Mengwen Cao: Ready To Love, Ready To Be Heartbroken

Artist Mengwen Cao

Words Tom Czibolya

Know the sacrifice you are willing to make – New York based photographer Mengwen Cao’s work has been constantly evolving since their project, Here We Are made headlines worldwide starting a conversation about queerness in Asian societies. We were lucky enough to sit down with Mengwen and ask them about their upbringing in a transforming China, how joining the queer community in New York changed their art and why showing the nuances of queerness can be the key to social change.

“I feel like our goal isn’t really getting rid of labels, but to constantly expand our definitions of them.” 

You moved to the US almost a decade ago. How has your relationship with New York changed over the years?

I first went to Austin in 2012 before moving to New York in 2015. My relationship with myself has changed so much in the last ten years and New York has played a big role in it. Yet it’s only this recent year that I’m reaching some sort of a balance in my relationship with this city.

I feel completely different from the me who arrived in New York. At the time I hadn’t come out to my parents yet. It was a transitional time, since I just left my school in Texas where I was actually studying education technology for my graduate program: a really big step for any Chinese immigrant to decide to open a creative career path. Coming to New York was my first plunge into a kind of a life that I imagined but that I was also very afraid to live.

I’ve met a lot of inspiring folks who are leading very free lives. It was the first time to me seeing queer people not only living openly but also being really passionate about community building and challenging the current status in the most creative ways. It wasn’t about direct confrontation, but culture building. It’s been just life changing.

In another interview you told about the extremes of portraying queerness, that queer people are either being shown as glamorous party goers or victims or violence. Yet this isn’t only a thing of the mainstream media, it’s among queer people, artists as well. Why can this be?

As attention grabbing as they are, I still think we need these extremes. In the media these days we need billboards just like we need DIY communication. They deliver different messages. These kinds of extreme narratives are like yelling at someone: pay attention to us!

But what I want to contribute more to are those nuanced parts of queerness, the parts that might not be seen so often. We need to normalize queer culture and for that we need more colors, we need to see more versions of ourselves. We need to find more ways for queering our lives, showing queerness outside of a dance floor, outside of relationships. Like, I’m still queer even if I’m not dating and I’m still queer even if I’m not dressing up all fancy. I want to highlight the quiet and tender moments that sometimes we take for granted. But it is in those moments, our lives’ stories keep unfolding.

Normalizing queerness is about turning it into a layer of identity. Why can this be a difficult task for people in and outside of the queer community?

When we name something, we are already limiting it. Yet I feel like our goal isn’t really getting rid of labels, but to constantly expand our definitions of them. I think we all go through phases. At the beginning I felt like I didn’t want any of these labels. Then came the next phase: I wanted to carry these labels proudly and all over, making sure that everyone knows I’m queer. Now I’m finally moving to a phase where I’m fine with however other people relate to these labels and I’m just working on how I define myself. The beautiful thing about queerness is that it refuses to be tied down.

“Imagine a kind of life for yourself that can bring a smile to your face – that’s the moment I want to photograph.”

Your series, Liminal Space is a great example of portraying everyday queerness. What sort of an effect did this particular project have on your working methods?

I named that series Liminal Space because everything about it was constantly changing. Last year I had the chance to show these pictures in Times Square. For the occasion, I invited people who are in the photos to come and celebrate our presence together. Meeting them again was very interesting since some of these folks don’t look the same as in my photos anymore. It was like talking to people who all feel very familiar somehow.

I started Liminal Space in 2017, around the same time I was keen to find my community of queer people of color. A lot of these photos were taken in the process of me getting to know them and gradually becoming friends with them. There is a lot of love, a lot of gratitude in these pictures.

Liminal Space was very much about capturing a moment, but my process has become more intentional over the past years. I started to incorporate a lot more conversation, a lot more preparation before the actual shootings. I always ask people how they wanna be seen, what version of themselves are they trying to step into. Imagine a kind of life for yourself that can bring a smile to your face – that’s the moment I want to photograph.

I recently photographed a friend. When looking at the photos, she said to me that she’s having a crush on herself and that made me so happy. Frankly, we all deserve to have a crush on ourselves. As queer people, we were thaught from a very young age that we are not desirable. And even though now I know it’s bullshit, I can’t undo all the conditioning that I inherited from my family, friends, from school and workplaces. My body carries so much of the burden that I’m trying to unleash. And I’m really excited to work out a new path right now.

“Ultimately, my testing stone is my heart. I’m ready to love and I’m even ready to be heartbroken.”

How has your upbringing in China influenced the way you handle people around you?

Chinese culture is my roots. No matter where I go, I will not let it go. It’s a very powerful ancestral connection. I grew up in a pretty traditional family in a time when China was going through crazy change. I was conditioned to be a good kid offline – respectful of my family and nice to people around me. I didn’t want to stand out, even though I knew a part of me just didn’t fit in. I had a completely different life online. I started using the internet when I was maybe nine or ten. It’s quite special, since my generation was the last one to have a completely offline childhood without technology involved and the first one to experience how the internet can open the doors to new worlds. I was living kind of a double life, the good child offline paired with a very curious and extensively emotional teenager exploring online.

In a recent interview on Container Love, Beijing photographer No.223 described the experience of growing up together with the internet as the time of ultimate freedom of expression in China. How do you process the differences between the not-so-voluntary-secrecy of queer folks in China and the often turbulent queer culture in the States?

It’s funny, because I’m so used to living on the margin that now the margin is my majority and my norm. I’ve always sought out and created the culture needed for someone like me to thrive. Maybe this is why I’m so interested in community building wherever I go. New York showed me new ways of how queer folks can organize. It’s a wild world out there and I think it’s only natural that I always felt the need to connect with other women, non-binary visual storytellers or Chinese folks working with media. It’s easy to feel isolated but once we come together, we realize that we have power. I’m really grateful for the internet and I’m really grateful for me being different. Being able to connect with people I resonate with is incredibly empowering.

I feel like as someone who’s been living on the edge of political systems, it’s impossible not to see how the system is oppressing us, but at the same time I also don’t want to subscribe to the victim narrative. I have my tools to build a life that gives me pleasure and fulfillment. Recently, I’m learning to allow life to surprise me differently every day. Ultimately, my testing stone is my heart. I’m ready to love and I’m even ready to be heartbroken. For way too long, I had a hard time letting things go, but now I realized that one has to let things die to allow new ones to come.

We’re gonna borrow a thought from Container Love’s founder Christian Ruess who saidif you are openly queer, you are an activist whether you like it or not. What do you think about this statement?

It makes me a little emotional because I remember when I made my first personal project, Here We Are to come out to my parents, my teacher at that time asked me the question: are you sure you are ready to do this? Because you’re gonna be an activist if you do this.

Honestly, I don’t think that at that time I understood what she meant. I remember she looked genuinely concerned. But I felt so ready to share this piece with my parents. In a way, it was a selfish thing to do. I was freeing myself from something I kept buried for so long. I’d never imagined that this would resonate with so many people.

After the project went online and was published by some big media, I’ve received a lot of messages from all around the world. I felt overwhelmed with emotions. Obviously, I felt proud since I did something that connected with people I might never meet, with a lot of them telling me how I gave them hope or courage to come out to their own families. But at the same time it was also a lot of responsibility. I wasn’t prepared for it, especially when people projected their fear and insecurities on me. However, it also propelled me to look inward and get more grounded in my own narratives and values.

Now I know that I’m not only living for myself, I’m also living for a larger community, a community that I don’t even know how to pinpoint. I get really excited every time I meet another person with whom I share similar identities, but I don’t want to give up or sacrifice any part of my own life anymore. I would like to stress the importance of self-care and self-love over and over again. I have burned out myself so many times and witnessed others burning out even more. If you are doing activism work, you ought to check yourself to see how much you can give. If we want to show up better, we need to take better care of ourselves.