Tina Lai / Charwei Tsai

New York / Paris
28 June 2009
Published in id-talk

Tina Lai (TL): Charwei, tell me the “short story” about yourself, where you were born, where you grew up and where you attended school…

Charwei Tsai (CT): 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 Asian references.

TL: I see that you started out at Rhode Island School of Design studying Industrial Design with a minor of Architectural History, how did you make the transition to Art? Are there any co-relations to what you do which is derived from your formal education?

CT: I made the decision to major in industrial design without having had much life experience to know where my interests and skills lie. However, it did not take long to realize that I was not motivated to draw with markers to make an object look more bubbly and shiny nor to fabricate mass-produced objects.

Instead, through an invitation by a friend, I stumbled upon a travel course to study Native American culture and artist’s colonies in the 60’s in New Mexico. Having grown up in large cities, in New Mexico, I discovered and developed an affinity for nature for the first time and its intricate relationship with art and spirituality through observing the Native American way of life in relationship with nature. It began from watching the way the indigenous houses were constructed out of adobe (mud bricks), which then returns to the earth after it is no longer in use and how the petroglyphs (stone carvings) transforms with the aging of the rocks. Then I started meeting some indigenous friends, (many of them mistaken me for being of the same descent because of my Asian facial features) and observed how art, music, and dance are embedded in their daily lives and not just as something that is beautiful to be exhibited on a wall or to be performed on a stage. This experience has had a big impact on the way I perceive art and nature since.

TL: As I look through your art, It is evident that your pieces have a lot to say, being that they are covered with words. However, some viewers may not have the ability to read Chinese language and may thus, experience the art differently without knowing the meaning of the text. Is this intended, or did you make your art to communicate with a specific public in mind?

CT: As I was not formally trained in fine arts in my undergraduate studies, I did not make my first works thinking that they would be exhibited, it was merely a thought exercise for myself. (This is referring to the “Mantra Series” where I wrote a Buddhist scripture that I have memorized onto ephemeral objects).

In any case, even without the meaning of the text being understood by the audience, there is an intrinsic curiosity that humans have when they see a written text or hear a verbal language from another human being. I am open to different ways of looking at this work. In one context, for those who can read Chinese and come from a Buddhist tradition, they may be able to find a more concrete philosophical connection between the scripture and the object that is being written on.

For example, in the Singapore Biennale where I wrote on the scripture onto a lotus plant and placed it in a Buddhist temple, the temple visitors without any art background could appreciate the relationship between the nature of transience that is described in the text and applied on the lotus plant, a derivative symbol from the religion. In another context, for those who are unfamiliar with Buddhism, for example, when I wrote the text onto an olive tree in Greece, people may come up with their own interpretation like I am writing a poem or a prayer of their knowledge onto a tree. It often intrigues me just as much when people apply what they see into their own context, rather than merely trying to analyze what the artist is trying to say. What constitutes an artwork as an artwork really depends on the person looking at it.

TL: How did you come up with your concept of using the Heart Sutra mantras on your pieces? Are they religious convocations? Are you yourself religious?

CT: The Heart Sutra is a Buddhist scripture that I have memorized as a child growing up in Taiwan. I don’t consider myself as religious and I use the text more as philosophical reference to question the doctrines of religion. The work actually shows how a spiritual truth (the Hear Sutra, for example) transforms as it becomes materialized. In some cases like on the mushroom, it decays, and in others like on the olive tree, it grows. Often times, what we believe is not necessary what we practice and this dilemma is what I am trying to explore.

TL: Your most startling and beautiful works are the ones that are made on living organisms such as plants, fruits, tofu skins, mushrooms, and even squids. Why do you choose these as canvas?

CT: I work with materials that are perishable to develop the idea that everything is in constant flux, even our skin as a canvas is constantly changing. It is quite fascinating to watch how each material transforms with the changes of its environment and conditions. Each work becomes a different metaphor.

TL: As a Taiwanese artist how do you see yourself differently from other artists from mainland China, many that have gained wide notoriety in recent years. Are any themes in your work representative of your cultural or national identity?

CT: Most of my art was made outside of Taiwan, for this reason I cannot say that I am attached to a national identity in my art. I would say in a more personal rather than an artistic statement that since Taiwan is a democratic country and we are allowed the freedom of expression, of religion, and access to information, we have indeed developed a spirit that is different from mainland Chinese. For example, I am always impressed that whenever I go back to Taiwan, often times, the taxi drivers would offer to give me some money back for having made a wrong turn or taken a wrong road, which I did not even notice. I cannot image the same situation happening in any major cities in China where the progress of the country is heavily emphasized on its material growth.

TL: You also publish an Art Journal, Lovely Daze, how do you see your role as an Artist and Editor publishing other people’s art?

CT: Perhaps my role as an editor is different from an artist when I am publishing other’s people’s works in the way that I am now the one who has to provide a curatorial outlook and to oversee the production of the publication. However, the underlying concept of the magazine is the same as in my artwork, which is about change. Each issue is like a journal documenting my thoughts around the time of publishing and the theme changes depending on the events of my life.

LM: You are currently residing in Paris France, after being in the U.S.several years. Is there a difference of being an artist in Europe, vs. the United States? How has your work evolved from your experiences in France?

CT: The decision to live in Paris has been a major change for me. I wanted to live in a different continent to view art outside the Anglo-Saxon and Asian perspectives. Though the contemporary art scenes in New York and London are more experimental and dynamic compared to Paris, they can also be capitalistic and driven by hype and trend. I was drawn to the French romantic vision of the artist, focusing less on its aspect as a career. However, living in Paris can be very difficult for foreigners to adjust and aside from participation in the research program at L’École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts and various work obligations, I am relatively isolated here. The isolation forces me to confront myself a lot more and think further ahead about what I am trying to accomplish through my practice. To me, New York is a city of excitement and distraction and Paris is a city of isolation and introspection.

TL: Is there any unifying philosophy or theme that runs in your body of work?

CT: Yes, nothing is absolute.

TL: One last question, on identity – if you could be someone else for one day, who would you be?

CT: My friend Angela Garcia who is a pastry chef [www.lovelydazedesserts.com], because she is my dearest friend and I’ve always wanted to be Latin chic!