like being an exhibition curator – you must establish convincing  connections between the different artworks. 

Plan and write an extended response to this question
Art holds out the promise of inner wholeness. (Alain de Botton, philosopher.) 

In a time of doubt and cynicism, can contemporary art address spirituality, and/or  religious belief and/or the sublime? Refer to the work of TWO OR MORE  contemporary artists to argue your case. 

IB Students: Use one or two artists from this list as the basis for your comparative study,  analysing and interpreting their works to compare with selected work/s by Cang Xin. 
Marina Abramovic 
Bill Viola 
Anish Kapoor 
Olafur Eliasson 
Christian Boltanski 
Yingmei Duan 
Ken Thaiday 
Zhang Huan 
James Turrell 
Plan and write an extended response to this question
Art holds out the promise of inner wholeness. (Alain de Botton, philosopher.) 

In a time of doubt and cynicism, can contemporary art address spirituality, and/or  religious belief and/or the sublime? Refer to the work of TWO OR MORE 
contemporary artists to argue your case. 

Cynicism: an attitude or state of mind characterised by a general distrust of others’ motives   
‘The sublime’: a quality of greatness or grandeur that inspires awe and wonder 

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