Shi Cao (Manger)
Chen Haiyan

Friends call Cao Yingbin by his nickname ‘Cao er’ (Little Cao), and I always thought they meant ‘Little Manger’ (also pronounced ‘Cao er’ in Chinese). The Chinese character for ‘Manger’ consists of two parts: ‘wood’ and ‘cao’, and it can be paired up with many other characters to mean food tanks for horse (ma cao) and pig (zhu cao), vinasse (jiu cao), tea trough (cha cao) and sandalwood slot on traditional Chinese musical instruments (tan cao). It could also be used to form a slang, ‘tu cao’, meaning ‘to whine about something’ and the word ‘cao dao’, meaning rules (with the literally meaning of slots). To us, ‘Cao er’ (Little Manger) has become synonymous with Cao Yingbin.

Paintings by ‘Cao er’ have an inexplicably sense of wicked fun. I assume he drew all these 30 x 40 cm pictures with a touch of sincerity and disrespect. When I first saw his works, I remember sensing a powerful element of ‘fun’. Watching the audience’s expressions in the gallery, I could always find faces that are both cynical and serious.

The ‘fun’ part is less obvious in the series PAST he created from 2009 to 2011, featuring empty indoor spaces. The works are somewhat thought-provoking with their unique circumstances. Obviously, the places are very personal to ‘Cao er’, as they are where his conducts life. If we join them together, we can almost see vivid scenes of his everyday life. Like a glutton, he swallows every space in his life (office, billiard room, library, foot massage room, bathroom, guestroom, theater, toilet, restaurant, hair salon, temple, apartment, carriage, gallery, studio and classroom), digests it in his tough and powerful stomach, and excretes what’s left. With purposely unsophisticated techniques, those ‘half-digested’ works are arranged on a wall like specimen in a science museum.

‘Cao er’ drags us into his world with his unusual style, simple, direct and reckless. Looking at his paintings is like standing alongside him and peeping into his personal spaces. We obtain a blurred identity that is neither of an onlooker, nor of an insider. Are we looking at Cao’s, others’ or our life? Or are we trying to see the truth of life subconsciously?

Eating, drinking, defecating, urinating and sleeping, making friends, travelling and working: these routines constitute the external truth about life. We see people that are superficial, tasteless, ingratiating, blundering, concealing and extravagant everywhere, while commonness and surprise, beauty and ugliness complement each other.

Some people might be tempted to categorize spaces in the works of ‘Cao er’ into different groups, such as bedrooms, narrow corridors and public gathering spaces and think that they symbolize the shared experience of solitude in this difficult age. But, in fact, these spaces have greater philosophical significance and represent the artist’s perception of life, so they shouldn’t be interpreted in such a superficial way. To quote another expression with the character “cao” (manger), this is like fighting your enemy with “cao mao”, or wood spear, without any sharp spearhead.

If we insist on interpreting the images by the artist with Roland Barthes’s theory of semiotics, we can say these pictures, where space and time is confused, represent physical spaces that imply life within a certain context, while having many other connotations. Even though a sense of heaviness and nostalgia are popular among the public nowadays, I prefer the aesthetic choices and visual expressions by ‘Cao er’. But they don’t tell us his real purpose for artistic creation. ‘Cao er’ doesn’t want to whine about anything. The profound truth that was revealed in his works is as natural as stream of consciousness. Apart from memories and illusions, what could be left after experiencing everything in life? The memory of life sweeps through the scattered spaces like billows of flame. Then we know the best combination among individuals, time and space only happens in the present time.

Although Cao’s life seems disenchanting with no element of grandeur, the truth of life can be found in the little ‘fun’ in his works.  

Translation:  Fan Chen
Thanks to:  Steven Huang
翻 译: 范 晨
感 谢: 黄 一