Art Radar speaks with the unconventional multimedia artist who embellishes the realms of human perception with literary mantras.
On the occasion of her latest solo exhibition at TKG+ in Taipei, entitled “Universe of Possibilities”, Taiwanese artist Charwei Tsai talks about her recent work, Buddhist mantras, and exploring and living new places.
Another recent work is Bardo, made in collaboration with a Tibetan filmmaker, Tsering Tashi Gyalthang. It is based on the book Bardo Thodol (popularly known as Tibetan Book of the Dead) and on the journey of the consciousness after death. It was originally conceived for the waiting rooms at the Mortuary Station at this year’s Biennale of Sydney and projected on the floor where the coffins were once placed while waiting for the train to the cemetery. The video continues the exploration between mind and reality in the cycle of life and death.
In addition to my art practice, I also publish a curatorial journal Lovely Daze since 2005. The latest issue “Travelers & Magicians” is named after a Bhutanese film of the same title and includes works and writings by 12 artists on shared social concerns about displacement, inequality and environmental devastation. I often think of artists like travellers and magicians, always searching for ways to transcend our ordinary mind.
You have a rather unique style to your artwork, that is, writing on objects themselves. How did this style of yours started? What inspired it?
I began the series of writing sutras on ephemeral objects quite spontaneously while I was living in New York just after graduation from an art school in the United States. I was sitting around my kitchen table with some friends and took an iris from the vase and just started writing the Heart Sutra in Chinese on it. It was the only text that I have memorised so it was natural for me to use it. Around that time I was working for the artist Cai Guo-Qiang and I told Cai about the idea to write the text on various objects like flowers, tofu and mushrooms. Cai encouraged me to develop this work and recommended me to a young artist’s exhibition at Fondation Cartier in Paris. That’s how this series of work began.
The writings are identified to be Chinese characters. What is the meaning behind them, for example, like the one seen in Plane Tree Mantra?
It’s natural for me to write in Chinese characters because it is the first written language that I have learned. Also, each character has a meaning, so when writing on organic materials, the language is legible whether if it is written from top to bottom or right to left or left to right.
The text that I am writing is the Heart Sutra, it’s a very common Buddhist text consisting of 260 characters in Chinese. It is also often used as a text to practice calligraphy with because it is relatively short in length yet embodies the core of Buddhist teaching on the concept of emptiness.
I think regardless if one understands the language or not there is always some special sentiments that we feel when we look at the handwriting of another human being, maybe it’s something to do with the will to communicate.
You have mentioned exploring the themes of Buddhism and the “concept of emptiness”. Can you explain a bit more about that concept and how it may relate to your artwork?
In Buddhist terms, emptiness does not necessarily mean nothingness, but rather that all of what we perceive as reality are eventually ephemeral and interdependent by nature. The recognition of this concept is benevolent for our existence as explained by Matthieu Ricard, a leading scientist and a learned Buddhist monk in his book Altruism:
“Understanding this universal interdependence is the very source of the deepest altruism. By understanding how much our physical existence, our survival, our comfort, our health, and so on, all depend on others and in what the external world provides us – remedies, food, and the like – it grows easier to put ourselves in the place of others, to wish for their happiness, to respect their aspirations, and to feel closely concerned with the accomplishment of these aspirations.”
Can you tell us what was the most challenging object or surface you have ever written on?
The Spiral Incense Mantra installation that was commissioned by this year’s Biennale of Sydney for the Mortuary Station was the most challenging object to write on because of its large size and scale. The platform of the station was around 60 metres long, so I had to write on incense with sizes ranging from 100-150 centimetres in diameter.
It was overwhelming enough to finish a big one on my own, so I ended up inviting twenty Tibetan Buddhist Lamas from the Himalayan region who currently reside in Taiwan and know the text to help me write together. For this project, we wrote the Hundred Syllable Mantra, a mantra that is used for purification on the incense in Tibetan Buddhism. For me, the process of writing with the lamas was as important as the final work itself.
During the exhausting process of writing when my mind was scattered, a lama reminded me that if I was doing this project only for the sake of an art and cultural event, the influence might be limited to just that. However, if I expanded my aspirations to all sentient beings and think that may all beings who come across this work be relieved of their sufferings in some ways then the work would become much more meaningful. In the end, I did feel the power of the aspirations when many people who came to the station reacted strongly to the work and opened up to speak about their experiences with family members who have passed away. I think this project for me was the most challenging and gratifying at the same time.
And what would be the next object you would work with and why?
My practice is less about objects and more of a lifelong learning process about nature and humanity that is expressed through the media of art.
Since I have relocated to Vietnam in the recent years, I have not yet had a chance to connect with the land and people because of my hectic travelling schedule. So for my next projects, I would like to do something in Vietnam. Right now I’m looking into some projects about the environment and the industrial waste in developing countries in the region.
Having been based in Taipei, Ho Chi Minh City and Paris, how have these locations helped mould the artist that you are today?
Since I started working as an artist in 2005, like many other artists today, I have barely stayed in one city for more than a month or two. The travels are not always for exhibitions, sometimes it’s to visit artist friends in their home countries, to see exhibitions, and also in my personal life especially after I got married my family is even more spread out, they reside in Taiwan, Japan, India, Vietnam, the United States, Australia and United Arab Emirates.
Therefore, my work has always been done very spontaneously on site of the exhibition.The cities that you mentioned are those that I keep going back to because of work or personal reasons. It is only this year that I started a studio space in Taipei and looking at one also in Saigon where I currently reside. I hope that the studios will provide a more stable environment that will allow me to go deeper into my practice and to experiment more.
Which location do you hope to explore next?
I would really love to explore places like Ladakh, Bhutan, Mongolia, and Tibet. My husband is Tibetan, so I have always been curious about these Himalayan regions.
I know learning is a fundamental thing for you, so what can be expected in the future for you as an artist?
I started practicing art in my mid-twenties and now I’m in my mid-thirties. The first ten years were more about exploring different places and developing my interests. Now I feel more of a responsibility towards others. I realise and appreciate the freedom of being an artist living in mostly free worlds, so I would like to find ways to give back to the society somehow through my work.
Right now I am in Dharamsala in India where my husband grew up and we are looking for a farmland to build a sustainable environment for the Tibetan exile community and to host workshops encouraging creative thinking for the youth in the region. This is a long term project, it will probably take about five to ten years to start running. I hope to accumulate more life experience in the meantime and make this opportunity more meaningful for everyone who is involved.
- Photo Gallery: Chinese artist Jacky Tsai’s “The Harmonious Society” in London – October 2016 – The Fine Art Society in London presents the second solo show of Chinese artist Jacky Tsai following the success of his first in 2015
- “The Portrait is an Address”: Egyptian artist Hassan Khan at Beirut Art Center – October 2016 – artist and musician Hassan Khan’s first solo exhibition in Beirut focuses on a central aspect of his practice: the portrait
- Art to provoke: Japan’s irreverent artist Tadasu Takamine – artist profile – August 2016 – Art Radar profiles provocative Japanese artist Tadasu Takamine, whose work is on show for the first time in Taiwan at Taipei’s TKG+ Projects
- Tehching Hsieh to represent Taiwan at Venice Biennale 2017 – July 2016 – the influential Taiwanese artist will represent his country at the 57th edition of the Biennale
- Navigating Nameless Seas: 11 Asian artists in “Odyssey” at Singapore Art Museum – July 2016 – the latest Singapore Art Museum group exhibition conjures stories of journeys at sea seen through the eyes of some among the most inspirational artists working in Asia-Pacific
Subscribe to Art Radar for more news on Taiwanese contemporary art