Charwei Tsai creates works that draw from their surrounding environments and expand upon them, often through the combination of both visual and physical language. From works that are highly personal and allow for their meanings to change in an ongoing reflection of the artist’s life, to those that celebarte the works of others and take on the form of a collaboratively-authored periodical, Tsai brings visual and textual forms together in a manner in which they support, encourage and give one another voice.
Could you please introduce your recent exhibition ‘A Dedication to the Sea’? The works include text written on photographs as well as large pieces of driftwood, how do the materials that you compose your texts on affect the meaning of the written words?
The exhibition, as the title suggests, is a dedication to the sea where I use objects and sceneries from the sea to create a sort of quiet sanctuary in the middle of a busy shopping center and casino. The idea sprouted from my first site visit to the space where I was inspired by the water’s reflection on the glass building and how it changes throughout the day under different light. I wanted to make an exhibition that integrates its surrounding environment as well as expanding it with an external component, which is the landscape from Taiwan yet another island and where I am from. Therefore, part of the exhibition is composed of two parts, a series of photographs and videos from Lanyu, an island inhabited by indigenous population located in the southeastern coast of Taiwan and a series of previous works where I wrote the Heart Sutra onto various ephemeral objects and images.1
Some of your earlier works, such as your ‘Mantra’ series, also combine both visual and textual forms. Have you always been drawn to the combination of imagery and language as a means of expression?
I have always enjoyed writing and combining it with my works of art. I am very much inspired by seeing manuscripts from many different cultures and how someone’s personality and way of thinking are visualized through the act of writing. I learned calligraphy since a young age at school in Taiwan. I revisited it while making my first artworks in 2005. However, I am not a skilled calligrapher at all. Calligraphy is simply a medium to help achieve the concept of the work, which has to do with human imprints of civilization hereby represented by ink and its relationship to the impermanence of our natural environment.2
Could you please introduce your recent work, ‘Shi Na Paradna’ that you created in collaboration with Tsering Tashi Gyalthang?
The Lanyu series continues an exploration of the complex relationship between nature, spirituality, and ritual through an examination of the Tao tribe from the Orchid Island of Taiwan. Shi Na Paradna portrays a tale of a boy who lost his soul to the sea and his grandfather preformed a ritual of bringing a fishing stick to call his soul back from the sea.
Lanyu is a small island located in the southeastern coast of Taiwan. It is occupied by only about 4000 people, most of whom are indigenous people. I was first drawn to the island because of the Shamanism that was still practiced by the local people. I wanted to capture their traditional dance called “Hair Dance” where the women swing their hair up and down to mimic the ocean waves as a ceremonial practice to bring their men safely back from the sea. This is also when I discovered the story told by the old man by chance and made it into a short film with Tsering.
After spending some more time there, Tsering and I realized that there is a bigger topic and ongoing issue on the island. In the 80s when the Taiwanese government was looking for a place to store nuclear waste, they had chosen the island due to its remote location. The local people had no idea what nuclear waste is at the time, so the government took advantage of this and lied to them that they are building a fish cannery to help with the local economy. A decade or two later, the truth start to reveal itself and the corals around the nuclear waste facility began to die and the fish in the area started to deform. Now we are thinking to make a long-feature film about the island including the nuclear issues. It is interesting how Taiwan is already a small island and it’s bullying an even smaller island while reflecting on a global issue of nuclear power and modernization.
Could you please describe the inspiration behind your recent artist’s book and lithograph work, A Pilgrimage Through Light & Spells?
The artist’s book was published by Idem, a wonderful historical printmaking shop in Paris. The curator who had introduced me to Idem has known my work for a while and thought that the relationship between my ink work and lithography could be an interesting mix. I started by making a series of small lithographs from aluminum plates with images of bonsais and then painted and wrote over them. The quality of the finished work is somewhere between a photograph and an ink painting, which I find fascinating. Also, I have always been interested in artist’s books and various forms of bookmaking, so the realization of this book has been a dream come true. Besides the beautiful quality of the prints, the print shop itself is a magical place that is filled with light and has a lot of old manually operated machinery. It has been around since Picasso’s time and now uses modern technology such as photographic lithography. So far, I have been working mainly with photographic images transferred to aluminum plates. In the near future, I would like to try drawing directly onto stones as in the traditional method of making lithography and make prints this way. I see this as a long-term collaboration with Idem and look forward to many adventures to come.3
You described that you ground your work in “a sense of (national/Taiwanese) identity and the consequent implications” of doing so. Could you please elaborate on this notion and how your work references, or emerges from, your ethnic background?
I was born in 1980, Taipei, Taiwan. I attended a local elementary school until fourth grade when I was transferred to the Taipei American School where classes were taught in English. At this time, around the late 80’s and early 90’s, Taiwanese economy was blooming and many business families seeked opportunities for their children to receive western education, which was considered as more liberal and could potentially open up to more opportunities. Therefore, I continued my studies in a boarding school in Pebble Beach, California. However, while my formal education was based on American history and literature, outside of my studies, I was still very attached to my Taiwanese upbringing. My family still lived in Taiwan, so I would go home every summer and winter and bring back local music, films, books, and even food. Most of my close friends in high school were Taiwanese who shared a similar background, so I never felt a need to assimilate to Americans and was quite at ease with the mixed cultures. Perhaps this is why even after all these years of living abroad, some of my works are still rooted in Taiwanese references.4
Your practice has also been described as “politically engaged and performative…activating participation outside the confines of complacent contemplation.” Do many of your works strive to disengage your own complacent contemplation or are you more interested in stimulating thought processes and subsequent action in others?
I do not make a work with expectations to influence others. I tend to make works as a reflection on my own life and this could come from various aspects of life including spirituality, politics, love, and environmental concerns…etc. I often struggle with writing a description for my work because many times the meanings of the work come to me long after making it, or other times the meanings change at different phases of my life.
I feel that if I make a work with the goal of influencing others, it may turn out to be too moralistic. I cannot assume that what I believe is good for me is good for the others. Everyone has to find their own paths. This way of working with a goal of influencing people in mind could create a dangerous ideology. I prefer to create something that is just based out of my own reflections and intuitions and others can interpret it however they would like. I feel like the way to influence the others is not by suggesting to them what to think, but by digging deeper into myself and what I have to offer will naturally reveal itself.
You have also described that, for you, “art and spirituality are inseparable.” Could you please describe how these two elements become entangled within your works? Would you describe the mix as similar to mixing two colors of paint on a palette, creating a new hue where one can no longer detect the various tints and tones that created it – or more like your combination of imagery and text, where the two components are independent, yet related?
Art is a tool for spiritual practice for me. Through creating artworks, I am able to contemplate on life’s issues beyond the rational language system. Through exhibiting my work, I am able to travel to faraway cultures and engage with people from all different backgrounds. Through earning a living as an artist, I am able to create my own schedule and to work freely across disciplines with people from all professions. I really can’t think of another profession that allows me more freedom and richness in life than being an artist.
In addition to your own artistic practice, you also publish, edit and design ‘Lovely Daze,’ a collection of contemporary artist’s writings and artworks. Could you please introduce the periodical, how it came to be and what different sorts of directions it has taken over the years?
The idea for Lovely Daze initially began when a close friend Kelly Carmena, when we were both unemployed in New York in the beginning of 2004. At the time, we did not have much ambition in life and did not understand the obsession that New Yorkers have with success. So we thought about making a publication that captured the lives of average people, such as housewives, teenagers, unknown artists, etc. We wanted to publish interviews with them about their daily activities without trying to make certain statements, but merely as an exploration. But as we were both too “relaxed” about the idea, nothing got started. Then in 2005, I was invited to a large group exhibition at Cartier Foundation in Paris. During this exhibition, I met some fifty artists who were all around the same age as me and were from all over the world. Since most of us had never exhibited previously, the conversations were very simple and mostly revolved around where we were from, the art that we were making, what we do in our countries, etc. During this time, I was struggling with my work for Cai Guo-Qiang’s studio because I was not yet adjusted to the professional world. In contrast, I was happy to be back in this supportive environment at the exhibition where I was surrounded by new friends and the only responsibility that I had was to make my art. When I came back to New York after the exhibition, I remained very inspired by my experience of sharing and discussing views with other artists of my generation and the idea for Lovely Daze evolved into a way of showing works by my friends. Back then, magazines like Vice were really popular and I felt that there was a wave of artists who were creating works simply to create shock value and spectacle just to gain instant recognition. So for Lovely Daze, I wanted to create a platform for artists to discuss their works in a more critical and substantial way through writing. The relationship between the artists’ writings to their artworks in Lovely Daze is different from the relationship between my work and the text that I utilise. First of all, the texts that I use in my work were not written by me, unlike the texts by the artists in Lovely Daze about their works. Secondly, the texts that I use are often thought of as indisputable and immutable truths, e.g. religious scriptures, political statements, number systems, etc., so that to transcribe them onto ephemeral objects involves a juxtaposition of the texts, which is different from writing about my own work.5
Now as my work has evolved, I think the publication has as well. Instead of attempting to make any strong statements, I see it more as a journal sharing works by friends who I admire and am influenced by, and encouraging discussions on various topics of interest around the time of publishing. Lovely Daze will not always feature only works by young artists’ works. Instead, it will continue to evolve and transform at different stages of my life.5
What are you working on currently?
I have been living a nomadic life and traveling from one place to another in the past 8 years since I started exhibiting. Now I am approaching mid 30s, I would like to be more settled mentally and physically. Therefore, I have been setting up a studio in Taipei where I can keep all my books and archives and have a project manager to manage it. I am almost finished with that and now looking for a place for a hermitage of sorts where I can live in relative solitude in a beautiful environment close to nature with minimal belongings for awhile to prepare for my next project.
1 Excerpt from Interview with Business Times, Singapore, November 23, 2012 (Interview was used for the content of an article and not published directly)
2 Excerpts from Interview with Surface Asia
3 Excerpt from Interview with Leanne Sacramone published in the artist’s book: A Pilgrimage through Light & Spells, 2012 by Idem, Paris
4 Excerpt from Interview with Tina Lai
5 Excerpt from Interview with Lesley Ma
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