Cultural Differences In My Eyes, NYC-based Photographer Cheng Gong

Cheng Gong was born in Hunan, China and received bachelor degree in Environmental Art of Design from Donghua University, Shanghai in 2012. Gong earned a Master’s degree in Project Management from Northeastern University, Boston in 2016 and a MFA in photography, video and related media in the School of Visual Arts, New York in 2019. Gong now resides and works in New York City.

No Food After Noon, 42 x 56 inches, 2019, digital medium format

Please tell us a little about yourself. 

I was born in Hunan, China in 1988. I began to learn painting at the age of 6, but because of the stress of studying in school, I had to stop painting when I was in high school. Fortunately, I studied the art of environmental design as my major at Donghua University in Shanghai and continued my art career. I got my first camera in the first year of my college because we had basic photography courses in school. That was the time I began to take photos. And then I had been an assistant of a famous commercial photographer in Shanghai for more than 2 years, that was the time I learn experiences as a professional photographer. However, my family against me to make photography as my career, so I had to take the business major for my first master’s degree at Northeastern University in Boston. I never stopped taking photos all the time and I applied for another master’s degree in photography at the School of Visual Arts by myself after I finished the first master’s degree. My work is mainly about the cultural differences and my own feelings when I am in the United States. I like combining the “things” with certain “spaces” mainly because of the major I learned in my college and the work experiences as a commercial photographer in China. Now I live and work in Brooklyn, work as an artist and commercial photographer. 

Moving from China to the US, do you feel any different as a photographer in your career? 

Yes, I found that the photographer is more respectful than that in the US, and as an artist, there is more freedom to create art. There are many restrictions or “rules” in China for art shows. 

No Adorning of Oneself with Garlands, Perfumes and Ointments, 42 x56 inches, 2018, digital medium format
No Stealing, 42 x 56 inches, 2018, digital medium format

The composition of your works is quite interesting. What is the idea behind using objects like raw meat? 

There are a number of reasons why I mainly use raw food as objects in the photos. First of all, some Western people may have a bias about Chinese food, since some of the Chinese food is made of organs, feet, even heads of animals, they think it is cheap and disgusting. Actually, some of the organs, such as kidneys, livers, hearts are affordable in China because they used to be the food of the poor, who could not afford meat in the past. However, even though those organs and meat are still inexpensive now, they are popular for most Chinese people. I seldom see wester people in the Chinese supermarket, so that I think the raw food of some kinds are unfamiliar to them. Like people do not believe that I can buy the crocodile’s feet from the Chinese supermarket. I am featuring the raw food in my own way and making it not only look beautiful but also showing its importance to Chinese people. Secondly, since the meat is forbidden in Buddhism, and my photos are presenting opposite sides of the ten precepts. The very first precept is called “no killing”, which is a very important and common rule in Buddhism, food offers another level of contradiction and conflict in my work. Thirdly, some parts of the raw food represent people or certain symbols, such as the raw meat may represent the lust, the organs like the kidney and livers may let the audiences to think about people’s own feelings. 

Your projects talked a lot about Buddhism, how do you relate yourself in such a context? 

I think Buddhism stands for one of the cultures of the Eastern world. Buddhists are the most population among the religious people in China. Since my family believes in Buddhism and I am influenced by my mother and my grandmother, I also believe in Buddhism to a certain extent. Every time I go back to China, my mom will take me to a temple which is located in a mountain near my hometown for staying there several days, I really enjoyed the peaceful and disciplinary life there. And I had heard about some stories behind the precepts, so that I made it as my project. 

Living Room – 01, 18×12 inch, 2017
Living Room – 02, 18×12 inch, 2017
Living Room – 03, 18×12 inch, 2017

You have an interesting series called the living room. What is your idea behind this project? 

That was the project I had done in my second year of my master. There is a certain bias about the Chinese international student that they are all from rich families and they can spend a lot of money as they wish. However, I found that it is not true. Live abroad is difficult for many international students, especially in the big cities, such as NYC and Boston, etc., there are a lot of Chinese International students live in the living room to save the budget. By doing so, they can save a lot of money, but on the other hand, they do not have a common space for gathering together and communicating with each other. And they cannot invite other friends to their apartment. I found that is only for Chinese international student. I found those models from the internet and told them about my ideas, most of them agreed with me to shoot the photos of them. I brought my equipment to their home and arranged a little bit of their “room” before shooting. In return, I printed the photos and sent them to the models. And this project lasted half a year long. 

How do you see yourself in your community moving forward? 

Making more art by similar methods. Since I have a background in commercial photography, I would like to combine it with art in my further works and projects. 

No Receiving of Gold and Silver, 2019, 56 x42 inches, digital medium format

text & photo courtesy of Cheng Gong

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