Heman Chong / Charwei Tsai

Singapore / Saigon
17 July 2014
Published in We Came Whirling Out of Nothingness by TKG+, Taipei, Taiwan

Heman Chong (HC): Writing plays an integral part in many of your works. It is interesting to me that a bulk of the writing performed on different objects is in fact, a form of information that one conveys; personal identification numbers, religious scriptures, autobiographical notes. I am curious to hear about how you view this kind of writing. Shall we start by talking about how you engage with what you choose to write, and the surfaces on which you do so?

Charwei Tsai (CT): Since I was young, I have always had a strong affinity for the written text. The types of texts that have attracted me have been mainly Buddhist scriptures that I learned while growing up, and later from books and music that I came across while studying in the U.S. As I began making artworks at school, I often would take quotes from these texts and write them over drawings in my sketchbooks. For my first exhibition, I wrote the Heart Sutra on ephemeral materials to reflect on the Buddhist concept of impermanence. The act of writing became not merely an intellectual exercise, but also a visual tool to examine these writings further.

As for other texts that I wrote on different surfaces, they are mostly ones that concerned me at the moment when I was creating the work, ranging from lyrics of popular songs to political commentaries, to notes from my journals. I often have a strong emotional attachment to these texts and feel overwhelmed after writing them repeatedly. I therefore do keep returning to the Heart Sutra, as there is no ego involved in the text, it is written with the pure intention to benefit the reader. It is a peaceful process to use the act of writing the text as a way to learn about the Buddhist theory of emptiness and how the self does not exist as a permanent and independent entity as we often think of it. Our entire existence, from a single atom to our relationship with the universe, is interdependent and is in constant flux.

HC: Religious motifs in contemporary art, more often than not, take on a satirical and skeptical view of belief and spirituality. You mentioned that you learned Buddhist scriptures as a child, and I am wondering about your current connection with Buddhism. Is it an active part of your life? When you are engaged in writing the Heart Sutra on a particular surface, is it a form of meditation, or do you separate yourself from the text in such a way that it is just labor? I’m not an expert on how religions work; I have very little faith in them.

CT: My interest in religion and spiritual practice has never been based on doctrines. It has always stemmed from encounters with the subject through art, music, poetry, films of various traditions. Even the Heart Sutra that I repeatedly write on ephemeral materials is more a guidance intended to cultivate greater awareness of the mind, rather than a set of moralistic rules judging what is right or wrong. Most of the spiritual teachers who I come across encourage students to examine every word they hear and read, rather than learning anything blindly. When followed blindly, even the most well-intended teachings may turn into the worst excuses for violence and destruction.

My relationship with Buddhism started when I was a child growing in Taiwan. Then in college, I was deeply moved by the experience of meeting a Tibetan friend who was so cheerful and at ease with himself. We did not have particularly profound conversations, but I was just so inspired by the lightness of his presence. After college, when I moved to New York, I began volunteering at Tibet House, which is an organization dedicated to the preservation of Tibetan culture. There, I started to learn about Tibetan Buddhism mainly through the religious thangka paintings, sand mandalas, books, and teachings by some learned teachers, including the Dalai Lama. Being in the presence of this precious tradition that revolves entirely around cultivating genuine love and compassion for all sentient beings, empowered me to form my own spiritual practice.

The connecting point with most spiritual practices has something to do with experiencing a force bigger than our egos, the force does not have to be divine or mystic. For example, it could lead to a profound understanding of the interconnectedness of all sentient beings, which generate infinite compassion for those around us. I have always found that it is more inspirational to experience genuine love and compassion from someone, rather than listening to a highly critical social or political commentary.

When I am writing texts on my works, I do try to focus on their implications as much as I could, even when surrounded by a crowd. Of course there are also times when I am completely distracted and fail to focus.

HC: The objects that you have chosen to write on are mostly organic materials — leaves, mushrooms, seashells, octopuses, tofu, and driftwood, among others. Things that refer to a certain temporality, as opposed to materials that an artist might choose to inscribe on, which are often chosen because of their longevity and resistance to destruction. You employ photography to document these objects, and in a way, photography has allowed those texts to return to a surface — a flatness — that you first encountered them on. What brought you to this decision to photograph your inscriptions, as opposed to having a completely ephemeral practice where your objects would literally disappear?

CT: What I find interesting in working with ephemeral materials is the process of change, the way the text changes with the texture of the material. I do not fixate on one medium to capture this process. For example, I first conceived of Tofu Mantra (2005) as a performance with the act of writing on the tofu from memory, then as an installation where I left the scripted tofu to decay on site, and finally as a video and photographs. I see the various media both as works that stand on their own, and as works that are part of one central concept. It is like the body, speech, and mind of a person; each stands on its own, and yet they originate from the same consciousness.

HC: There appears to be many things involved in your art practice, the core of which stands upon sets of rituals that occur as cycles. Another kind of cycle that you involve yourself in is the cycle of compiling works from other artists into a magazine. On your website, I find it interesting that you have decided to place Lovely Daze, which you have edited since 2005, as a stand-alone entity and not under the header “Projects.” I was just wondering, judging from what you have just mentioned about how many different things can come from one single person, if you can talk a bit about the process that goes on inside you when you edit Lovely Daze.

CT: Lovely Daze is a contemporary art journal that I started publishing after participating in my first exhibition in 2005. It was an exhibition with around 60 young artists who had never exhibited previously. The experience of an artists’ community moved me deeply. Each one of us came from a completely different cultural background, and many of us did not speak the same language. Yet we were able to exchange and appreciate each other through our works. I therefore wanted to start a publication that presents works by artists who I have encountered or felt inspired by, through a first-person experience. It is a journal that started from genuine friendship without any academic or intellectual motivations. Even now, almost a decade later since the first issue was launched, all my editors are still the same friends who believe in this project, and who for all these years have been helping me on a voluntary basis. I see the publication as a way of engaging others and expanding the role of the self. Lovely Daze is both a part of my practice, and at the same time, stands on its own.