Uncle’s Garden: an Interview with Qian Cheng

April 28, 2021, by Ashley Culver

In the summer of 2020 Qian Cheng began gnome with her Uncle. gnome is an ongoing project space in Uncle’s backyard garden located in Surrey, British Columbia – just southeast of Vancouver, on the unceded Territories of the Semiahmoo, Katzie, Kwikwetlem, Kwantlen, Qayqayt, and Tsawwassen First Nations.

This was well into the pandemic and feelings of isolation and worry were strong. In organizing gnome, Cheng addressed these feelings by emphasizing collaboration, exchange, and slowness. In tune with this prioritization on working together, gnome was conceived through conversations between Qian Cheng, Mitchell Kenworthy, Kiyoshi Whitely, Liam Johnstone, Marika Vandekraats, and Uncle[1], an avid gardener who plays an active role in hosting gnome.

Lucas Regazzi, Untitled, 2020, chalk pastel on manila paper

Through gnome the family’s backyard garden becomes an experimental site and a catalyst for interactions between nature, artists, visitors, resident family members, and artwork. One of the early artworks to arrive in the backyard was a concrete fountain by Marika Vandekraats which sits on the green lawn next to the hosta plants. The fountain spout is a cast of a human nose. If one peers through the foliage and past the wrought iron lantern, a chalk pastel drawing by Lucas Regazzi appears on the wooden fence. Snacks are arranged on the patio table as part of Patrick Cruz’s recipe exchange.

In our conversation, Cheng discussed what it meant for her to work closely with her Uncle in the suburbs. She described cultural exchanges, negotiations between the garden and artwork, and hopes for new forms of art centres.

Ashley Culver: What desire or longing did you hope gnome would fulfill? What triggered the inception of gnome?

Qian Cheng: I felt quite isolated and I'm sure this was the case for everyone at the beginning of the pandemic. It was an empty kind of moment being in the suburbs while everyone else is in the Vancouver area. I wanted to feel more connected somehow, while also thinking about this question that everyone was asking at the time, and still is: how can we be together when we're apart? Is there a safer way to approach galleries, is there a safer way to interact with art during this time? This was when I realized I had access to this backyard that my Uncle tends to every day. If there's something interesting happening in the suburbs, people might be more willing to visit! This was also a pre-pandemic discussion/joke amongst friends, they would comment on how lovely the garden space is, maybe we could do something with it.

I spoke to my Uncle about this idea, as I can't just bring in random objects and interrupt his gardening process. He was fine with it, as long as he could have an idea as to what was coming in, then maybe finding a space in the garden for it together. And it just kind of started from there, getting consent from my Uncle and my family, and speaking to close friends and studio mates if they would be interested and trying to create a space that was safe, that didn't pressure anyone to fit into any type of rigorous programming, just something that would feel comfortable and open. And let people make something. In the midst of a pandemic, when everything is already so confusing and hard and weird.

Li Johnstone, Untitled, 2020, oil on wood, audio

Marika Vandekraats, Untitled, 2020, metal tags

Diana Hanitzsch, “Circular Reference”, 2020, paint on wood

AC: What was your inspiration for this project?

QC: I read this article on E-flux about slow institutions[2], which struck a chord in me. There are other ways of working, other ways of being together, other ways of learning - it doesn't have to follow some kind of linear progression. I thought what better place to explore that idea than in the garden where things have to happen slowly? Recently I’m looking more into readings about the futures of artists-run centers and a lot of the same themes are popping up: artist-run centers of the future are a space for people, for loving, for learning, for communities. Essentially, a space that doesn't have to be just for “art”. It could be for dogs, cats, seniors, the community. I thought that was so cool. Especially during a pandemic, during a time of crisis. I really am thinking about what kind of tangible positive effect or what kind of support art can give to a community.

AC: What was the larger context for gnome? What was happening when gnome began?

QC: It didn't necessarily start from this point, but in the end, I realized that it became a good platform for my Uncle and me to talk. I am a first-generation immigrant and my Uncle had recently immigrated five years ago. And so there was a bit of disconnect in communication in terms of understanding each other and where we come from and our ideas. And it's funny that there is a disconnect because he's also interested in the arts, as a hobbyist photographer. He's always kind of like “How is this art?”, “How are you going to make money from this?”, questions like that, and we would try to have a conversation about it, and it always went nowhere. But having gnome and working closely with him, having him meet my studio mates, see their work and decide where it goes, having him as a central part of the decision-making process really opened up conversations in a way that made more sense, or was more accessible. Though I consider my role as more of an organizer, we co-curated together and talked about the form of the sculptures or where the paintings could fit and how the paintings might interact with the environment, the garden, how the paintings or the objects might change over time. Those conversations were really productive and great. It really formed this bridge of understanding each other.

An example would be my proposal to hang portraits of my family in the garden thinking it would be really cute. He told me that that is the biggest no-no in Chinese culture because the only reason you would put someone's portrait outside is if they had passed. That completely flew over my head because I grew up here and so I had no idea that was even a concern. gnome has these weird moments of cultural discovery. Those are really nice tensions to brought about conversations that would not have happened otherwise.

Nick Morrison, Untitled, 2020, watercolor on paper

AC: What in particular in the Surrey art scene is gnome addressing?

QC: It seems there isn't a lot happening in Surrey. It's, again, an hour away from Vancouver. There is the Surrey Art Gallery, and they do really awesome programming. And recently, they also did an outdoor screen. Maybe not recent, maybe two or three years ago since it started; it's an outdoor projection on a huge building. And they've been doing a lot of cool programming on there. But besides that, there isn't much else for people to go to Surrey. And so, I thought it would be nice to have added another reason in there for people to come.

AC: What is the manifesto expressed by gnome?

QC: There wasn’t really a solid manifesto in place. But I think that the main idea I was working with is to create a space for both emerging and established artists, whoever's interested. They don't even have to be artists, as long as they express interest in putting something in the garden. And providing a suburban space for that to exist. And I guess this is more of a rule than a manifesto - as long as my Uncle has also consented to the object or idea, then it will go in and it could stay in as long as it wants. Or it could stay for a day. The main thing is no pressure, and just letting the idea live. Seeing where the idea goes. No harsh structure; instead just letting the idea grow, or not grow.

Marika Vandekraats, Untitled, 2020, fountain pump, concrete

Patrick Cruz, “Kitchen Codex Surrey”, 2020, various snacks, recipes

AC: How does it feel to share a private space with the public?

QC: The pandemic complicates the whole experience, I think I would have been a lot more comfortable if there was no health worry involved, I put in a lot of time and care to ensure that it was as clean and as safe as possible. When we did have our soft opening -this was back in August when we were still allowed to have small gatherings outdoors - I made sure that everyone had their masks on, that there were sanitation stations everywhere. I even booked toilet stations. I tried to make sure that it was as safe as possible.

My family and my grandparents also live there. So it was an especially worrisome thing for them, which is totally understandable. But they were very supportive too. I remember that day my Grandma was looking through the window and saying hello, hello to everyone. It was pretty cute.

As long as my family is okay with it, then I'm fine sharing private space with the public. And also, another thing to keep in mind is that this public is not exactly like a bunch of strangers coming in. Guests had to make an appointment. I only allowed seven people in the backyard at a time.

AC: How has gnome changed your relationship to your home?

QC: I guess it helped me communicate better with my family. They aren’t the most talkative, so it really pushed for communication to happen. And also there's a language barrier. I can speak decent Chinese, but there are definitely some phrases and ideas that I can't communicate. And I found that having art as kind of a tool to talk about complicated feelings was very useful and productive. It was nice to have these objects come into the space and bring new energy to it. My Uncle likes to have a lot of control over his garden, so it was actually really, really nice of him to be open to this idea.

AC: What has encouraged you to continue organizing gnome?

QC: I think the main idea for gnome too is also that it is a continuous thing as long as my Uncle allows it. I like the idea of not having a series of shows but just one show that could be continually built upon or taken down or changed. It’s definitely on pause for now because I've recently moved out and I haven't been home in a while due to the lockdown and the pandemic. I do plan on once things open up again, going back and reactivating it in some way. So yeah, we'll just continue until my Uncle says no more.

Randi Wever, Untitled, 2020, various fabrics

AC: How does gnome contribute to your career or art practice?

QC: I feel I'm only starting to understand what it is that I want to do. I recently became a researcher at Mountain Standard Time Performative Art (M:ST). We're focusing on efforts towards empowering Black youth in Mohkinstsis through mutual aid or through resource redistribution. Right now, some of the things we’re looking into are farming, ways to address food waste, and learning more about local initiatives that address food scarcity.

Things like regenerative economics, things that aren't extractive, things go back into the community and build and support. I can see how some of these topics might influence gnome in the future. It's good to be able to have a space to use as a testing ground for new ways of being together. And I feel like a garden is a good place to start.

AC: Beyond your career and art practice, what benefits have you seen from gnome?

QC: I'm just happy to have that space to explore ideas. I guess, personally, the benefit is the re-energized connection with my family. I think it was a really good experience altogether. And if it does become something else in the future, that'd be great. If it doesn't, that’s okay too!


[1] In relation to gnome, Uncle prefers to be anonymous and go by his chosen pseudonym.

[2] Petrešin-Bachelez, Nataša. “For Slow Institutions.” e-Flux, Oct. 2017, www.e-flux.com/journal/85/155520/for-slow-institutions/

Ashley Culver is an artist and writer based in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. The thread of attention with care runs through her practice. Her work is in conversation with domestic space – particularly the kitchen – and desire for connection. https://www.instagram.com/ashley.diana.culver/

Qian Cheng is a Chinese-Canadian emerging artist and organizer. Cheng is interested in weaving different frameworks of interconnectivity and dreaming of community practices that reflect a better sense of wellness; using art as a tool to create platforms for different publics and communities. Most recently, she co-founded a space in collaboration with her uncle called gnome, a garden space with a singular, changing, and ongoing exhibition, and is working with M:ST Performative Arts in collaboration with the Black Empowerment Fund in developing long term initiatives with and for the Black community in Mohkinstsis along with co-researcher Bianca Guimarães de Manuel. She is also co-developing a Time Traveling manual with a group of Time Travelers.