Interview with Charwei Tsai on the Nomad Store, London with Isis Gallery and Triple Major


This is the third in a series of interviews with the participants of Nomad Store.  In this interview Chantelle Purcell talks to Taiwanese artist Charwei Tsai, to find out more about the work she has presented at the “Nomad Store” which is an exciting collaboration between Triple-Major, Beijing and Isis Gallery, London, which takes place during London Fashion Week.  (16th-23rd February 2012). Today is the last day to catch the exhibition, but the series of interviews will extend beyond the gallery walls with three more to come, moving across various disciplines, visual arts, fashion and ending succinctly with a book publishers ‘Bananafish books’.

CP: What is your background as an artist?

CT: I am a Taiwanese artist working and living between Taipei, Paris and sometimes New York.  I often work with ephemeral materials such as water, ice, trees, flowers, mushrooms…etc, and capture the various process of change that these materials undergo through videos, photographs, and installations.  In addition to my art practice, I also publish a curatorial journal entitled Lovely Daze.

CP: Can you briefly describe the works that you have presented at the “Nomad Store, London?”

CT: I showed 3 works for this exhibition: First, a large video projection where I wrote the characters “Ah”, which is considered as the primordial sound in many religions and let the characters dissolve with the vibration of sound and water. Second, a smaller video projection where I drew a circle with black ink onto ice then let it melt away. Third, 8 issues of Lovely Daze (5 regular issues and 3 special editions were presented). Lovely Daze is a contemporary art journal that I publish twice a year since 2005.

CP: How do you start the process of making work?

CT: It all started as an accident where I was at my kitchen table and playing around with some flowers and wrote a Buddhist scripture (Heart Sutra) that I have memorized since growing up in Taiwan onto the petals.  The characters, which speak of “impermanence”, then decay with the petals.  I was working for an artist Cai Guo-Qiang at the time and told him about the idea.  He then recommended me to a young artist’s exhibition at Fondation Cartier in Paris in 2005 and I started making artworks and exhibiting them since.

CP: You often use unconventional materials such as (ice, tofu, octopuses, mushrooms etc), to display temporal writings and mantras. How do these transient materials question the impermanence of an artwork and life itself?

CT: I love capturing how the characters written with black ink would transform with the temporality of the materials.  For example, to me, the texture of tofu is smooth like the skin and the characters changing on them appears as if our skin is decaying.  This is like a reminder of the impermanence of life as described in many Buddhist texts.

CP: What are the challenges of using impermanent materials? And has documentation of the process and evolution of the artwork become a greater consideration?

CT: The first time I attempted to capture ephemeral materials was through the video that I made with tofu.  I left the video running for 10 days recording on its own with the time lapse function then took off a work trip abroad.  The video was as it is when I returned from the trip with unexpected flies and mosquitoes nibbling on the scripted tofu and making noise, all of which had became part of the work.  I enjoy the unpredictability of the materials that I work with.  Sometimes if certain experiment fails, then I just have to wait a few days and reorganize the material to shoot again. I  enjoy working with the beauty that is created from these accidents.

CP: You employ many mediums within your work, but if you could sum up your overall practice in one sentence what would this be?

CT: For me, art is a practice that enables me to reach moments where I am unattached to what our perception of the Self is.  This path enables a better understanding of the Buddhist concept of ‘emptiness’ and the Western concept of ‘God’, in terms of a greater force beyond our limited perception of Self.

CP: Within the work “Ah” we can hear Singaporeans singing the word “AH” this repeated chorus induces a cathartic effect, almost a sense of escapism and relief on the viewer.  What this your intention? And how does this work have spiritual associations?

CT: This project was made originally for a sacred music festival in Singapore.  I find it interesting that Singaporeans are from such mixed origins and religions.  So I worked with a sound artist Zai Tang and asked him to record various people from Singapore singing “Ah”.  I chose the sound “Ah” because in many religions it is a primordial sound, for example, ‘A-mitabh’ in Buddhism, ‘A-llah’ in Islam, “A-O-M” in Hinduism…etc.  The sound work becomes a very meditative piece working with the vibration of water in the video, which then dissolves the physical form of “Ah”.

CP: Your work is quite delicate and intricate, would you consider this to be a feminine approach, to working?

CT: Yes, perhaps feminine in the way that in my practice, I am not working linearly to build some sort of thesis.  It’s much more intuitive, spontaneous, and within a more human-scale in contrast to many male artists who often build monumental works with impressive breakthroughs whether in concept or technique.  My work is less ambitious and less expected.  Of course this could be an over-generalization, but it’s how I see it.

CP. What artists have inspired your practice?

CT: My work is mostly inspired by Buddhist concepts and religious ceremonies, music, poetry, arts, and architecture and life in general.  I am less inspired by modern and contemporary art.  However, some of the artists who I like a lot are The Fluxus, Robert Smithson, Roni Horn, AA Bronson, N.S. Harsha, and Federico Herrero.

CP: Within the show you present all seven issues of the curatorial journal “Lovely Daze”.  Can you tell us more about this and how you set it up?  What have you discovered through this collaborative process? And what have you learnt about art through other artists practices?

CT: Making a magazine like Lovely Daze is very different from my own artwork in the way that it is a collaborative approach and my personal work is more introspective.  Lovely Daze is like a journal where I invite artists who I meet mostly during the 6-month period of making the magazine, and who I find inspiring to contribute their works on a certain topic that I have been thinking about at that time.  For example, some of the themes include solitude, travels, pilgrimage, and some more social politically oriented subjects.  I don’t review anyone’s work, I simply present it with their own writings.  I don’t know what I have learned artistically from making it, it’s more like a visual record of my thoughts and people who I have met.

CP: Would you say that this journal is reflective of the changing working models of artists?

CT: In terms of changing work models, one thing that is very apparent is that the artists who I invite are often from all over the world.  This is because of how much travels artists make these days and how they become more accessible internationally this way.  This marks a contrast with the previous artist’s periodicals where they had tighter circles based on geography.  On one hand, it’s beautiful to think of how close artists communities used to be, for example in Paris in the beginning of last century and more recently in New York and all the gatherings that took place, which we don’t have as much in our generation.  On the other hand, it’s also wonderful to meet other artists from different parts of the world whose inspirations and topics are completely different from our own and the information is being exchanged in a virtual space within minutes as we are doing right now.

CP: What defines something as a work of art?

CT: Anything goes these days.

CP: In a previous interview with Tony Brown you stated “I think I am part of the generation of globalisation’. How has working between Paris Taiwan and New York changed the way in which you work? And what have you been influenced by culturally?

CT: I often work site specifically and try to engage some sort of local context in places that inspire me.  Other times I bring in something completely from my own culture and apply it into a very different context and some sort of magic happens this way as well.  It really depends on the work relationship I have with the place, the people, and the time that I am given to familiarize myself.  I think geographic placements do have an impact on the way I work.  For example, in New York where the city is so central and so busy, I work more collaboratively and spend more time on Lovely Daze.  It’s mostly in New York where I gather people and organize events for book launches…etc.  Whereas in Paris, I have always felt like a complete outsider, so I feel more mental space to think on my own and work at my own rhythm.  Taipei is where my family is and where I am from, so I can stay there without being in touch with contemporary art at all and just spend time with family and having non-art related conversations.  It is only recently that I became more involved in the local Taiwanese art scene.

In terms of cultural influence, it comes from everywhere these days… However, what I do find interesting is that because I have lived in the West since I was a teenager, I appreciate the Eastern philosophies and ways of living much more than for example the younger Taiwanese artists who are looking up to the West.  It’s always the opposite that attracts I suppose.

CP: Have you got any forthcoming news to divulge?

CT: One very exciting new project that I am working on is an artist’s book made with a historical printmaking shop in Montparnesse in Paris called Atelier Idem. They have been there since centuries where Matisse and Picasso and more recently David Lynch, Raymond Pettibone have worked.  It’s a magical space with wonderful people and I am currently working on a folding book and will be experimenting with lithographs there.  It’s a dream come true for me to be combining my art practice with my love for books.  The book will be presented at my first solo exhibition at a Galerie Mor Charpentier in Marais in Paris opening on April 26.

CP: I am asking each interviewee to ask a question to the next interviewee. Ritchie Chan asked you:

RC: Where do you get the inspirations for your work?

CT: Life.

CP: And lastly, what question would you like to present to Yida He?

CT: Where are you right now? How are you doing?

Thank you Charwei