texts > interviews > Lesley Ma / Charwei Tsai

New York / Paris
Lesley Ma / Charwei Tsai
LM: How did you come to use the Heart Sutra in your work in 2005, to transcribe it onto ephemeral objects, first an iris, then a block of tofu? What were some of the reasons and factors that led to this work?
CT: I developed my interest in Buddhism through a Tibetan friend who I met in college. We never spoke much about religion or politics, I was just really moved by the serenity of his presence. This may seem like a simplistic trait, but I have never met someone who is so at peace with himself. Then I moved to New York after college in 2002, and came across an opportunity to volunteer for Tibet House and worked on archiving their repatriation collection. It was then that I began to learn more about the religion and its intricate system of art and symbolism. My interest in Buddhism is intertwined with my practice in art. For me, art and spirituality are inseparable. Through art, I am able to reach a purer state of consciousness that I cannot do through the chaos of daily life. However, I do not consider myself religious as my appreciation of the religion is merely based on a philosophical approach. Thinking back, it is odd that I wanted to be initiated as a Buddhist since I was a teenager, as now, the more I learn about the religion, the more I feel that it does not make sense to attach oneself to an identity or a system of thought. In any case, my exposure to Buddhism and to contemporary art in New York around that time led me to start the Heart Sutra series. Also, during this time, the opportunity to exhibit at Foundation Cartier arose while I was working for artist Cai Guo-Qiang. This was my first time exhibiting and subsequently became the platform for Flower Mantra (2005), as well as for creating new works including Tofu Mantra (2005) and the Mushroom Mantra (2005).
LM: Apart from the Heart Sutra, you have also used other texts, such as the numbers and the “One China Policy”. These texts are quite diverse. How do you see the relationship between these texts and your work?
CT: The Heart Sutra is something that I have learnt to memorize by heart as a child in Taiwan. My family is not particularly religious, so it is curious, even to me, how I became attracted to the scripture at a young age. I used to recite it when I was scared, or simply to calm the mind. The appreciation of the text evolves through different stages of my life and I am still examining it. The scripture describes the Buddhist concept of emptiness and a meditative state in which all phenomena are non-dual. All forms, feelings, perceptions, impulses, and consciousness, the ways by which we relate to the world, are interdependent and each cannot exist on its own. Therefore, the state of emptiness is an understanding of the interdependence between oneself and the universe, and the transient nature of this relationship. This is not a mystical concept and is in fact very logical. For example, to be attached to the beauty of a blossoming flower may cause suffering if one is not aware that the physical form of the flower is constantly changing and that the flower will eventually wither and die. On the other hand, if one understands the ephemeral as a necessary condition of the flower’s being then as one observes the same phenomenon of a flower withering, one is relieved from the unnecessary suffering that arises from an attachment to its temporal state of beauty. This is the basic concept behind the series of works where I write the Heart Sutra onto ephemeral objects such as flowers, mushrooms, and tofu, and which epitomises the materialisation of spiritual truth through the decay and deterioration of the objects.
As for numbers, I am interested to explore how our understanding of the world is dominated by it: time, distance, temperature, size, money, population, religion, etc. For example, for the work Étrangère (which means stranger, foreigner, or outsider in French), I wrote my passport numbers onto alien-like raw baby octopus to express the alienation that I felt when I first moved to France. I was constantly identified through my passport numbers, the district number that I live in, the amount of money I have on me, which are all so impersonal, yet they somehow represent me. Around this time, I published an issue of Lovely Daze entitled Numbers, in discussion of other artists’ engagement with this subject, such as Cory Arcangel who composed a page of numbers to program two pixels on the opposite page, and Jennifer Wen Ma who examined the relationships between monotheistic religions.
While the use of text from Heart Sutra and numbers in my works can be seen as a reflection of my spiritual development and personal curiosities, the use of text from the “One China” Policy takes on a more critical note. “One China” Policy is the expression of the country’s ideology for uniting their people under one nation. For Fish Project, I wrote the text onto a live fish while it struggled to survive out of water. For another project, I made the official map of China out of sliced meat and wrote the text onto the map, more recently, with pig’s blood. By using text from the “One China” Policy, it is not to single out China in my critique of blind ideology, but to use it as an example to illustrate the unnecessary sufferings and deaths caused by the pursuit of nationalism. Also, as China established itself as one of the most important powers in the world, their influence on these issues will inevitably increase.
LM: What about the materials that you use? You have used flowers, tofu, mushrooms, lotus leaves, olive tree, to animals such as octopus, fish, meat, and even pig’s blood. What are some of the factors that determine the materials you choose to use in your work? And how do you view the transformation of materiality in your work?
CT: I tend to work with materials that are abundant in the location where the work is being presented. This is a way for my viewers to relate to the work and their physical environment. I am not interested in fabricating monumental installations. I prefer to create works on a more intimate scale and stimulate moments of contemplation on the ephemeral qualities of our environment and history. For example, when I made Lotus Mantra for the Singapore Biennale in 2006, where I wrote on the lotus plant at a popular Buddhist temple, I found that temple visitors who were not familiar with contemporary art related to the work even more than the biennale visitors. They would take time to examine the scripture written on the plant and the relationship between the text and the impermanence of the plant. A lady who worked in the temple even brought little fish from her house to feed from the water in the lotus plant while some others bought flowers to worship. I was very moved by the reaction of the people, and in particular, how the work became integrated into their daily lives.
On the rare occasion that I did not use locally found materials, such as when I showed Tofu Mantra (2005) in Paris (the tofu was purchased from Chinatown there), it was because the idea was preconceived in New York. But in this situation, I was also interested in how the use of an unfamiliar material would be received. And there were certainly some interesting reactions. Some Parisian visitors thought it was a block of cheese, and some even thought it was a slab of marble because of its shiny and smooth texture. However, even without familiarity and understanding of the text, the initial and intuitive response to seeing an inscribed text was so strong that viewers found their own way to relate to the work.
Perhaps it is because I did not come from a traditional fine arts background that I explored more spontaneously with atypical art materials, which were part of my daily life. I never thought about how to maintain the works that I make as objects and to preserve them. Instead, I am more fascinated by observing the unexpected changes that these works undergo. For example, the first time after I wrote on a piece of tofu, I wanted to keep watching how the text mutates with the rotting tofu. This was based on the idea of contradiction between a spiritual truth and the actual practice. To prolong the process, I kept the tofu in my freezer. In fact, it is still there today. Freezing the tofu was less about preservation, but more about seeing another stage of the material when its condition changes. Another example is the Love Until I Rot (2007) project where I was approached with the curatorial question: “How far would you go for love?” I responded by making a foot out of cheese, using a mould of my own foot, then tattooed on the ankle the text, “Love until I rot”. The work was to question the concept of everlasting love. In this work, I captured the transformation of the material by filming the cheese foot rotting from heat, as well as the changes to the text. Apart from what was filmed, I would also like to emphasise on the non-material changes, where the reception of the work is less about possessing a visual form, but rather through accepting the changes of these forms.
LM: What do you usually think about when you write these texts? Are you meditating, focusing on your brushwork, or paying attention to the passers-by? Do you feel alienation or anxiety when you are working in an unfamiliar environment? Do people interrupt and question you about the text?
CT: I always try to concentrate on the meaning of the text and the relationship to the materials when I make the works. Most of the materials I write on have its own natural textures, so I try to follow the texture with my brushstroke. This is one of the reasons why I choose to write mostly in Chinese, because the characters are legible from left to right, right to left, up to down and works well with organic surfaces. I remember one time when I stayed up all night trying to finish the Mushroom Mantra for the “J’en Rêve” exhibition at Cartier Foundation, because there were not many people left at the museum space that night and I was able to concentrate really well. The following day, even after almost no sleep the previous night, I did not feel tired and felt really clear minded. When I am making the work in front of an audience, I still try to concentrate, but am also be open to people asking me questions. Most of the time, I do enjoy having discussions with people about the work while making it. I am always intrigued by the varied perceptions of my work by visitors. I don’t mind working at unfamiliar environments at all, because when I don’t know anyone, I let my guard down and I can be more open. Anyway, I always tend to be trapped in my own thoughts, so once I actually enter a work mode, I can adapt to anywhere.
LM: I want to talk about your collaboration with Deyrolle, the historical taxidermy store and the Museum of Hunting and Nature, both in Paris. The store, a natural history emporium, can be interpreted as a record of bourgeois endeavor — it is located on Rue du Bac, one of the most upscale streets in St. Germain — as hunting was originally a primitive human need but later became an upper-class pastime. The idea of preserving and commemorating the “conquests” that gave rise to the practice of taxidermy can be seen as opposing the ephemeral qualities of your work. How do you view this?
CT: This is an interesting question. I have never seen the collaboration with these two institutions in this way, but now that you have pointed it out, I can understand why people would perceive it this way. The exhibition that you are referring to took place at the Museum of Hunting and Nature, and was for a benefit auction to help restore Deyrolle from a tragic fire. I still remember walking into the burnt rooms and seeing the haunting expressions of the animals half in ashes and half ‘alive’. Being offered to resurrect them as part of an artwork is an opportunity I don’t think many artists would have turned down. I ended up choosing a burnt shell and a deer skull and wrote the sutra on them as my interpretation of life and rebirth.
Since I do not come from a background where hunting is part of the culture, I approached the subject with some distance. I visited the museum when I first moved to Paris and was so blown away by the level of sophistication not only on an aesthetic level, but also with the breadth in which the curator dealt with the history of the relationship between human and animals in European traditions. Throughout the exhibition, the curator addresses the sensitive issues regarding the ethics of hunting and keeps them open for speculation. Hunting is one of the French traditions that are becoming less common and I believe that the museum, aware of this, extended the subject to include more contemporary discussions about ecology and nature. Therefore, it offers more dimensions than a typically static natural history museum.
I would like to add that the question indirectly leads to the issue of art and ethics, which I have been thinking a lot about. In particular, I have been thinking as to whether art should attempt to influence moral conduct, or if its significance in society lies in its independence from preconditioned moral judgments? Of course, I lean towards the former, but intellectually I am intrigued by the latter.
Since the exhibition, I have continued to work with the owner of Deyrolle and am inspired by the scope of work that he does, from cultivating over 650 varieties of tomatoes, to working with the government on ecological planning. For our next project, we will be incorporating his knowledge of grafting into my work. I think that, in the near future, my practice will develop not just through my own ideas, but also through learning from and working with people outside of my field. Every institution or establishment has its strengths and baggage, and from experience, it is always more constructive to cultivate the former and just be conscious of the latter. In France, people tend to dismiss things for being bourgeois or institutional, but I think it is more productive for artists to keep an open mind.
LM: Many of your work decomposes over a short period of time, but not the skull, which will only decay after a long time. The process of decay seems important to you, but how do see the objects that have decayed? Can you discuss why you selected these skulls and the role they play in your work?
CT: A skull, to me, is no different from a flower or a mushroom, like any objects found in nature, it is destined to decay. Even when the process is not visible to the eye, it cannot escape from the natural process of life and death. I think the relationship between the ephemeral and death is very apparent. I will not go into how different skulls could mean different things, because sometimes the choice of material that I work with is simply spontaneous and the meaning only emerges after the work is completed. At other times, I have an idea of how I see meaning being created by a work, but even this meaning changes with time.
LM: Your show at Osage gallery largely features documentation. As your work is often performative, how do you see the relationship between your performances and their documentation?
CT: Most of the works for the exhibition reflect on the transient nature of our state of being, so the process of the objects mutating and transforming is an essential component. I try to capture this process with the same artistic approach and do not think of the results as merely documentations. I see them as extensions of a project. For example, the performative aspect of writing on a tofu in front of an audience is very different from capturing the decay of the text through a time-lapse video. A viewer seeing the two different forms of this work would derive very different experiences from each, both of which I find equally important. I see them as separate entities, which can stand on their own. Obviously, there are often practical constraints and considerations, and there are times when I have had to make compromises such as choosing not to leave pig’s blood on display at a museum for three months.
LM: I want to next discuss another aspect of your work, Lovely Daze. This is an independent publication that you publish twice a year, which comprises collections of artist writings accompanied by the images of their work. But the interesting thing about Lovely Daze is that the texts are the primary focus, as you state in the introduction. The texts are there to give artists a voice. As with your installations, which examine the relationship between text and image, Lovely Daze seems to function in the same way, where the texts, in a sense, ride on the visual images. And by asking your viewers to view these texts as inseparable from the images, you are also invoking an interpretation of the texts through the process of inscription. Do these images, in a way, help you see the deeper meanings of the text, or do you see the association being much more ambiguous?
CT: The idea for Lovely Daze initially began when a close friend Kelly Carmena, when 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.
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.
Lesley Ma is Ph. D. student in Art History, Theory, and Criticism at the University of California, San Diego. She was a Project Director at Cai Guo-Qiang Studio in New York for four years, and is the founder of Tasting Salon and a co-editor of Charwei Tsai’s Lovely Daze. She has a M.A. in Museum Studies from New York University and a B.A. in History and Science from Harvard University.