Alumna Chi Chi Cheng (Studio and Media Arts) is a multi-disciplinary artist born and raised in Hong Kong. Having worked and travelled across the globe, alumna Cheng’s art put one of the focuses on food and art that reflects a culmination of internal negotiations on human conditions, identity, cultural ambiguity and intercultural integration. She takes on an “anthropological” approach in understanding human conditions both culturally and biologically, and she believes that the answers lie in understanding how our external environment (physical, sociocultural, political, economic etc.) impacts our neurobiology, and hence our behaviour, emotions and the way we perceive the world. Recently she turned to neuroscience to pursue her art practice in depth. Her goal is to share neuroscience and mental health research with the general public through art. She is now a postgraduate student studying neuroscience at King’s College London (KCL). She is also the representative for the School of Neuroscience at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience at KCL.
Alumna Cheng is the founder of Consciously Human, a thinking space dedicated to the arts, science, philosophy and spirituality.
- How do you define art? Please state 2-3 key points for us to understand about art.
- How to define art is probably the biggest question for artists. It is a question that has been asked for thousands of years by artists, aestheticians and philosophers. Perhaps there is no one single definition. The way we see and define things shifts as time passes, and every time it shifts, it may transform into an entirety of whole new meaning that encompasses the acquisitions of all of its previous definitions. Art is my life, and just as life cannot be defined as one thing, one single definition, so cannot be art. “No need to define, just be…” will perhaps be my definition, this is also the vision I have for my Consciously Human project.
- If I do have to define it, perhaps I would say the process of defining art is the art itself. In other words, the journey is the art. If there is an end to this journey, however, that will be the end of art.
- One definition that I do like is the notion of “a work of art is a work of art if the artist calls it art” by Marcel Duchamp, the founding father of conceptual art. For him, art is for the mind, not the eye. His famous urinal is his most prominent example that took art history to a huge shift of paradigm.
- Please list 2-3 points that are not generally known by the public about art.
- Art can be ugly, and it is getting uglier. For me, art does not equal beauty, and depth beyond aesthetics does not come easy. When I was in art school, the word “beautiful” was somewhat forbidden, we would only use it for criticism. Art provides a window to dive deep into world issues and reveal the many underlying issues of humanity – the ugly side of human nature. The most important thing is, however, what can we do about this ugliness in our world?
- “Art requires truth, not sincerity” – a quote from the film Manifesto by Julian Rosefeldt featuring Cate Blanchett. Art is supposed to be critical and makes us question what is truth, but a good piece of art possesses no absolute truth. Art plays an important role in society in that it helps raise our ability to critically investigate societal issues, encouraging us to open up dialogues and engage in social discourse. Art is at the forefront of leading us towards a more conscious evolutionary being who seeks to understand the inner workings of our mind and refuses to be blindly led by our mindless impulses.
- One of the famous quotes by Mao Zedong is “All our literature and art are for the masses of the people…”. When I was in art criticism class I read about bringing Marxism to art – in the sense that art should be taken out of museum context and invite participation and co-creation with members of the public towards the goal of collective self-empowerment. This is often seen in socially engaged art, an art form I practice now. In fact, I was a producer for a socially engaged art project by Mr Kingsley Ng at the HKBU Academy of Visual Arts which tremendously changed my outlook on life.
3. Please share with us the connection between food and art.
Art is a quest of consciousness, a never-ending journey to the depth of the human mind, which is generally believed to be housed in our brain. As I said before, I believe the key to understanding human conditions is to know how our external environment shapes our neurobiology. This helps us assess the cultural and biological linkage of the human mind, and how it impacts our behaviour, emotions as well as the way we perceive the world.
Food, and the deprivation of it, has been playing a big part in the quest of human consciousness across many Eastern spiritual practices. Many of the ancient Buddhist and Hindu artworks portray the mind and body connection with images of food, as if they are gifts from our ancestors telling us food holds the key to learning how to balance self-constraints, which I see as the foundation of elevating one’s consciousness in life.
Food and our relationship with them embed multiple layers of ancestral intelligence, wisdom, experience and knowledge and, most importantly – hardship and dedication, of the ones that came before us. Just as Rome is not built in one day, the foods on your plate today is a culmination of thousands of years of wisdom. That is why food has been used by many artists to explore our relationship with the past, present and future. I remember one time when I was doing research on how the Buddha used to feed himself with just a grain of rice every day for a period of time, I came across a story in which a man died in front of his own harvest locked up in a rice storage house during the Great Famine of China. I cried. I paused and starred into empty space, imagining what it was like to be this man. I imagined his environment, his belongings, his clothes, the sound he made at his last breath, and the people on his mind. It made me question many aspects of ideologies and human existence, just by connecting to a grain of rice.
4. How do you utilise food to perform your art?
I like to set up “occasions” such as dinners or cooking workshops in which participants are invited to enjoy the simple acts of cooking and dining, and at the same time reflecting on their cultural and social constructs. We share stories of food and we reflect on these memories that shape us to become who we are today. Appreciating wisdom of the past carried forward to present days will help us create a better future, this is what I would like to share through my art.
Going forward, I want to make neuroscience research more accessible to the public with art. Feeding your body well equals feeding your mind well. Every time we eat, we go through a whole physiological and psychological transformation caused by many layers of neurochemical changes in our brain which will influence the way we see the world – the beauty and ugliness of it. To me, knowing your food choices is the art to a conscious life. “You are what you eat!” Literally! It is a big part that forms your identity. Food is a very approachable medium to everyone. So, I will continue to use it for the collective exploration of the mind and the body. This will be my future goal of art.