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Student draws on well of experience for art project

Zhaoyi Kang's installation will be featured at the Contemporary Art Forum Kitchener and Area (CAFKA) festival throughout the month of June. The UTSC student drew on the experiences many immigrants face as inspiration for the project (Photo by Tianyi Huang)

Zhaoyi Kang is going bananas, all in the name of art. It’s not his first time either.

You might have seen the fourth year Studio and Economics Major in the meeting place this past February when he performed The Well. Over the course of four hours, he built a wall of bananas around himself, as a commentary on the identity crisis that immigrants face.

“I’m the banana. The banana has the yellow appearance but the white culture inside. The fruit is specifically about Chinese people but my performance does not only represent Chinese. It represents the experience that all Asians and immigrants go through,” Kang says.

On June 8, Kang took The Well to Kitchener as part of the biennial Contemporary Art Forum Kitchener and Area (CAFKA) festival. The fair runs throughout the month of June showcasing contemporary art in public spaces. Kang performed in front of Kitchener City Hall. He immigrated to Canada in 2010 and knows the feeling of being stuck between two cultures.

“Right now I’m a Canadian citizen but I don’t speak English like a local. Then when I go back home to Beijing, my relatives don’t treat me as a Chinese person. Even my parents think my logic has changed,” he says.

By trapping himself with the bananas, Kang aims to shed light on the balancing act that immigrants juggle:  adapting to their new homes while still holding on to the traditions they left behind.

“Sometimes I feel like a stranger to that homeland that I was born in. In Canada I also feel like a stranger.”

That being said, Kang wants to emphasize that this experience that he and many others go through is not wholly negative.

“When people look at the picture I used for promotion they say, ‘This looks so sad.’ But actually I don’t want this performance to just show the sadness of it. Not everything about this experience is sad,” he explains.

Iga Janik, curator at Idea Exchange discovered The Well after seeing it at a year-end exhibition for one of Kang’s classes. Out of the 30 artists featured at the festival, Kang is the youngest and she says the resolve of the piece truly impressed her.

“In a community that is very diverse, I thought this is a very ideal project to offer so that ideas of diaspora can be contemplated in a performance that also asks those watching to help with the disassembly of cultural barriers,”  Janik says.

Taking down these barriers is something that those watching The Well will quite literally be able to do. In order for Kang to step out from the structure, audiences must take the bananas. Afterwards, Janik says that the bananas will be donated to breakfast clubs in the area that offer healthy food to children who cannot access it.

“This of course creates another layer of community engagement and social structures, and makes a full circle of impact bridging many different parts of the community in this region, while focusing on cultural differences,” Janik explains.

The world-renowned artist, Ai Weiwei, is one of Kang’s biggest inspirations. Ai’s projects where he used materials like backpacks and steel rods showed Kang that seemingly unremarkable objects can make a huge impact with audiences.

“I realized that art is really like a weapon. It helps you speak out,” he says. “You don’t have to do something to cross the line. You can do something polite and it can still be very powerful.”


© University of Toronto Scarborough