Cajsa Tengblad, Helen Karlsson, Sara Bergqvist, Laila Knogevold, Anna-lotta, Anneli Lindstrom, Helen Goodwin, Liu Lifen, Maggie(Zhou Guanqi), Sun Guojuan, Jia Wei, Su Yabi, Tian Yao,
SUGAR AND SALT
China, Kunming TCG Nordica: September 2003
Sweden, Malmo, Hyllie Park folkhogskola : May 2004
Five women from China, together with five women from Sweden participated in a collaborative arts project in the city of Kunming, China, for two intense weeks during a bright sunny September in 2003, using the materials sugar and salt. There was Sun Guojuan form China and Laila Kongevold from Norway acting as supporting facilitators and myself Helen Goodwin form the UK as overall facilitator.
Artists from different creative backgrounds and disciplines were chosen to participate. The group consisted of fine artists, two writer-journalists, a dancer and one dramatist.
The “process” of creating was the focus for the work. The project was not about the final product, but rather about how artists come to discover their ideas through exploration, experimentation and, here, through collaboration. An artist often works in isolation and this project attempts to break with such solitariness and bring together artists from different disciplines to share, explore and discover the processes of working collaboratively and cross- culturally, and an open process of working with materials. In most artistic productions the viewer often sees only the final piece and not how the piece begins to find it’s final form. The process we used may be compared to an open sketchbook, exposing the path taken by the artist in reaching a completed piece of work.
In order for this open process to develop, the participants had first to build up a culture of safety and trust. This took place in the initial few days through collaborative activities that were related to the creative process. Participants were encouraged to share ideas, and share experiences of themselves. In this particular group two main languages were used, Chinese and English. Although we had an excellent translator, participants often found themselves working together with no common oral language, but instead of this being a barrier new challenges emerged and were resolved. The language of the body and the creative process itself were often found to replace oral language, and participants found new ways to communicate, which added to the overall creative and collaborative processes. While this appears to be an innovative approach for artists working in China, it was a process of learning for everyone involved. New things have been revealed and discovered.
We aimed to show this as work in progress. The project will continue in Sweden next Spring.
During the autumn of 2001, Anna Mellergard from Sweden, the originator of the TC/G Nordica in Kunming, saw the work of local artist Sun Guojuan. Anna was struck by the sensitivity of her work, and was particularly interested in one of the materials Sun Guojuan was using, that of sugar. Anna was hoping to organise a cross-cultural arts project and decided that this material – sugar – would be an appropriate material and focus for such a project. She also felt Sun Guojuan would be an ideal person to be involved in the facilitation of the project. Also, having an artist share an element of their artistic production in a collaborative arts setting was something Anna felt would be relatively new in China. It was Anna who also came up with the complementary and opposing material, salt.
I met Anna myself for the first time when she was sanding the floor of the T/cafe Gallery before it’s opening! I was struck by her considerable energy and enthusiasm! I later discovered her passion to create cross-cultural happenings. China was the place she had chosen to come and pursue this goal and to date there have been many Chinese artists who have been offered art placements and exchanges in Sweden.
Anna was aware that I had worked on projects in China as an arts facilitator, and prior to this done such work internationally, and she asked if I would be interested in facilitating a cross-cultural arts project. Anna remained eager for Sun Guojuan to also participate as a supporting facilitator because it was due to her work that the project was first conceived. Because Sun Guojuan had no previous experience of facilitating or teaching it was agreed that I would train her experientially – at the same time as she jointly facilitated. This proved to work really well. There was an artist from Norway who Anna believed would also fit the project well, but who also had no previous experience of facilitating, her name was Laila and this also proved to work well and so the three of us worked as a team. A group of ten women were chosen from different creative backgrounds, and so, with the three facilitators and a translator, a total of fourteen women worked on the project, which was recorded by a male photographer.
WORKING SUGAR AND SALT
The project was initially planned for the spring of 2003, but due to the outbreak of SARS, it was delayed until September of the same year. During a very sunny month, five women from Sweden landed in Kunming, some of whom had never been to Asia, and we started work directly, on the day after their arrival!! From the first day we worked intensely, and continued for two more weeks. Many things were learnt and` became revealed during this time.
In a collaborative style of cross-cultural working, in an open, accessible environment, the audience was invited to observe as the participants experimented and discovered ways of working with the limited given materials. This process created challenges but also the ingredients for the creation of works that were often surprising and revealing to the participants. The process brought up cultural and individual differences in approaches and uses of the materials. One important difference was found to be in the experience of cultural and historical use and value of these two materials.
For example, for the Scandinavians, generally, there were few issues using these food sources in great quantities for creativity because they were mainly attracted by it’s aesthetic. But, as Laila later noted, they were fascinated by the sugar canes and other products they were not used to, while they also did not use products with which they were familiar, such as vanilla sugar. She pointed out that Scandinavians (and Westerners in general) have experienced an overflow, too much sugar and salt, with accompanying health problems, and so have ambivalent feelings about in it in relation to their food.
In contrast, for the Chinese participants, there were different issues that arose in using such materials, and these concerns were expressed very early on. As the project developed and intensified, the participants revealed again that working with such materials felt problematic. These feelings were shared and explored within the group as a whole, and demonstrate an important part of the process of collaboration and creativity. The Chinese participants found it challenging to work with a food source in such a creative context because they saw it as wasting a food source.
Both of these materials, sugar and salt, have great cultural and historical significance throughout the world but perhaps more so in China where the development of its production was historically far more advanced than within Europe. Throughout the world, refined sugar was seen as a luxury and salt was a highly valued mineral. Historically salt was an incredibly expensive material. Although both sugar and salt are now both a much cheaper and a more readily available food source in both continents, salt is not so easily obtainable within some parts of China. There are people in some remote regions who suffer from its deficiency. Food is an incredibly important part of China’s culture and to use it in such quantities was difficult for most of the Chinese participants. In the comparatively recent past in China, both sugar and salt were less available, and, Laila notes, a family might have to share half a kilo over a year. Furthermore, there are differences in the degree of mechanisation of production and transport of foodstuffs, where Westerners might not comprehend the human work effort behind the availability of produce in the shops.
Such issues were discussed at length within the group. It was decided that both the materials after use should be donated to farms where livestock could make use of them as fodder. The Chinese participants appeared to be more at ease after this decision, and as facilitators it was up to us to help them feel they had permission to explore and experiment with the materials, which everyone did with great success! The different qualities and similarities of the materials, their symbolism, use and different cultural connotations, were all brought to bear in the final realisation of the project, a performance and exhibition ” an installation ” at TC/G Nordica, by playing, working, experimenting and sharing with sugar and salt, and a collaborative process of engagement with each other.
THE FINAL EVENT
The group were continually reminded to keep hold of the “process” and not to be preoccupied with the final outcome, therefore having permission to continue to take risks. As our time together as a group in China neared its end, so the work began to take on a finality and completion. We shifted from the intimacy of a studio space into the larger gallery space. We used drama and dance. Participants generally began to work individually or in pairs, though all continued to be sensitive and aware of what each other was doing. In this way, each piece related to the space and to one another’s creations, be it sound, movement, sculpture or painting. As pieces found their conclusions, participants started work and added to the work of others. There was a general acceptance that reaching final conclusions or having pieces in process the outcomes could only be possible from the previous collaboration of sharing and exploration of ideas and materials, and so no names were added to pieces of work.
There was an immense coherency to the final pieces shown, which took the final form of sound, film, performance and installation. Pieces related to each other and to the space and there was some feeling of completion, yet there was still a sense of experimentation and exploration and an honesty which I believe kept the whole piece alive and fresh. This was seen on the opening night when one of the participants performed a live piece, other member of the group joined in, and finally the audience too participated.
I believe I speak for us all, that the experience of participation from the audience, many of whom were non- practicing artists of all ages, made us feel we had succeeded in breaking down certain barriers and helping towards making the creative arts more accessible. We were no longer separated from the audience but all became one.
Throughout these two weeks, the focus of the project was always about keeping hold of the process and not the final outcome. At every stage there was a visual record kept through video film and photography by our “invisible” photographer: Carl Rytterfalk (we were rarely aware of him clicking away). To reassure participants and to help them keep hold of the process and not become preoccupied by the final outcome, photographs, sound and film recorded the work of creativity and collaboration would be recorded to produce a final showing of what they had achieved. As it happened, the working together over the two weeks produced a coherent and strong installation piece. This was later swept away and fed to livestock. It was only later that we realised that there was very little record of the final piece as a whole due to film failure. It was difficult to accept this at first, because the participants had all worked so very hard. Over time I realised that, as I had continually emphasised to the participants, the project as a whole was about the process of creativity and so it did not matter about the final results. What was more important was the discovery and exploration of materials through the process of working collaboratively. The project will continue for a further two weeks in Sweden in the spring of 2004. Having few reference points of the final outcome may prove to be better for the participants and facilitators because we will have to recall the work from our imagination, which may well prove to be better for the working process. The loss therefore becomes the participant’s gain, and once again leads to being a part of the process!
Thanks are due to Swedish Missions Counsel in Sweden who kindly liased with SIDA and NORAD, funding bodies in Sweden and Norway respectively, both of whom fund cross cultural projects between Sweden and developing countries; thanks to them for their generosity in helping to realise this project. Also, and especially, to the staff at Nordica, for their help and support throughout. Of course the participants would not have communicated so well without Maggie’s translation. Thanks to Carl for his unseen presence and photographic skills. Also thanks to Andy West for the final editing and help with the layout. And lastly to Anna Mellergard for her vision, passion and for realising the idea and concept of this project!!
Experience Cultural Differences Through Sugar & Salt
by Sun Guojuan
Praise Our Food—”Sugar & Salt”
It is affording for thoughts to choose our indispensable food—sugar and salt as the theme for art and culture exchange. Sugar and salt have long history to be human being’s food, which not only give us life, but also strongly support our life. It is Anna M, a Swedish culture activist, who has the idea to use sugar and salt as the material used in this exchange project. As a poet, Anna M discovered the meaning of sugar and salt again. We didn’t pay much attention to what sugar and salt mean in our life before this experience, not to mention what sugar and salt mean to the people who live in different areas, have totally different culture background and diet habit. Anna M gave us a chance to start from this very point, to think the different understandings between two very faraway countries—China and Sweden, and to share and praise these two deep-in-our-blood material—sugar and salt, by our different culture. This is also a chance for us to understand what is the meaning of these two simple food in our culture.
The Collaborating Relationship Between Chinese and Swedish Artist; The Problems in Art Exchange.
For Chinese participants, including me, Sugar & Salt is not only an art cooperation, but more importantly, it is a chance for us to understand the differences between eastern and western culture, more or less.
No matter it is the collaboration on art, or the cultural communication, each Chinese participants experienced something tough. In my eye, these tough points are the meaning and purpose of this collaboration.
These tough points also show the differences between eastern and western culture.
These differences lie in the lack of attention to collaboration and cooperation in Chinese education. Chinese education emphasizes “to be friendly”, “to be respectful”, and “to help each other”. We know how to get along with others, how to respect and help others, then we take it for granted that these equal to collaborate with others, and collaboration is an easy job, is what we’ve already mastered. When Sugar & Salt started, however, we finally found collaboration is completely new to us; it is another way of working, which we didn’t understand. That is to say, in traditional education and our daily life, we were lack of understanding and training on collaboration, and instead, we were more familiar with working individually.
My understanding on collaboration after Sugar & Salt is: everyone is involved in a whole process. At the same time, I saw collaboration is a tradition in western culture; collaboration goes through their daily life and plays an important role, just like the role of “to be friendly”, “to be respectful”, and “to help each other” in our life.
To be simple, European artists have already mastered how to collaborate and have strong ability to collaborate with others; Chinese artists, however, are just beginners.
Cross-culture and area collaboration requires us to forget ourselves sometimes, to forget individual sometimes, and to bring our own culture into the group, which is the point where collaboration starts.
To some extent, collaboration requires us to get over the long existing self-centered way of working. Each one of us is just a member in Sugar & Salt, so we cannot just let our own idea and desire go freely. In the process of collaboration, we should bring in our culture, rather than just individual idea and will. In addition, we ought to differentiate a nation’s culture and sprite from individual idea, or say, we ought to separate our own idea from our culture background, which is an indispensable precondition for everyone of us to be involved in the whole group, and which is also tough for every Chinese participants.
Ego and collaboration, group and individual, are the two ways of working that brought in confusion, conflict and efforts, which went through with Chinese participants in the whole process of Sugar & Salt from Kunming to Malmo. In this project, it’s every Chinese participants’ purpose, including myself, to learn to collaborate, get over self-centered attitude, share and enjoy our working experience. We all worked hard to achieve these purposes, and the efforts we exerted were not only the result of this project, but also the direction that we are going to work for in the future. In this field, every Swedish participants, and British facilitator Helen, Norwegian supporting facilitator Laila, are all perfect examples from whom we can learn a lot.
The Feeling for Food Used in Art, and for Sharing Materials and Work
Sugar and salt are two kinds of food, which are very important and close to human beings, and that’s why they can bring together the people from totally different culture background and area, and make us feel so close.
In this project, each one of us had a better understanding of what sugar and salt mean to our life, and could use food materials more freely. We all tried to express our understanding and love towards sugar and salt in the way of art. Perhaps our way of understanding and expressing were not exactly the same, but everyone’s work was decent and unforgettable.
The Number and Arrangement of Participants
It is very appropriate of the number and diversity of participants in Sugar & Salt. We didn’t limit participants’ profession just in the field of artist, but ask those from other fields to be involved in this project. In this way, collaboration and the experience from Sugar & Salt will not only be limited in a certain profession, but also will be spread to, and consequently shared and used by a larger group of people.
If there is going to be similar project, choosing participants is still a crucial step. Those who are willing to and able to collaborate are who in need!
August 19, 2004
Reflection on Sugar & Salt
A String Made of Sugar & Salt
By chance, I worked with a group of different artists from China and Scandinavia as a translator. The project became a special period of time in my heart. Those twelve ladies made me experience excitements and freshness, and also redefine my concept of art and artists (I used to suppose artists were semi-immortal! They were definitely different from the ordinary, and the ordinary could never really understand what are artists, vice versa! Now I saw artists are also ordinary human beings, they also like shopping, would feel lonely even vulnerable sometimes. The difference is that they have some special ideas and sometimes special ways of working or other requirements, etc. By nature, they are no different from the ordinary.).
During this process (a concept that I find some deeper meaning), we experienced communication, barriers, encouragements, anxiety, zeal, fatigue, passion, minor failures, risks and of course the dimple of all kinds of happiness, I was not only working with them, but also feeling those lovely ladies. We shared and enjoyed everything together, including intimacy after communication, creativity after conflicts, new ideas after the hitting of different culture, and joy after a collaborating piece. I was totally involved in the project, becoming a real member of “Sugar & Salt”. Helen told me one day, “you are not only a translator!”
Women are always considered to be weak compared with men. In this project, however, I felt unprecedented strength, tenacity and gentleness on the other hand from those brilliant women. Their strength is not supposed to beat others or others’ ideas, which is mostly the case for men, but to find a balance among differences and build up an effective way of working, in which sacrifice, compromise and also firmness are required—hard for every single human being!
Every stop in this process was what we were working on; it might probably meant nothing to others but a story for us. “Sugar & Salt”
itself is a fantastic product, in which 13 hearts are beating, beating together.
13 ladies who are from different parts of the world came for those lovely white crystals, without which we can’t live. This is a miracle as well as a fortune. “Sugar & Salt” can always be a thin string, touching us and connecting us.
Translator for “Sugar & Salt”
all photo by Carl Rytterfalk