Leanne Sacramone / Charwei Tsai

Paris / Taipei
27 April 2012

Leanne Sacramone (LS): Although you are originally from Taiwan and have lived many years in the United States, your very first exhibition as an artist was in Paris at the exhibition J’en rêve at the Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain (2005). The idea of this show was to present a group of very young and promising artists who had been recommended to us by their older and more established counterparts. Could you please tell us the significance of this experience for you as an artist and its impact on your life?

Charwei Tsai (CT): I had just graduated from college during this time and had been working for various art related jobs in New York. The exhibition was the first time I was encouraged to uncover my own way of thinking and I remember feeling a tremendous sense of joy and relief. Within a year, I was invited to participate in a few exhibitions including the 1st Singapore Biennale (2006) and “Traces du Sacre” (2008) at Centre Pompidou and started working professionally as an artist. Another important part of this experience was that there were about sixty of us in the show mostly in our twenties from all over the world. We were in a beautiful setting in the summer in Paris where picnics were prepared for us in the garden of the Foundation every afternoon. Whenever we had spare time, we would sit around the garden and chatted away. This sense of a young artist’s community stayed with me and later inspired me to start Lovely Daze, a curatorial journal of artists’ writings and artworks that I publish twice a year.

LS: You originally studied Industrial Design as well as the History of Art and Architecture. At what point in your life did you make the transition to become a professional artist?

CT: I have always been drawn to the arts since a young age, but have never thought of developing it into a profession. At the time of choosing a major, I had just finished high school and did not have much life experience. Since I was quite superstitious, it was mainly due to a fortune teller in Taiwan who had told me that I should pursue something that uses a ruler that I chose to major in industrial design. However, the whole process of making objects by using heavy machinery felt counter-intuitive. It was later by chance that the participation in the J’en rêve exhibition led me to working as a professional artist. The more spontaneous and unregulated ways of working as an artist suit me much better and I have felt at ease with it since.

LS: At the time of the exhibition J’en rêve, you were working for the important Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang who recommended you to us for the show. Could you tell me how you began working with him and if he influenced your work in any way?

CT: I was introduced to Cai Guo-Qiang by Yulin Lee, a former curator at Taipei Fine Arts Museum. I had interned for Yulin at the museum in the summer of 1999, a year after entering college. I remember the first Taipei Biennale curated by Fumio Nanjo had just taken place and it was the first time that I came across contemporary art. A couple of years after I moved to New York in 2004, Yulin and a friend Ken Yeh from Christie’s mentioned that Cai was looking for a studio assistant, so I went in for an interview and was hired. At the time, there were only 3 or 4 full-time on the staff at the studio, so I worked very closely and traveled with him for many exhibitions. The strength, confidence and positivity in him have always inspired me. Even now when I face difficult situations at work, I always think about what he would do to overcome them. Artistically, I am fascinated by Cai’s explosion work and some of the early installations especially from the period when he was living in Japan.

LS: Could you please tell me about the piece you presented in this first show? Was this the first time you began writing the mantras of the Heart Sutra on organic matter or was this an idea you had been working on for a while?

CT: I had the idea of writing the Heart Sutra, a religious text on the Buddhist concept of impermanence onto ephemeral objects then let it change with the physical decay of the objects while I was working for Cai. For the exhibition, the idea evolved into a series of three works where I wrote the text onto flower, tofu, and mushrooms. Each scripted material revealed, through its specific structure, the various stages of growth and decay. The idea is to explore how spiritual belief transforms as it becomes materialized.

LS: For your current exhibition, you have created a series of photographs as well as a video piece. How did you move from working with organic materials to photography and video?

CT: My practice revolves around the central concept of understanding the ephemeral or in Buddhist terms, ‘emptiness’. It is founded upon the idea that the perceptions of ourselves (ego) and our world are based on sensations, which are in constant flux. Therefore, attachment to such an impermanent state of things causes unnecessary longing and suffering. In order to be relieved from attachment, one must understand empirically the core concept of impermanence. A deep appreciation of this idea can be cultivated in many ways, including meditation, study of religious text, prayers, ceremonies, pilgrimage, charity, …etc. In other religions, I believe that people are trying to achieve a similar understanding, but they define it as a way of being closer to God, or a greater force that is beyond our limited perception of the self. I explore these ideas partly through meditation and partly through my art practice. Therefore, the media that I use are just tools to explore this concept. While I do have a certain sensibility when working with various media, technically, I am not a master in them. This gives me a certain freedom in the way that I explore them.

The first time that I worked with video was to capture the change in the texture of a piece of tofu on which I had written calligraphy. The video shows how the text transforms with the rotting tofu. I had a student set up the camera in time-lapse function then I left the video shooting for ten days while I was away with Cai for work in Venice. The video was pretty much as it is after I came back. I find the use of video as a way of expressing the same concept in different visual forms, which vary from the performative act of writing on the tofu or exhibiting the actual tofu. In this case, the video was not merely a document but stands on its own as a work of art. Photography captures the same concept yet again in another form.

LS: To realize these photographs, you have used a broken lens? Could you tell us more about this technique and why you chose to use it?

CT: This series started as an accident when I was traveling in Australia. I discovered that the lens of my camera was broken, and it unexpectedly captured beautiful light diffusions. While photography is often about control and manipulation of light, this method of working with a broken camera is completely the opposite. The breakdown of this machine has revealed to me a whole new way of viewing nature and our surrounding environment.

LS: I understand that you took these photographs in a natural environment in Australia as well as in the gardens of Monet in Giverny. Could you tell us why you chose a natural environment to take these pictures? Indeed nature plays an extremely important role in your work and is intimately linked to spirituality. How would you describe your relationship to nature and its presence in your work?

CT: My generation was the first one to become so removed from nature. As I am older, I realize more and more the importance of reconnecting with nature and this element is reflected in my work. The idea to continue this series in Giverny was inspired by the fact that Monet was able to create the beauty in his garden partially due to his impaired vision, which occurred later in his life. I thought it would be interesting to capture the garden in yet another unprecedented way through a broken camera lens.

Nature has always played an important role in my work. In fact, I only realized when responding to your question that in most of my works, I do not show any manmade objects, except for a simple brush or a mirror or something very basic. Even the lighting in my photographs and videos are almost always natural light. I can relate to the 18th century Romantic vision that what is ‘true’, ‘good’, and ‘beautiful’ is essentially found in nature and the sublime.

LS: Your work is extremely delicate and meticulous, yet at the same time allows for an element of chaos. In these works, as well as in your previous ones, you seem to welcome the accidental nature of the art process. Could you tell me if “accidents” play an important role in your work and how they relate to its spiritual content?

CT: I do not see my work as something permanent, I see it more as a tool to inspire certain moments and experiences. In this light, my works can be compared to religious paintings or ceremonies where objects are created for the greater purpose of being closer to God, or in my case, to be closer to a greater force beyond our limited perception of the “self”. The accidental element in my work serves the same purpose; to challenge how we define our world. Once we realize that all of our perceptions and sensations are in a constant state of flux, we will make room for greater things to come.

LS: Please tell me more about the video work you will be making in Vietnam. You mentioned that the subject of this video will be pilgrimage. How did you begin working on the idea of pilgrimage and why Vietnam as a setting for the video?

CT: I am intrigued by the idea of a pilgrimage, of making a journey for introspection. For me, it can be considered as a sort of psychological journey such as the practice of meditation. Sometimes I see the process of making art as a form of pilgrimage. However, my close friend Alba has recently went on a pilgrimage in Spain, where she is from, in order to exhaust herself physically and to find time and space to think over some life issues. I find it a very interesting subject and want to capture it somehow. I am thinking of developing this idea by filming a series of modern women who have taken pilgrimages for various reasons. Though Vietnam has nothing to do with this pilgrimage, it is where another close friend Tsering (who is originally from Tibet) lives and I would like him to direct the film. He is someone who has also had a strong spiritual impact on me, and the reason why I became interested in Buddhism, so I felt that it’s important to work on this video with him.

LS: In 2008, you were included in Jean de Loisy’s exhibition Traces du Sacré at the Centre Pompidou. In the catalogue introduction he mentions that the history of 20th century art was often looked at from a formalist point of view and its relation to spirituality was rarely an object of study. You once said that art and spirituality were inseparable. Could you tell us why you feel the two are so intimately linked?

CT: The way I look at art is quite traditional in the sense that I feel like its significance is based on how it brings to light a different way of looking at things – one that the intellectual world cannot offer. It is like a paradox by which a material is created to inspire non-materiality. The relationship between art and spirituality is not an easy one to study, because much of the art that is linked to spirituality involves a ceremonial act that the reader has to experience physically more than intellectually. The 20th century was a turning point in Europe and in America in the sense that religion no longer plays the dominant role in people’s daily lives that it used to. Therefore, artists from this period started to reject symbolism and narrative and all the traits that are typically linked with it. This is perhaps why the emphasis of study became more focused on a formalist point of view.

LS: What do you feel is your relationship to the other 20th century artists presented in this exhibition? How do you fit into this “spiritual” history of art? Were there any predecessors presented in this exhibition that particularly inspired the approach you have to your work?

CT: At first glance, most of the artists were from the 20th century Europe with a Catholic background and my work does not follow the same cultural lineage, though the theme of the “sacred” has tied us together. However, towards the end of the exhibition, there was a section dedicated to Oriental art where the works of John Cage, On Kawara, and Nam Jun Paik were shown. I can relate to these artists and their way of looking at art from a Zen Buddhist way of focusing on the moment and the process of art-making rather than the final product.

LS: For this exhibition, you have created an artist’s book with Patrice Forest’s Atelier Idem. Could you talk about how you began working with Idem? Do you have any ideas for future projects with them?

CT: I was introduced to Idem by a curator David Rosenberg who is based in Paris. David has known me 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.

LS: Since J’en rêve, you have had many opportunities to exhibit your work in France as well as abroad. However, I sense a specific interest for your work here in France. And quite significantly you have decided to reside here for part of the year? Would you have any ideas as to why the French art world has taken such an interest in your work and why you have taken such an interest in Paris?

CT: I have been quite lucky with the people and places that I have encountered since living part-time in Paris in the beginning of 2007. I have developed incredible friendships working with some art institutions as well as less conventional spaces such as the Church of Saint Séverin, a medieval Catholic Church, near St. Michel which has a project space for contemporary art, and the Museum of Hunting and Nature, which is one of the most exquisite museums that I have come across. This led me to work with Deyrolle, a historical taxidermy store on Rue du Bac. These unusual experiences of working outside of a typical contemporary art setting have offered me an insightful way of entering the various aspects of life in Paris.
I enjoy the French relationship with art which is more like a part of life than a commodity. They still have a more romantic vision of an artist. I also like how the French art world allows me not to give into trends or the hype that dominate the international art scene. Sometimes I feel like the art world is becoming overly professional and self-referential with too much emphasis on mundane notions of success. This is a big shame because it loses a lot of flexibility and spontaneity, which are part of what makes art so precious. Another reason why I like living in Paris is that my French is still very rusty, and this allows me shut off when I want to and maintain my own rhythm of working and thinking.

Born in Salem, Massachusetts, Leanne Sacramone has been a Curator at the Fondation Cartier in Paris since 2001 where she has organized numerous exhibitions, including “J’en rêve” ( June 24 – October 30, 2005), “César” ( July 8 – October 26, 2008), “Beatriz Milhazes” (April 4 – June 21, 2009), “Born in the Streets – Graffiti” ( July 7, 2009 – January 10, 2010), and more recently “Moebius Transe-forme” (October 12, 2010 – March 13, 2011). She received her Bachelor’s degree in French language and literature from Smith College and studied Art History at the Ecole du Louvre and the Université Paris 1 – La Sorbonne, where she received her master’s degree in 1996.