What Does It Mean To Be Chinese?

Imagine living your entire life completely seperated from your cultural heritage; totally ignorant of your own society and not even being able to speak the language, or in one case, not even knowing how to write your own name. For most of us, we will never experience a life like this. Which is why walking into the newest exhibition at Grimmuseum: “What is it to be Chinese?”, a show by Chinese ex-pats who are seeking to regain their cultural identity, I had no idea what to expect. I myself am not Chinese, and since being in Berlin have not seen a very big Chinese community; despite the ubiquitous noodle shop on every corner. 


The show features five artists of mixed Chinese origin who have barely lived in China and have very little knowledge of the language, exploring their belonging in a place they are thought to belong to but barely know.


One room features the work of David Zink Yi, who explores his national identity with two video panels in a darkened room, illuminating the space with shots of body parts and traditional chinese ornaments, these images juxtaposed with music and fragmented texts, presented almost as if the artist is thinking aloud.


Another corner of the gallery houses the work of Tintin Wulia who also uses video as her medium of choice, her piece consisting of 4 different video screens and channels encasing the viewer and bombarding the senses with a barrage of visuals and sound. Amongst this is footage of the artist singing the national anthems of various nations that have occupied Indonesia, karaoke style, and opening fortune cookies (an American food commonly mistaken as Chinese) before reading their hidden messages. 


Horror Show 


Not so upbeat is the haunting video and installation piece ‘Writing in the Rain by Chinese-Indonesian artist FX Harsono. His piece refers to the ethnical law applied only to Chinese-Indonesians, forcing them to change their names to only ones which sounded Indonesian. As a result the artist did not learn his Chinese name until a few years ago, and the video captures this process beautifully, the careful, bold, black brush strokes slowly transforming the screen in front of a trio of desks, chinese characters carved out of them revealing more screens showing the video beneath their surfaces. A chilling musical accompaniment gives the piece an eerie, sinister edge, and its build-up leaves me feeling like the protagonist in a horror movie, just before they are found by an axe wielding maniac. 


The photographs on the wall opposite this are not particularly any more comforting – solemn, blurry images of Chinese-Korean military soldiers by Kyungwoo Chun. The exhibition also features a performance by Truong Ngu based on his family’s migration to Germany from Indonesia. 


A thought provoking exhibition which left me thinking about where is home, really? Although I will still never truly know what it is to be Chinese, or more importantly, what it is like to return to your roots after a lifetime of separation, I can start to see that an individual is not necessarily defined by their heritage. We are all a product of our environments so if we find ourselves immersed in a foreign culture, it is important to actively maintain our heritage, and what better way than through art?



Article by Marie J Burrows