Tony Brown / Charwei Tsai

Beijing / Taipei
22 August 2009
Published in Charwei Tsai: Water, Earth and Air by Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation, Sydney

Tony Brown (TB): How is your Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation (SCAF) exhibition different from your other exhibitions? Is this your first show in Australia?

Charwei Tsai (CT): My 2009 show at Osage Gallery in Hong Kong, ‘Charwei Tsai: Transience’, was based on my interpretation of the Buddhist perspective on the ephemeral. I also worked with some social-political contexts regarding national identity. Having grown up in Taiwan, the topics of religion and nationalism are very much rooted in my personal history. However, for the exhibition at SCAF, I would like to shift the focus towards nature. The transition has to do with certain realisations that I am coming to. After travelling extensively in the past few years and living on different continents, I have become less attached to my cultural identity and more interested in the relationship that we as human beings have with our natural environment. Also, through my studies in Buddhism, I am discovering how its philosophy is intertwined with the understanding of nature. This is the first time I have exhibited in Australia, and it is timely because, as we all know, the continent is known for the breadth of its landscape and the preservation of nature.

TB: Do you feel that working with Gene and Brian Sherman has affected how you are thinking about the exhibition?

CT: The personal chemistry that I feel with Gene and Brian is another major component of what distinguishes this exhibition from the previous ones. I met them during a time when I was considering more and more how ethics play a role in the life and work of an artist, and in the life of a person in general. I was beginning to be more conscious of the message that I convey to an audience through my artwork, the materials that I use, and whether or not ethics should play a role in art. Through our encounter, I learned about the two foundations they run, SCAF and Voiceless, the latter touching some of the major issues that I am facing with my practice regarding the type of materials that I have used and the former being the platform from which I can express these concerns. I also admire their approach very much. When they first saw a work in which I used animal products, I felt like they were trying to educate me rather than judge me or exclude me from their mission. I remember Gene telling me that everyone has to start somewhere and that they became conscious of these issues through their daughter. I felt very encouraged by her words and still do.

TB: You have used animals in your work. How do you feel about that now?

CT: I have thought a lot about the use of animals and animal products in my work, especially after meeting Brian and Gene. Since then I have refrained from using any live animals. It’s interesting that, coming from a Chinese cultural background, I saw the animals less as living beings and more as food. Also, being part of a generation that picks up food in supermarkets where the suffering of the animals is strategically disguised by careful packaging, I did not have the right awareness regarding this issue. I struggled a lot working on the video for Fish Project, 2008, in which I write on a living fish, even though the fish was freed afterwards. Once again, I came up with the idea without thinking about the fish as a living being. Then when it came to the actual writing part, I was shaking and had a hard time justifying the act. I stopped eating meat for a month after the project and have reduced meat consumption since.

TB: You have also worked with pig blood. How would that differ today?

CT: If someone asked me to make that project, Blood Map, 2009,1 or Meat Map, 2008,2 using slices of raw meat, I would most likely say ‘no’. I would consider more carefully what I am sacrificing and weigh that against what I am trying to accomplish. Using live animals would be a definite ‘no’. In general, I am trying to consume less in my work and life – based on a general concern for the planet and consumerism.

TB: That is a big weight to carry as an artist and a person.

CT: If we want to survive longer on this planet, we have to make these choices. I was raised in big cities that are very removed from nature, so now I am exploring that aspect, which was missing from my earlier life.

TB: But Asia is in a big consuming boom and that is where you are from. Does this phenomenon affect your artwork?

CT: Well, actually I grew up in Taiwan, which is quite different from China and India. We became industrialised earlier, so we are now at a stage where people are very much concerned about the environmental impacts of industrialisation on the planet and on people’s quality of life. Also, we have a lot of natural disasters, such as typhoons, that cause massive mudslides and floods, so people do try to be more careful and not overdevelop as much as they have in the past. Geographically, there is a large mountain range across the middle of the country, which is hard to access, so many natural resources have been preserved that way. Recently I have been spending more time back in Taiwan, travelling around the north-east coast, drawing inspiration from the fertile land and producing new work from the experience.

TB: How do you see yourself differing from the hippies or the new age generation? They were very idealistic.

CT: There is a hippie in me [laughs], but I think we come from different generations facing different threats. The way forward is not necessarily to produce more stuff or newer stuff, but to learn how to live in peace with each other and with our environment. I really don’t think that this way of thinking is idealistic; in fact, it’s very practical.

TB: But we do not seem able to learn this. Do you see your art helping people to understand how we should live?

CT: At this stage of my practice, I can’t say that I am capable of making any major changes. I am just expressing my thoughts and learning to take on certain positions through the process.

TB: So you see those changes happening in yourself first?

CT: Yes, exactly. I am in a transitioning period, working more outdoors with landscapes and more spontaneously with the flux of nature. In my recent work I have tried to keep a balance between accident and control, nature and culture, so that one is not imposing on the other. For example, I was in the mountains near Taipei the other day for a site visit to make a new work, Earth Mantra, which is similar to Sky Mantra, 2008. Instead of writing on a mirror reflecting the changes in the sky, the mirror will reflect the changes in the surrounding mountains. I thought about how the movements in mountains are different from those in the sky and water. Then about how the wind moves the clouds, how that forms rain, how the rain nourishes the earth and how all these elements are interconnected. I realised that there is no intrinsic value – no good and bad – in nature; things just live and die and live again. Then, I started to recognise that this is the Buddhist philosophy of emptiness, the relativity of all living beings to their conditions. And I think this also touches on the concept of karma – the cause and effect of the universe – which is more than just a reward and punish system.

TB: How will this manifest in your new works?

CT: I don’t know yet, but usually whatever I am thinking about in my life tends to show up in my artwork. I work in reverse: instead of doing a tonne of research before making an artwork, I just go ahead and make the work then the meanings come to me upon reflection. I feel that sometimes when I do too much research certain spontaneity is lost and the work becomes too predictable.

TB: Do you see yourself as a product of nature or of culture? One more than the other?

CT: I am still trying to see how our culture and its moral system fit into the structure of nature, which is without morals. With our human intellect, it is difficult to view death as just part of the natural cycle of life without any meanings attached. This is especially hard when the death or harm is caused by other human beings. I think the main contradiction between nature and culture lies in how death is accepted. Perhaps this is why Tibetan monks devote their whole life to trying to understand it and I am doing so in my own ways. [laughs]

TB: Do you see yourself as contradictory?

CT: I don’t think contradiction is a bad thing, I am not a politician. Life is contradictory and chaotic.

TB: You are Taiwanese, as distinct from Chinese. What does this distinction mean for you?

CT: The fundamental difference lies in the psyche of the Taiwanese people, which is the result of the changes to the governing system during the past sixty years. I grew up in Taiwan after martial law was lifted. As chaotic as the politics can be in a young democratic country, we have established freedom of speech, the freedom to vote, freedom of faith, freedom to travel, and freedom to access any public information. As a democratic society, we do not use violence against minorities and we respect the basic human rights of all citizens. For me, this is less of a nationalistic issue and more of a fundamental issue regarding human existence. I hope we are not cut off as you are currently in Beijing! Culturally, I can’t say that the way we flourished in the 1980s and 1990s (with film directors like Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Tsai Ming-Liang and Ang Lee, dance groups like Cloud Gate, and artists like Tehching Hsieh) was necessarily due to the rising democracy; rather, it might have had more to do with our complex emotions about our history and identity and the need to express those in art and literature. The freedom to do so simply provided greater access to that expression. What makes Taiwanese contemporary culture unique is that our lineage from traditional Chinese culture has not been interrupted by the Cultural Revolution or colonisation by Western countries. Actually, I find this topic more interesting than the one most people ask about: the East/ West comparison.

TB: Yes, I have avoided that. Let’s change direction. You have commented on the way men do things, like making works bigger to show dominance. Do you have a female approach to art?

CT: Yes, I try to cultivate the subjectivity of my work. I used to feel insecure about my approach to art because most of my decisions are based on sensibility. I cannot articulate exactly what it is that I am trying to achieve, what message I am trying to convey, what direction my practice is heading in. For me, all these speculations come after the work has been completed. However, I now realise that these questions are based on a system of thought that trains people to objectify art. I know that is not how I work. In fact, I find that the stronger parts of my work lie in its unpredictability, messiness and spontaneity. I use text in my work to show the origins of my inspiration, but not to explain the concept of the work. In many cases, I actually take the text out of context and find my own relationship to it. For example, when I write the Heart Sutra, I am not simply using the ephemeral quality of the work to explain the text; rather, I am using that quality to explore my own understanding of the text. Nothing is definitive in this way. I guess this could be considered a more feminine approach.

TB: Is passion important to you?

CT: Of course! It drives my life! As a child I was always ‘disobedient’, as the Taiwanese like to call it. I am only good at what I like to do; otherwise I become a stubborn troublemaker. For example, with Lovely Daze, a magazine that I publish biannually in limited editions, the only thing that keeps it going is my passion. There is no other reason for it to exist. And actually, even the way I work with most institutions is driven by passion. I am quite fortunate to meet the people that I do in the art world and working with them brings me so much pleasure. Like meeting Suhanya Raffel, who introduced me to Gene and Brian Sherman. I enjoy collaborating with her so much that our exchanges become a big part of my motivation. I am starting to think of my work less and less as a profession and more and more as my life and, when I do so, I become better at what I do.

TB: When we first met, you seemed unsure about continuing to be an artist. What has changed?

CT: When I first entered the art world I was quite surprised by the way that most art caters to the elite and how removed it can be from the rest of society. However, now I am focused less and less on those aspects and more on the flexibility that I have as an artist. It’s actually one of the most versatile occupations and it has the capacity to infiltrate all aspects of humanity.

TB: Traditionally, artists work alone in the studio. Your practice is very different. For example, you collaborate with many others on your magazine and you have said that feedback is very important to you.

CT: Yes, the type of work that I make on my own is more introspective than the work for the magazine, which includes coordinating large events and curating. But I guess everyone has two sides to them: one that is more esoteric and another that is more sociable. In the end people often try too hard to separate disciplines; it’s not natural for me. It does not matter so much to me to define art, design, curating or artmaking; all these are based on a more traditional approach to viewing art. It’s natural for most artists to work across disciplines. For example, one of my favourite artists, Jean Cocteau, was a writer, a filmmaker, a playwright, and an artist, and I don’t see any meaning in trying to differentiate between the various disciplines when interpreting his art.

TB: Do you see yourself as part of a generation with particular beliefs?

CT: I think I am part of the generation of globalisation. My cultural influences are so mixed that it matters to me less and less what comes from where. For example, I read faster in Chinese, write and speak more easily in English. I live between Paris, Taipei and New York, across three continents. I attend one of the first and most traditional fine art schools of the West, located in France, but I don’t speak French and my work is considered Asian. I watch Japanese soap operas and Bollywood films and listen to Taiwanese pop music. Most of my closest friends are Latin Americans. And physically, people say that I look Native American! However, I don’t think this type of description applies only to me; it applies to many artists of my generation, which is what makes our time an exciting one.

Tony Brown is a practising artist who has been teaching at L’École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts, Paris, since 1992 and running the école’s Programme La Seine, a programme designed for the specific needs of postgraduate students, since 2002. After training at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in Halifax, and Concordia University in Montreal, where he has also taught, he became an Assistant Professor of History and Art Theory, then Assistant and Associate Professor of Multimedia at the University of Ottawa.