Bells, tools and meditation are all ancient. When it has been confirmed by historic research, that tools and weapons were among the earliest bronze objects in China, the bells also now belong to this bronze age era. The meditative component has eminently added value and appreciation among the Asian arts. People are looking for nurture from art, and statuesque buddhas seem nurturing, even healing with their meditative poses. Massive sculptures are surrounded with the calm that is often lacking from the demands of the everyday life. The journey inwards requires little more participation.
Chinese bells have a special form that calls for a closer investigation. They are emblems of music, and when tried, the sound can be interestingly different from the Western terms of bell-sound. The church-bells have varying melodies, yet Chinese bells embody tones that are thousands of years old. It is believed, that the sound has not changed since they were casted. Bells still narrate of ancient technology as a soundsystem.
With the global travel, the world has shrunk, and meditation practices have become increasingly popular. We are at the moment pushed to scrutinize ourselves into increased indoor dwelling, so discovering new possibilities of meditative practices might be useful. Sound is one way to go, listening to music with new awareness, concentrating fully into music or sound may turn the focus into a particular matter. A ‘look’ inwards may be rewarding.
Meditation is a bodily practice of a mind as operator. A word techne would also fit with its stance of the world. Techne is a philosophical term, which includes knowledge at its core. By using it in reference to bodily practice, it might as well connect to understanding your meditation approach. Learn to meditate by meditating, gain knowledge of meditation by doing it. Knowledge is coming from the act and art of doing.
Sitting buddhas are art works that meditate, giving out a pose with a silent approach that is almost demanding us to participate in a technology of looking inwards, of stopping our other activities, breathing with the sculpture. The art stimulates the senses into a sole pattern of sitting with a more disciplinary attitude.
I moved to Los Angeles in 2014, after 11 years as a New Yorker. During those years, I went to graduate school, began and finished a career, learned to love opera, and mounted my first fine art exhibition – a crowd-sourced photography group show that was simultaneously a fundraiser for the nonprofit where I was a board member. What I never did in New York City was paint. At the time, my relationship to painting was purely as a viewer, standing a respectful distance away, wondering how in the world they did that. Who would have thought that three years later, at the instigation of my Los Angeles painting professor, the indomitable Barbara Kerwin, that I would find myself pursuing a graduate degree in painting?
Our first-year MFA group show was titled “Twelve,” for the 12 of us that started the MFA in Art program at Claremont Graduate University this past August. The works I created for the show were made with oil pigment sticks, built up into a thick impasto texture by smashing them onto the canvas with a palette knife and mixing colors alla prima. The paintings are about the loss of meaning and culture through the generations and across the seas. Words, behaviors, rituals become hybridized, sometimes beyond recognition, when transplanted to a different environment, just as language and writing change over time, eventually past the point of intelligibility. Each of my paintings starts with a Chinese calligraphic text, drawn in black, that becomes obscured through layers of superimposed texture and color, ending in a very different visual experience compared to the black and white text that “birthed” it.
The largest painting (60 x 48 in.) is titled “Outremer” (French for “ultramarine”). The cool colors and coral-like shapes evoke underwater life, but the title also refers to the French territories in the South Pacific (called “outre-mer” in French, meaning “overseas”), that were visited by Gauguin and others interested in the decidedly un-PC idea of “primitivism,” and also where France has conducted a large number of controversial nuclear tests. Thus, in addition to the Chinese text being washed away “underwater,” the painting’s title also alludes to aspects of modern world history that some might prefer to be swept under the rug.
Each of my paintings starts with a Chinese calligraphic text, drawn in black, that becomes obscured through layers of superimposed texture and color, ending in a very different visual experience compared to the black and white text that “birthed” it.
Patricia Chow is a Los Angeles-based artist whose abstract paintings engage the intersection of Eastern and Western cultures across time and space, and the hybridization and reinterpretation of meaning. She is currently a first-year MFA student in Los Angeles, CA.
A 90-year old Chinese artist An Ho finds inspiration from nature and its serene beauty. Still a steady brush in her hand, she invents nature with her visionary approach. The landscapes seem like in many Chinese classical paintings, where the vision engages in the detail. Stillness of a landscape is poetic, without rush forward, yet bearing undertones of memories and dreamlike solitude. The artist who lives in Upstate New York, shows her love towards the trees and landscapes of her environment.
An Ho’s six recent paintings are on display at the CHINA 2000 FINE ART in New York City. In a way, the works on silk and paper are telling an ancient story. Ho studied techniques that were forgotten many centuries ago. The artisthas revitalized this history by bringing the painting styles into life in modern times. Eventually, there is a play of translucent refinement that of color and movement.
An Ho’s mastery of the Chinese brushwork lays the basis of the landscapes. There is a sense of perception in the works, as her artistic vision develops in a close observance of nature. Each composition has its own reality, and perfection, or an entire world to narrate. If the works were a dream, they would be more perfect than a reality. They propose harmony and co-existence between man and nature.
An Ho, also known as Wen-ying, was born in 1927 in Beijing, China. Her father was chief newspaper editor, and mother was a painter of flowers. Her parents were senior members of Sun Yatsen’s revolutionary movement.
An Ho got introduced to famous Chinese traditional painter Pu Ru (1896-1963), who took her as his student and protégée. She studied 17 years with him, learning that Chinese painting takes into account both the fine quality of the art, and the personal approach and attitude of an artist. She studied with him initially in China and then in Taiwan. Master Pu Ru came from the Qing royal family. He was a poet, calligrapher and painter. Also, An Ho studied first classics and poetry, before starting arts and painting. The artist started with calligraphy, and finally learned the techniques of painting. Pu Ru’s teaching method cultivated her character as the basis for the skillful using of brush and ink. The brush is profound and important part of the technique, and the character of an artists rehearses for it.
In 1952, An Ho’s work began to be noticed by the Chinese art world. Her works have been exhibited in China, Taiwan, Germany, Italy, France and the United States.
New York City based performer Marina Celander crosses boundaries in her artistic practice, which combines a variety of genres and approaches to making art. Her solo performances echo authentic voice, and her deep participation on stage with theater groups comes across as statuesque, moving, gentle and charismatic. Marina Celander is born as Swedish-Korean, and is a recipient of 2014 Lilah Kan Red Socks Award for her outstanding contribution to the Asian American professional theater in New York City.
Firstindigo&Lifestyle: What choices did you make to become an actor, what is your background in the field?
MC: I started out as a modern dancer. After I graduated from London Contemporary Dance School I moved to New York and danced for a bit with various companies and choreographers. At one point I decided to take acting classes, which was something I had always felt I wanted to try but was afraid to do, and started studying with Gene Frankel at the Gene Frankel Theatre Workshop on Bond Street. Despite my fears, I took that first class with Gene and I remember feeling so elated and high, almost, as I stepped out from the darkness of the theater and in to the sunshine on the street. From that moment on I knew I had found what I needed to do with the rest of my life.
Firstindigo&Lifestyle: Where were you born and raised, at least Sweden is on the map?
MC: I was born and raised in Sweden. I grew up in Malmö which is in southern Sweden, right across the strait from Copenhagen, Denmark. I lived in London for three years while I was studying dance, and then I moved to New York when I was in my early twenties. I have been in New York ever since! I go back to Sweden every other year or so to visit my family.
Firstindigo&Lifestyle: You have performed with Yara Arts Group that is based in La MaMa Theatre for many years. How did you find yourself part of the company?
MC: I auditioned for a show that Virlana Tkacz, the artistic director of Yara Arts group, was putting up at La MaMa in 2000, called Circle. This particular show was special in that it had actors and musicians from Buryatia and Mongolia, as well as us New York actors. We had the chance to learn to sing these hauntingly beautiful Buryat songs from the Altai mountains. Two years later I traveled with Yara to Ukraine to sing Ukrainian folksongs, and visit Babushki, the grandmas, in the villages of Kratchkivka in Poltava and Svaritsevichiy in Polissia, and then we performed in Kyiv. This trip was also lead by Ukrainian singer, Mariana Sadovska, who was the musical director for our performance. Ever since then I have come back to work for Virlana in various poetry readings and events that she hosts, as well as being part of some of her theater productions.
Firstindigo&Lifestyle: Virlana Tkacz, one of the founders of Yara, and the director of the company, and many company members have a Ukrainian cultural background, But Yara is appreciated as multicultural in its productions echoing ideas of a World Theater. Did you find this conception as a great home for your own performance identity?
MC: Yes, I am really attracted to the idea of World theater. It is very fitting that Yara Arts Group is a resident theater company at La MaMa, because it is the home of World theater. Ellen Stewart, the founding mother of La MaMa Experimental Theatre, bravely and courageously invited individuals and companies from all over the world to perform and work at La MaMa.
Yara is an exciting company to work with, because of the always multi-lingual performances and multi ethnic cast. Lately, Virlana has been working with Ukrainian artists, but in the past she has worked with artists from Buryatia (in Siberia) and Kyrgyzstan. As a woman of color and a theater artist, I always deeply appreciate directors who are not type-casting based on ethnicity and race. In downtown theater in general, but at La MaMa in particular, I have always been given opportunities to act in a myriad of roles where my ethnic make up is not important. Virlana has given me and many other actors of color opportunities. I believe that putting a minority actor on stage for no other reason than the fact that (s)he is a good person to have in the show, is always a strong choice against the established order of theater in the West.
Firstindigo&Lifestyle: In 2015, you were part of a production that directly was touching Ukraine and the war that was happening on a huge crisis level there. Yara’s production premiere ‘Hitting Bedrock’ took place in La MaMa, (it was conceived and directed by Virlana Tkacz, set & light by Watoku Ueno, music by Julian Kytasty, assistant director: Wanda Phipps). Your role in the work was central. Tell more about your role and how it shaped in the context?
MC: The production Hitting Bedrock, was an important production as it addressed the war in Eastern Ukraine. My character was The Refugee, and her significance in the piece was that she represented all of those humans, women, children, men, the elderly, that have been rendered homeless because of the war in Ukraine, and elsewhere in the world. She represented all of those that have had to leave something important behind, a memory, a treasure, a family member, a secret, a lover, old letters, a photograph… It was a role that moved me deeply. As a result, that summer (2015) I went on a self financed, crowd-funded trip to face paint and give dance workshops to children in refugee centers in Ukraine.
Firstindigo&Lifestyle: In this play, the audiences had a participatory role. At one point, we were asked to give our belongings away, and were offered big tote bags instead, to put our coats and personal items in them. This was altering a perception from an audience member’s point of view into the experimental, perhaps reminiscing the point of view of people in the war. In what ways did being a central actor discussing your war losses while audience is so close to you, alter your own performance? Did this event change you?
MC: Yes, the audience were forced to walk through a long corridor in the basement of the theater, and thereafter they were asked to give away their personal belongings only to have them put into bags. The audience immediately got those bags back to hold for the remainder of the show, but many felt uncomfortable and some refused to give up their belongings even for a second. We had brusque and insistent “guards” in uniforms commanding people to go here, put their stuff there, go up, sit down, etc. When the audience had finally arrived in a “holding area” after having been shuttled around with their big bags, they had to witness the guards doing the same to me. The guards demanded to see what was in my back-back, and I showed them my toothbrush and my papers. At this point the audience is really right next to me in the holding area. Having the audience being so close to me, being one of them, really does something to the performance. As an actor I loved feeling them so close, feeling their reactions to me, their doubts, their fears, and them feeling my fears. It was also a little intimidating when on one occasion we had a lady who was a little drunk in the audience, and she was shouting quite aggressively at the stuff I said. That was worrisome, because she was so close.
Firstindigo&Lifestyle: Besides being an actor and performer, you handle multiple different roles. How did you come to dancing and performing Hula?
MC: Yes, I handle multiple different roles in my life on a daily basis. I am a mother, and an artist, a teaching artist, performer, face painter, a freelancer. I wake up every morning thinking, what am I doing today?
I started dancing Hula, traditional Hawaiian dance, in 2000, after finding an organization that gave beginner hula classes. I was very fortunate to stumble upon the Hawaiian Cultural Foundation (HCF), and there I studied with Michelle Akina, Janu Cassidy, Keo Woolford and kumu hula June Tanoue. I have since been involved with a hula halau, hula school, Pua Ali’i ‘Ilima o Nuioka, under the leadership of kumu hula Vicky Holt Takamine.
Firstindigo&Lifestyle: What is your connection to the hula/Hawaiian community in New York?
MC: It’s a small, but growing, community of Hawaiians, and Hawaiians at heart, hula lovers, and Hawaiian language and music lovers and enthusiasts. It is a beautiful and loving and inclusive community of people from all over. My connection is through hula.
Firstindigo&Lifestyle: A very interesting part of your practice is also face painting. That is a skill that requires another set of imagination and sense of personality in people. How did you start?
MC: I started face painting for my own children’s birthday parties, and it grew from there. Now I do other kids’ birthday parties. It’s a small side business, and I get clients usually through word of mouth. I really enjoy the face painting, and it makes me happy to paint kids’ faces.
Firstindigo&Lifestyle: In 2016, you created a solo work for yourself that was performed in Sweden. The work titled Mermaid’s Howl, handled a theme of you mother, and her Korean identity. How did you experience the project from the point of view of her identity, and your own, adding into the narratives that are so personal?
MC: I created a solo show called Mermaid’s Howl and performed it at the Stockholm Fringe in 2016. The story had been a long time in the making. As early as 2013, I had talked to my friend and mentor, Fred Ho, about my idea of writing a solo show. He quickly said, in typical Fred Ho style “Write it, I’ll produce it. Here is your deadline, use it.” He unfortunately passed away before that came to fruition, but I stayed true to my promise to myself and to Fred, to finish writing that piece. I am grateful to the Stockholm Fringe Festival for inviting me and giving Mermaid’s Howl its premier.
The story is about me growing up in Sweden and finding out who my mother was, and finally being able to connect the dots in my adult years. Connecting the dots from me, to her, to all of our maternal ancestors. The play is part dream, part real memory snippets, part madness and part immigrant mother-daughter story. It was a deeply personal process, of course, to write this play, which delved into questions of what is must have been like to an immigrant woman, all alone in a completely foreign country, without family, to raise a child on her own, have her dreams crushed or set aside. It also explores the question of women and madness, and what it means for women to not be able to fully express themselves as artists and human beings in a society that sees women as less valued than men.
MARINA CELANDER, MERMAID’S HOWL – PHOTO YOUN JUNG KIM
MARINA CELANDER, MERMAID’S HOWL – STOCKHOLM, SWEDEN 2016
Firstindigo&Lifestyle: Was the theme of mental illness and it’s feminine counter-narrative hard to project into a play?
MC: Mental illness is a topic that is still not openly talked about, it’s a little taboo. I wanted to bring it to the forefront and not skirt around the issue. Without glorying mental illness, I wanted to shine a light on it from a different angle, to let people see that there may be a societal value to possessing a different sight and different viewpoint from what is deemed “normal”. Normal is a societal rule, and normal is different in other cultures. In the West there is absolutely no point to mental illness at all. It is just a nuisance, a bother, a hindrance, a difficulty, something to be shunned and stowed away, far far away. I am not saying that it is not utterly devastating when serious mental illness occurs in a family, but I am saying that there are options as to how you would view someone with a divergent view of the world. Those with divergent behavior can actually have value in society, their divergence is seen as highly creative as well as highly unusual and abnormal. At the same time, madness in women have always been a tool to belittle and demean women, to incarcerate “difficult” women, and put women in their place by the patriarchic machinery.
Firstindigo&Lifestyle: The play also involved projections as part of it, tell more about the visual and performance collaboration?
MC: I had three amazing collaborators. The electronic score was composed by Dåkot-ta Alcantara-Camacho. The costumes were designed and made by Jane Catherine Shaw, and the projection design was made by Youn Jung Kim. Youn Jung knew my play very well. She was a student of Fred Ho, that is how we met. In the beginning of the writing process she and I used to meet regularly and have our little mini-writing labs, where we shared, read and discussed our work. Because of her connection to the piece from the start, she really knew the flow, the pace, the colors, the feelings of the piece. The projections grew out of her intimate knowledge of the story I wanted to tell, and her receptiveness to my suggestions made the working process so easy.
Dåkot-ta created a score that was so sensitive and evocative, and reminiscent of water and forests and shaman drums. His sounds were instrumental in setting the scenes for particularly relevant moments in the piece. It really was amazing to hear the music loud, with real speakers, for the first time! Goosebumps moment! Cathy made these amazing creations that felt magical to wear, and helped me grow into the characters I was portraying in the various environments.
Firstindigo&Lifestyle: What would you like to say about the performance experience in Sweden, did you feel you were at the crossroads of cultures while bringing the work there?
MC: I didn’t necessarily feel I was at a cultural crossroads in Sweden, but my piece, Mermaid’s Howl, is an exploration of my cultural heritage, so it was very fitting to have its premier in Sweden. Performing in Sweden was a homecoming of sorts. Being bi-racial I guess means you are a hub for cross-cultural activities within you.
Firstindigo&Lifestyle: This play involved also a Kickstarter- fundraising, and the audience was able to have a glimpse into the concept and to you as a person. What was this campaign process like?
MC: Yes, I decided to crowd-fund with Kickstarter as it seemed as the most reputable and an easy way to go. The opportunity to go to Sweden came up very quickly as I was invited to perform with Mermaid’s Howl just a couple of months before the festival started. I had to come up with the funds to go very quickly.
Youn Jung Kim is a great conceptual artist and photographer and film artist. She has a great eye and a great feel for what works and she listened to what I wanted to convey in my little promo video. From the short interaction we had on camera she created a little gem of a video for my Kickstarter campaign. (You can view the campaign here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pq4-2zW7GZ0)
Firstindigo&Lifestyle: You are an activist in social platforms. You have performed radical acts in public places, closing yourself in a body-bag for instance.Tell more about the involvement. Do you think activism can change the dominant narratives in crisis? Are you an optimist?
MC: Yes, I’m always an optimist. The particular event you are mentioning was Belarus Free Theatre’s demonstration in NYC against Capital punishment in Belarus, where young people disappeared and their families were not notified of their deaths, and never received their bodies back. This was an event planned together with La MaMa. We gathered by City Hall, and then walked over to Foley Square, where we crawled in to body bags, zipped ourselves up and laid still for 30 minutes to raise awareness of the issue. We had monitors who were watching us to make sure nothing came to pass as we were inside the body bags, or in case anyone would freak out they could quickly zip us open again. It was a very intense experience, I have to say.
As artists we have an obligation to tell stories where we stand up for the underdogs, speak up for those weaker than us, for those who do not have a voice or platform with which to tell of their story.
Firstindigo&Lifestyle: What new adventures do you have planned?
MC: I performed a first draft, a first work-in-progress version, of a new solo show called Shakespeare’s Sistersat Dixon Place in NYC in January of 2017. My plan is to perform it again in a larger venue and to see the piece grow. Mermaid’s Howl will also be traveling to Massachusetts sometime in the near future. We are working out the details now, so I will tell you more when I can reveal more, but I am very excited that this show will have a future life.
Firstindigo&Lifestyle: You are also performing with Yara in their new production?
MC: I’m currently performing with Yara Arts Group’s new show at La MaMa called 1917-2017: Tychyna, Zhadan and the Dogs. Again, it is a project based on Serhiy Zhadan’s poetry. It was shown this spring in Kyiv, by a Ukrainian cast, and now it’s our turn to put our spin on it. Serhiy and his punk-rock band, The Dogs, are in New York performing with us. It’s an exciting show! It’s always very special to perform with a live band. Other musical elements in the show are Julian Kytasy’s bandura compositions. This piece makes us reflect on the concept of tyranny and how easily it arises – it did in Europe in 1917, and now in 2017 we are currently in danger of allowing it to rise again. The show opened on Friday June 9 and runs at LaMama ETC until June 25, 2017.
Artist and global citizen Liu Shiyuan is a young generation Chinese artist. She comes from Beijing and lives currently between China and Copenhagen, Denmark. Her multiplicity as an artist has gained her presentation across continents. Liu Shiyuan’s visually colorful photography and video montage, and her approach to cultural patterns perform traditions from new angles. In her body of works, monochromatic tones meet performative arrays.
Firstindigo&Lifestyle: What made you decide to move to Copenhagen Denmark, as you have lived in so many places?
Liu Shiyuan: I was born and grew up in Beijing. I studied in The Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA). Then after that, I went to NYC to get my MFA from the School of Visual Arts. I´m a very typical Beijing person, my dialogue accent and my behavior are pretty local Beijing type. I got used to living in a big city where there´s a lot of competitions going on. I like it, it makes me always have to work harder and be a better person and so on. So I actually never thought about moving to a place like Denmark. But I met my husband in Beijing in 2009 while he was doing his exchange studies there. We kept the relationship going even when we were living 8000 miles away from each other. He is Danish, and that is the reason why I am living in Denmark now.
Firstindigo&Lifestyle: How has your choice of living in multiple places changed your artistic identity and your perspective into things?
Liu Shiyuan: I got influenced by this kind of “international” life style a lot. Meeting with people from different places, it brought me a bigger image of understanding the world. I started thinking about things in a totally different way. By living with three different languages, my words are getting less, but my emotions are getting more. There´s so many things coming to me every day that I cannot even explain, they are too big and too complicated to be expressed by any language. That is why I work as a visual artist.
Firstindigo&Lifestyle: What are the best aspects of living in Copenhagen as an artist, in what ways do you think it is special there?
Liu Shiyuan: I found out here in Denmark that the “artists” (not including the Danish artists living outside of Denmark) are not like the “artists” I understood at all. I still don´t know what I can do here to the Danish society as an immigrant, except continue what I used to do. And I think doing art is enough for me. I don´t care where I live, as long as the life goes on. I travel a lot every year, we bring our baby with us to wherever we go. So home for us could be at any new places. We also stay in Berlin for a lot of time, since it´s very close to Copenhagen, so I guess besides Beijing, Berlin could be our second city.
Do you feel Scandinavian now?
Firstindigo&Lifestyle: How about your time spent in New Yock City, how did you experience the living and studying. Could you explain what ingredients did the art education give you?
Liu Shiyuan: I went to NYC in 2010, when I was 24. And I graduated from CAFA in Beijing in 2009, so there was only one year I was doing some stuff in Beijing in the time between. I wouldn´t call it a career, I only built my own performance group, and we made two conceptual theater pieces. I´m still very proud of the works and the people I was working with in my team, because the two pieces ARE really good whenever I watch the video recordings again. It was really for fun, for doing something new, without thinking it is the beginning of anyone´s career. People from the art circle didn´t even think I was an artist. But I was a very serious student in NYC, I never wasted my time, I never gave myself a chance to do so-so stuff, I had to make sure my artwork was going in the best way as it could. It was really the fantastic two years in my life that I really put my art practice together, clear everything up. I was working very hard, having a BF on the other side of the earth, so I spent most of my time in the studio while in school.
Firstindigo&Lifestyle: What is your primary medium of working now, or are you making art with different and varying tools and efforts?
I am very hard on myself. Every time I make a new proposal, I begin from imagining I have never done art before. This is exhausted I agree, a lot of artists don’t work like this, but I just couldn´t help. I don´t have a studio in Denmark, I don´t put my works on the wall, and when I start a new project, I try not to look at my old works. So, I don´t think about the medium or the tools. Rather, the ideas are all coming from a brand new clean mind.
Firstindigo&Lifestyle: You have created video works together with sound artist Kristian Mondrup Nielsen; how do these works usually develop?
Liu Shiyuan: I am also a video artist. But I know nothing about sound, so I work with Kristian Mondrup Nielsen when I need sound in my work. He is a very professional musician, for finishing the sound part of my work, he also needs to cooperate with other people. The process usually starts from renting a recording room, inviting people to play, then he mixes the sound by himself, and the final step is mastering.
Firstindigo&Lifestyle: Then your‘Wonderland’ color photography series was on display at the Frieze New York in May 2016 with Leo Xu Projects. This collage of photography brought to mind European food ingredients. Are these works influenced by Danish meals?
Liu Shiyuan: Maybe. Danish food can be very conceptual sometimes, because they really care about where the ingredients come from, if the farming is bad for the environment. So when you go to a good restaurant in Denmark, often what you get can look very minimal, no exaggerations. But the taste is just so good because of all the effort behind the curtain, the carrots taste like the best carrots you have ever had, the black coffee tastes like it has milk in it. This way that they treat the ingredients is very similar to how I treat the elements in my artwork. I show how I fully respect the pictures I use in my photos, just simply placing them on “the plate”. ‘Wonderland’ is also related to how fictions are influencing our real life.
In that series of photos, the amount of humor equals the same amount of sadness. So when you look at them, they are actually not food any more, they become the actors on the stage.
Liu Shiyuan, Wonderland, installation detail, photography digital prints / 23 x 30 cm, Frieze, NY, 2016.
Liu Shiyuan, This way or that way, installation detail, 80 printed carpets, 90 x 100 cm each, Frieze NY, 2016.
Firstindigo&Lifestyle: What does the word Bentu, meaning native soil, personally resonate in you? It was a title of the exhibition, in which Fondation Louis Vuitton represented contemporary Chinese artists, who are crossing boundaries across traditions and geographical places, or are transforming something?
Liu Shiyuan: Bentu was the group exhibition I attended in January 2016. The defenition of Bentu definitely doesn´t mean a location or a pin on the map. I think it´s more like the root of you, the foundation of your understanding of things.
Firstindigo&Lifestyle: There is a lot of discussion going on about the role of Chinese contemporary artists as part of the art market booming in Chinese centers. Do you want to say something specific about the phenomenon?
There´s a boom of something in China, but I´m not sure if it is mainly related to the art market. Among all the money China got every year there´s only 5% coming from art. So I think the discussion is more on the economical level. It is very scary if you go visit a small city in China, you see new buildings everywhere, but they are empty. So I guess it´s like someone took a loan from the bank to build them while hoping a lot of people can also take loans to buy them. So the whole thing is holy. I am actually very bad at thinking about money, so maybe I shouldn´t talk too much about economy.
Firstindigo&Lifestyle: How do you see older generations contemporary Chinese artists like Ai Weiwei influencing your thinking or methods of working, or something like that?
Liu Shiyuan: He definitely made me thought about my art practice a lot, especially in NYC when almost everyone was asking me about him. Sometimes I explained a bit about how understandings can get twisted between cultures, sometimes I just answer he is not my uncle I don´t know.
Firstindigo&Lifestyle: Would you like to say something specific about the galleries, which represent you in Beijing and in Copenhagen. Do you feel that there is a common nominator now in the international art world, meaning that the patterns of working and featuring artists can be too similar?
Liu Shiyuan: Definitely. The culture of mixing thing has been going on for a long time, and now it starts to seem a bit boring. I don´t think the way most of the people use the word “international” is right.
Firstindigo&Lifestyle: As your art works have been exhibited in different platforms and sites; in museums, galleries, and art fairs, however, who would be an ideal collector for your art?
Liu Shiyuan: Anyone who loves the works. For me, and also my galleries I believe, the best is not always the biggest. Of course, my artworks only have few editions, sometimes they are unique, so I hope the collectors are willing to show them again somewhere, to let more people see them, to make the works live forever in a way.
Firstindigo&Lifestyle: Do you think there is something unique for being a woman contemporary artist that has a new empowering resonance?
Liu Shiyuan: Actually I don´t feel any difference as being a woman. I don´t really know the art world a lot, maybe some people think there´s too few female Chinese artists, so we need to dig more out. But for me, I don´t think about it, it has been a long long long time that I didn´t think of myself as a woman, but I do remind myself all the time that I am an artist.
Japanese sculptor Yasushi Koyama lives in Helsinki, Finland and exhibits frequently in the local galleries. In this interview, he ponders the aesthetics behind his cute wooden sculptures. The artist brings the two artistic worlds together in his deep knowledge of both Finnish and Japanese cultures. One of his revelations connects to an idea of etic (or ethic), a general belief that influences people’s behavior and attitudes.
Firstindigo&Lifestyle: When did you move to Finland, and how did you decide to go there to study?
Yasushi Koyama: I moved to Finland in Autumn 2007 to study Fine arts in Saimaa University of Applied Sciences in Imatra. In 2006, I met Finnish printmaker Tuula Moilanen and took her art courses in Kyoto Japan. She was a good teacher and gave me some advice for Finnish education and art school. Then I decided to come to Finland to study.
Firstindigo&Lifestyle: What is the best part of having two cultures to live in and with?
YK: The best part is to have another viewpoint beyond one culture. In addition, in my own artwork Finnish culture meets Japanese culture automatically, unconsciously and unintentionally. It is a good mixture of two cultures for me.
Firstindigo&Lifestyle: Do you think that new cultural heritage transforms you?
YK: I am transformed by Finnish culture on a daily basis especially with the sense of nature and with the contemporary culture of art & design in Helsinki. While in Imatra I experienced a lot of nature such as forest, lake, snow, river, waterfall etc. I took many photos of the beautiful Finnish nature during each season. In this point I was transformed to be a person who likes nature. At the same time, it reminded me of how to be a Japanese, because a life with nature is the very style of Japanese culture too. I came to Helsinki in 2012 to have my solo exhibition in NAPA Gallery. In 2012 Helsinki was the world design capital and my exhibition joined in with some events of World design capital 2012. NAPA Gallery had many artists who were related to graphic design. It was very fresh for me. The art of NAPA members inspired my own art language to absorb the feeling of contemporary graphic design into my art. So I am transformed to get the design viewpoint from the Helsinki contemporary culture.
Firstindigo&Lifestyle: You are currently taking part of an exhibition at the Cable Factory in Helsinki. Tell about the background for this particular show.
YK: The show is called “Masters of Saimaa’16”. It is Masters of Fine Arts graduation exhibition in The Saimaa University of Applied Sciences. 9 master degree students have joined in the show. My artworks are 3 works. There are 2 wood sculptures and 1 wood installation from me.
One of the wood sculptures is titled Panda papa and child. It is a large sculpture, 160cm high and weighting more than 400 kg. The artwork is made for my Art for Children project in 2016. People can touch & hug this Panda papa sculpture, so it is interactive art, and the art also connects to our well-being. It is going to be donated to children’s public place as a public art after my upcoming solo exhibition in Galleria AARNI. I have a good memory attached to Panda. When I was 6 years old Panda came to Ueno Zoo in Japan from China. I visited the Zoo to watch the Panda with my father.
Another wood sculpture is titled Walking cat with Katja’s T-shirt – collaboration with Katja Tukiainen. It is 150 cm high and weights more than 200 kg. Artist Katja Tukiainen is my supervisor for my final works of my thesis. Both Katja and I had a similar experience of having cats as pets in our childhood, and we both like cats. Katja Tukiainen has also designed the official T-shirt for the Cable factory. I liked the T-shirts and so got the idea for the collaboration with her.
Then, my wood installation’s goes with the title The horizontal – wood installation. It is composed of 6 pieces of woods that were originally from one large tree (5m high). Each piece weights between 30 kg to 150 kg. It is made from ash wood that my friend gave me. The title is from Eija–Liisa Ahtila’s video work “The horizontal “ to use 6 screen panels to show one long tree in horizontal way. Her video work “The house” was the first contemporary Finnish art that I saw in Tokyo in 2003. Through this work I wanted to express the culture of wood in Finland and Japan, the process of wood sculpting and wood as a material itself. In Finland the forest area is 71% of the entire land area. In Japan the forest area is about 68% of the land area. In the world, the average of forest area is 31%. So in comparison, our countries have a lot of forest and woods. I think that we both have the tradition of wood culture such as wooden buildings, wooden houses, wooden tools, wooden arts etc. So wood is really important material for me.
Firstindigo&Lifestyle: You hear often that Finnish and Japanese cultures have something in common from the point of view of the design cultures. Do you think it’s true and in what ways?
YK: Yes, it is true. As I told, both Finland and Japan have the culture of wood. Both Finnish and Japanese like nature in life. So natural materials have an influence on the expression of our cultures of design, architecture and art. In addition simplicity, clarity and repetitive nature are similar in both cultures.
Firstindigo&Lifestyle: How did you find your artistic expression with the sculpture?
YK: My artworks are animal sculptures described as “Cute, lovely and humorous”. Most of my works are made from one piece of wood by using hand chisels. The rich textures of wood sculpting give people a warm impression. My wood sculptures have the good mixture between traditional wood sculpting and contemporary expression.
I learnt traditional wood sculpturing in Japan, New Zealand, Transylvania and Finland. For example in Finland in school I learnt wood sculpting from Finnish sculptor Pasi Karjula. He cherished the traditional way of wood sculpting using axe and hand chisels as well as other methods.
In the contemporary art context my wood sculptures have the expression of cuteness and positive energy. Finnish painter Katja Tukiainen had an influence on those expressions. And Finnish sculptor Kim Simonsson inspired me with his innocence of cartoonish sculpture. In addition, the graphic design of Marimekko etc., as well as the culture of the Finnish children’s characters, especially the Moomins took effect on me.
At the same time Japanese Manga & Anime and “neo-pop” art by Japanese painter Yoshitomo Nara have influenced my art language of cuteness. The ideas of art works are inspired by animals, natural shape of wood, self-drawing, Finnish art, illustration, textile design and Japanese art & culture.
Firstindigo&Lifestyle: Are your cute animal sculptures loved by both Finnish and Japanese audiences alike?
YK: Yes, I think so. They are loved and sold in both Finland and Japan. The interesting issue is that Finnish people say Yasushi’s works have Japanese feeling, and Japanese people say that Yasushi’s works have Finnish feeling in them. I accept their viewpoints as a good mixture between Finnish and Japanese culture.
Firstindigo&Lifestyle: How do you develop and teach your concepts to kids?
YK: I remember that I was making animal sculptures with clay almost every day when I was between 4-6 years old. My father gave me photo books of animals. After I looked at them I made animals. It was my ordinary life during my childhood. So it was natural for me to make cute animals. Although I was making a human sculpture while in school, after my graduation I remembered my enjoyment with animal sculptures. So it is normal and natural for me to make these cute animal sculptures. After starting to create animals, some friends and gallerists told me that my artworks include concepts for kids. So I will continue developing art based on my own childhood memories.
Firstindigo&Lifestyle: What is your favorite museum or museums in Finland and why?
YK: I have many favorite museums in Finland. It is difficult to tell of all the museums. So I point my favorite 3 art museums with exhibitions in 2016. I liked Ai Weiwei & Yayoi Kusamaexhibitions in Helsinki Art Museum, Ernesto Neto’s exhibition in 5th floor in Kiasma and “Suomen Taiteen Tarina” (Stories of Finnish Art) in Ateneum Art Museum. Ai Weiwei and Yayoi Kusama are top well-known artists in the world. I appreciate HAM to have offered their exhibitions to people in Finland. I also like the space in Kiasma’s 5th floor. Ernesto Neto’s exhibition gave us the participation and experience, the post colonial and interdisciplinary disciplines in the contemporary art context. “Stories of Finnish Art” was very compact exhibition, but at the same time a very profound way to show Finnish art history. I thought it was a great opportunity for tourists in summer to see the exhibition in Ateneum and also for Finland to show their image through Finnish art.
Firstindigo&Lifestyle: How would you describe Finnish aesthetics?
YK: I want to describe 3 concepts of “less is more”, “silence” and “sorrow” as Finnish aesthetics.
When I think about aesthetics, I always think about “etic” of aesthetics. Etic (or ethic) is a general idea or belief that influences people’s behavior and attitudes. I think that Finnish etic are diligent, honest and simple. Finnish aesthetics is the general idea that influences Finnish people’s behavior to understand beauty. So in my opinion one of Finnish aesthetics is about “less is more”. When I see the simple structures of Finnish architectures, it is so obvious.
About “silence” (hiljaisuus in Finnish), and how it is connected to nature. I remember silent landscape of snow in forest during winter. It was very beautiful. One of my Finnish friends gave me the message about nature, comparing sisu to silence (sisu is a Finnish spirit against strong power). “Nature means more than forests or lakes. It means freedom for oneself. Sisu is the most important for Finns. But how can one respect the other’s freedom? To respect one’s own freedom and the other’s freedom, Finns are keeping silent.” It is poetic but precisely showing the Finnish behavior of silence.It says that silence is the expression to respect one’s own and other’s freedom. Silence is one core of beauty related to the idea of freedom in Finnish culture.
About “sorrow” (suru in Finnish). A Finnish pop singer-song writer Kaija Koo says the phrase: Niin kaunis on hiljaisuus, mutta kauniimpaa on kaipaus. It means: So beautiful is silence but more beautiful is longing. So, when a Finn misses another person or a place, they feel sorrow. The sense of sorrow is connected to the feeling of longing and missing. In addition, a Finnish sense of sorrow takes place in the melancholic climate of Finland, such as during cold, dark and snow etc. “Sorrow” is a general and profound concept in Finnish art, film, novel, mythology etc.
Firstindigo&Lifestyle: What does innovation mean to you?
YK: Innovation is the attitude to look for new applications of old knowledge and the one to create new concepts by mixing more than two different concepts and cultures.
Firstindigo&Lifestyle: Who do you collaborate with and where do you work? Is teamwork important to you?
YK: To meet a person is very important for me. So I would like to cherish meeting a person. This time I collaborated with Finnish painter Katja Tukiainen in Cable Factory, Helsinki. I met her in Cable Factory in 2009 coincidentally, when I was walking around the Cable Factory. She was very kind to me even though I didn’t know her at all at that time. She talked to me friendly about Japan and her exhibition in Yokohama, Japan. I think that meeting is sometimes coincidental but often meaningful. I would like to cherish such a meeting. For the collaboration it is important for me to have a similar concepts, and to be able to share ideas. It is important for me to make collaboration beyond your own culture and to create something new from it. I have collaborated with artists such as painters, sculptors and printmakers. For the future I am interested in collaborating with not only artists but also with designers, anthropologists, philosophers, children, and with ordinary people to be transforming my art.
Firstindigo&Lifestyle: Do you have an opinion about Kusama’s works, she is now extremely popular in the West. How do you like the exhibition in Helsinki at the moment?
In my opinion Kusama’s exhibition includes an important concept of interdisciplinarity, the roles of post colonial and gender in the contemporary art world. So it is natural for the West to accept her art. And her exhibition shows not only art but also an idea to share an experience of her art with visitors. It means that her art works are not only objects but also the image of her art, spirit and that of the contemporary culture. Her exhibition goes beyond art and connects with people in the gallery space to share their experiences. From this point of view, the visitors can participate in her exhibition. And I find that her paintings have an influence coming from native art and aboriginal art. Then, I think that her dot art includes not only pop art but also biological consideration of a cell, Shintoism and neo animism. I imagine that those concepts are fresh and still new to the West. So I admire HAM (Helsinki Art Museum) to have her exhibition.
Firstindigo&Lifestyle: Does Kusama have an approach that can be applied to other things, or could there be a recipe for a good idea to be developed further. There seems to be something that makes people really want to participate in it?
YK: Yayoi Kusama was the world’s most popular artist in 2014. And she is still one of the most popular artist in 2016. I think that the quality of this exhibition is among the top of the world. And her exhibition has been already developed by the point of visitor’s participation, comparing it to her exhibition that I saw in Matsumoto, Japan in 2003. It would be possible for her to use 5 senses to prompt visitors to participate in her art, such as the sense of touch, the sense of smell and auditory sense.
Firstindigo&Lifestyle: Do you think that art should be more sensorial, and available for people to touch?
YK: Yes, at least for me. I think touching art is a much deeper experience than seeing art. I make my large animal wooden sculptures (about 160 x 80 x70 cm) to be touchable and huggable. It is a hands-on way of “interactive art” in a sense that visitors also take action towards the art. And it is also “participation art” as you are touching and hugging a sculpture in the exhibition gallery space or in the public space. The importance of touching art is also connected to the internet period or described as a post-internet period. Although we can see a lot of images through internet, we can’t get a sense of touch through internet as well. So the sense of touch is a strong point attached to my animal sculptures. The feeling of a wood material is little warm and nice to human body. My animal sculptures have been already in some public places as public art. It gives people happiness and experiences in a way that they participate in a society through art.
Firstindigo&Lifestyle: Is there a line between art and design in contemporary art or does there have to be?
YK: For me such a line is not so meaningful in our contemporary time. Design can be art and art can be design. I think that art and design have an effect on each other especially here in Helsinki.
Firstindigo&Lifestyle: What are you planning next, do you have new ideas and exhibitions coming up?
YK: My next exhibition is coming soon 23.11-18.12.2016 in Galleria AARNI in Espoo, Finland. The concept is “Cute” –between SÖPÖ and Kawaii. I mix Finnish cuteness “SÖPÖ” with Japanese cuteness “Kawaii” in my art. In Japan “Kawaii” (= the quality of cuteness) has become a prominent aspect of Japanese popular culture. This term Kawaii has taken on the secondary meanings of cool, groovy, charming and innocent. The book “Kawaii Syndrome” tells “cute” and “neat” have taken precedence over the former Japanese aesthetics of “beautiful” and “refined”. So cuteness is a new cultural wave of Japanese postwar generation especially of the ones born in 70’s and 80’s. This cultural wave has come to Europe particularly through Manga and Anime. For the design of my animal wood sculptures I use Finnish wood, and the Finnish cuteness of SÖPÖ is inspired by Finnish art and design. In the exhibition visitors can see ”Cute” animal sculptures, touch & hug a large sculpture ”Panda Papa & Child”. I am hoping the audiences will enjoy Yasushi Koyama’s world of cute animals in the exhibition coming to Galleria AARNI.
Katsutoshi Yuasa is a Japanese artist who has revitalized the original idea of photography, thinking about its early techniques, and bringing the digital production close to ancient Japanese printmaking practices. His detailed and lengthy artistic process starts usually with a digital snapshot. Eventually the image finds a new life as woodcut print or relief work, which the artist carves and prints all by a hand. In this production the original alters into something else, depicting a feeling or experience. Katsutoshi Yuasa was born in Tokyo. He graduated from the Royal College of Art in London, and has exhibited internationally for over a decade now.
For Katsutoshi Yuasa, the photography contains several layers of meaning. The complexity of the medium implies that the production cannot be perceived as pure images.
Firstindigo&Lifestyle: Your woodcutting is based on photography, did this practice in your mind transform the idea of photography?
Katsutoshi Yuasa: Yes, my process of making art works is a way of thinking about an origin of photography. Or it is about image-making. How we understand and transform an image in front of our eyes to our mind.
I start from a photographic snapshot, but re-emergence of a photographic image is not my goal. My purpose of using a photograph is to make visible something which is perceived but no one sees.
Firstindigo&Lifestyle: What is your background in the arts, how did you end up choosing woodcutting?
KY: I studied painting at first when I was a student. But I gave up my paintings because I couldn’t find a good future in my paintings. So I participated in a short printmaking course, and then found positive possibilities in the printmaking. Even that time my interest was photography, so I was thinking photo etching or screen print technique as my primary expression. At first, woodcut print seemed to be too far from photography. But later I concerned carving lines on wood as a similar process to making lights in the dark room. Now I’ve been making woodcut prints and works related to wood for over 10 years. Basically, woodcut print includes questions about light, image, water and colour.
Firstindigo&Lifestyle: In how many countries have you exhibited so far, including art galleries and art fairs?
KY: Maybe about 15 or 16 countries.
Firstindigo&Lifestyle: Coming from Japan, do you find that there are common approaches to making art in Japanese and Nordic cultures, asking this also because your art has been showed in Nordic countries quite often?
KY: My main subject is woodcut print but it is about light, image, water and colour. So I made a project with an idea of these and created a concept from a place where I stayed. When I visited Norway with the art project “20 Coastal Stations”, my subject was water & colour. I’m going to have a exhibition in October 2016 with artists who traveled together in Norway last year (see info here http://www.sfk.museum.no/nn/node/48).
Firstindigo&Lifestyle: You spent also some artist residence time in Finland, how was this experience like, did it change your artistry, how about finding new influences?
KY: I spend a really good time in Finland. During the artist residence in Finland, I searched Scandinavian myths and poems. I’m interested in how myths are made. I made woodcut prints titled as “Illmatar” and “The world without words”. Also “Listen, Nature is full of songs and truth” is a phrase that I borrowed from Finland.
Firstindigo&Lifestyle: It seems that many of your photographs carry nature imagery, what is your artistic philosophy about nature and how does it change in the process of making your works?
KY: I am not interested in making just beautiful pictures. My interest are words, stories and myths behind the nature and the landscape. The topics are words, images, art, nature, politics and beauty. I would also like to show and include ambivalence in my works.
Firstindigo&Lifestyle: In recent years, you have made a series of works that imply thematic concerns about what is happening in the world. You did a series titled “The Colors of the Innocents”; the theme is based on events in the Middle East adopting Syrian crisis. How did this project come about?
KY: Everyday we see many shocking images on TV or on a screen. There are too many images around us via the internet. I have the works titled as “We lost something but we don’t know what we lost”. And, we can say “We see anything but we don’t remember what we saw” and also “We know something is happening in the world but we don’t know the smell and temperature”. These topics are about cruelty and colour.
Firstindigo&Lifestyle: The result of these prints is quite amazing. Tell about the aesthetic choices of making “The Colors of the Innocents”? They are quite different from your other works, which are more representational.
KY: For these works, I was more interested in making colourful works because colour is getting more important in my practice. One colour work is following up from my CMYK printing system. So I made 4 wood blocks with different lines and printed with 4 CMYK colours.
Firstindigo&Lifestyle: You can see that in 2015 there are new lines and shapes emerging, and result is perhaps more geometry and color. The prints titled All is Vanity, CMYCYMMCYMYCYCMYMC, and Nordlys, to name a few, have this form. Can you say that there is a fine line between design and art in the project that you are doing with these shapes?
KY: The most important idea for these works is “A Throw of the Dice Never Abolish Chance”. My interest is making an Image by a chance. Especially the I Ching is very interesting. There is a question that we choose something by a will or a chance. So my latest solo exhibition was titled as Colour/Numbers. How we choose numbers or how a number was chosen by us.
Katsutoshi Yuasa, 2015,Nordlys 45cm diameter Water-based woodcut on paper.
Katsutoshi Yuasa, 2015, CMYCYMMCYMYCYCMYMC / Set of 24 sheets, 64cm x 48cm each / Water-based woodcut on paper.
Firstindigo&Lifestyle: Tell about the “Beyond assumption” exhibition, which you had in Copenhagen in 2011, you kind of wanted to create an oppositional imagery of disaster, could you tell about this background, and what did you choose to be part of the imagery beyond assumption?
Yes, the exhibition “Beyond assumption” is a word from the Natural disaster that hit in Japan in 2011. Artists want to make their art works beyond assumption in the end. And of course Nature is always beyond our assumption. But we made a system under an unstable base. So here art connects to nature.
Firstindigo&Lifestyle: The works from 2016 also are experimenting with different shapes, reflecting pattern explorations, and bringing forth new influences. It seems that you have a flux of going between geometry and nature, to create and implement beauty?
KY: Yes, I’m very interested in geometry and patterns. It is about image-making. History and culture are included behind an image.
Firstindigo&Lifestyle: Where are you heading next with your art and career?
KY: My next exhibition will be in Norway in October. It includes works from 20 Coastal Stations project. So 6 artists will be showing together, presenting the project. Also, I will have a group exhibition with young Japanese artists, who make water-based woodcut prints, in Melbourne in October.
Aimee Lee is an artist, papermaker, writer, and the leading hanji researcher and practitioner in the United States. With paper, she makes thread, sculpture, books, drawings, prints, garments, and installations. AimeeLee’s background as a performing artist and musician carries traces of paper as sets and costumes. Her installations are artistic research on paper and sound. She has pursued a career with traditional Korean hanji, coming up with new aesthetic concerns and techniques for her artistic practice. As a scholar, she is author of award-winning book,Hanji Unfurled (The Legacy Press).
Firstindigo&Lifestyle: You are a musician, a performer with live violin. How did you start creating performances onsite, including your own installations, manifesting set designs and creating costumes? Did everything start with music?
Aimee Lee: My early aspirations were to become a concert violinist, but I learned in college that I was not serious enough to devote the requisite hours of practice and study. However, I still loved music and wanted to stay close to musicians, so I continued to play and my first jobs were in music administration—bringing music to people who did not have access, or bringing people together through music.
When I moved to Chicago for graduate school, I entered an interdisciplinary program that encouraged combining different media, especially performance. It was a book and paper program, but I was interested in the intersection of books and performance. Once I began to make paper, the connection between paper and performance was so compelling that I created installations that were dependent on paper that I made. The performances, which almost always included sound from my violin, activated the installations.
Firstindigo&Lifestyle: Some of the live performances, which you composed and put together implement almost haunting kind of sound that responds back from the architecture of the venue, and then audience is stretched to interactive listening and feedback, where did you get the ideas to make these works?
AL: Mostly, I studied classical music, but later learned improvisation and jazz. The heart of what I have always loved to do is rooted in improvisation, whether or not I was aware of it. Human communication, which sound and music are, has always fascinated me, so I wanted immediate feedback and interaction with my audiences. In Chicago, I was influenced by performance residencies with Aaron Williamsonand Greg Allen, and by Julie Laffin.
Firstindigo&Lifestyle: Now, we can perhaps say that you have become a master of hanji, the Korean traditional paper making. Where did you find the enthusiasm to start exploring it, and how did it come about?
AL: While I studied papermaking history in the graduate school, I noticed that it began in China, moved to Korea, and then traveled to and flourished in Japan. Most of the existing research in English on East Asian paper was based in Japan, and I was unable to find much about hanji (Korean paper). I grew up at a time and place in the US where people always tried to guess my heritage, but they could only imagine that I was Chinese or Japanese. This sense of Korea being overshadowed affected me deeply, so I felt a curiosity about Korean paper history. My Fulbright research in Korea uncovered an entire history and culture that fascinated me on all levels, as an artist, a researcher, a Korean American, a person in the world. After my return to the U.S., I felt a strong responsibility to share what I had learned. I would never call myself a hanji master, but will always be a steadfast hanji ambassador and artist (read Aimee Lee’s exhibition review in Firstindigo&Lifestyle)
Firstindigo&Lifestyle: Is the knowledge of making hanji widespread in Korea today, how about the new generations and passing down this historic form that goes back hundreds of years?
AL: Korea has similar issues to the U.S. and other cultures where the current knowledge of traditional craft by the general public is quite limited. It is not a priority in contemporary life, so not many people in Korea are aware of the process of making hanji and its impact on Korean history. There are less than 25 paper mills remaining in Korea, and very few have serious apprentices, because it’s not an easy living. In a world where you could live and work in an urban center with all the amenities you need, why would someone decide to live in a rural area doing manual labor for very little money? There are no good incentives to do the work, even if you believe in continuing an ancient and important tradition.
Firstindigo&Lifestyle: How sustainable is the process, could you tell about the ecological aspect of the paper making?
AL: Papermaking on a small scale (meaning individuals or families who are in business) in Korea is ecologically sustainable, though it may not be financially so. The main raw material is the paper mulberry tree, which is cut each year. This coppicing practice encourages the plant to grow back every year, so the same plant can produce material for over 20 years. These are not trees in the way Western minds think of hardwood lumber: they are tall and skinny, almost shrublike, and cutting them down does not kill the plant. The traditional methods of processing always used plant materials so that production byproducts were easy and not toxic to dispose of or reuse. The bulk of the energy that goes into making hanji is human energy, which means that the process is very labor intensive but has a very light ecological footprint.
Firstindigo&Lifestyle: Is it correct that Hanji derives from nature, or implies a closeness to it?
AL: Hanji is made from plants, and could never have been invented without a human closeness to non-human nature by observing the possibilities of certain species and experimenting over time. Dorothy Field, artist and author (my favorite is her book Paper and Threshold) writes beautifully about how certain plants long to become paper, and all they needed was the human hand to let them reach that state.
Firstindigo&Lifestyle: Can Hanji accessories, or clothing, be compared to textiles, or is it irrelevant?
Paper and textile have a very strong connection, aside from each being able to be transformed into the other. The first paper was made from hemp cloth, and hanji can be cut, spun, and woven into cloth. Hanji has been used to make clothing, and today’s contemporary designers and manufacturers are including hanji into their textile production.
Firstindigo&Lifestyle: You are teaching as well, could you tell about the workshops and education aspect?
AL: I mentioned before that sense of responsibility to share knowledge about hanji to a much wider audience. Part of this is from a conservation instinct, out of a fear that hanji is disappearing. But most of it comes from a joyous instinct, out of my love for this material that is so endlessly versatile. I always knew that handmade paper had great range, but even after almost a decade, I continue to find possibilities for hanji. If the substrate was not impressive, I would not feel compelled to promote it. However, I want people to know about hanji as an option, so that they can have another tool in the toolkit. This means that I teach a range of workshops, from preparing fiber to making hanji to manipulating it by hand. I travel continually to spread the word, in the hopes that eventually hanji will become as familiar as other papers, and that paper itself can be regarded on the same level as canvas, clay, metal, glass, wood, and so on.
Firstindigo&Lifestyle: The aesthetic form of Hanji art and folk art influences your making, how do people receive these traditional objects, which you are making today?
AL: Most people don’t know about the lineage of the objects, so the responses are mostly of wonder—they are amazed that my pieces are made of paper in the first place. This provides an opening to share the stories of their historical use, and illuminate the ways that humans have always made objects that are not only useful, but embedded with meaning. Some have asked if I am interested in using the techniques to make much more contemporary ‘looking’ art. I have wanted for years to extend crafts like jiseung into installation and larger work that goes past the original shapes and functions of their predecessors. The issue is that the time and labor that it takes to make one piece is so great that I could only go in that direction if I had a very long and uninterrupted stretch of time to work. However, I am gratified to see that some of my students are moving in that direction after learning about hanji and its applications.
Firstindigo&Lifestyle: What other materials do you use today in the making of your art?
AL: For the longest time, I have been very strict about using hanji whenever possible, or other handmade papers. My thread box is always full of different paper threads I have made, though I use cotton, linen, and silk thread to sew my hanji dresses. I also use the raw materials that make these papers, such as the cooked bark before it is beaten to a pulp. I use mostly natural dyes and finishes, which add color, structure, and protection to the paper. Last year, I collaborated with Kristen Martincicon a paper and ceramic installation, and recently had a couple of jewelry metals artists help me with additions to my paper ducks at Haystack Mountain School of Crafts. I’m interested in continuing this last investigation further.
Firstindigo&Lifestyle: What is fascinating about your use of paper is its multiple dimensions from small objects to books. Your own writing and art (illustration) is sealed into these art books. Tell about the books, which you have made, how did the stories develop?
AL: Books came first for me, before paper. I was making artists’ books at Oberlin College while studying with Nanette Yannuzzi Macias, which was a game changer. It was a way to combine writing, drawing, storytelling, and all kinds of other media into a form that felt very familiar and yet new. I don’t remember when I started to draw comics, but like improvisation, it was something that came naturally to me. I always thought that the point of being able to make my own books was the ability to create all of my own content. Most of my books contain original writing and stories that come from my own life experience, literature that I love, and the immediate present moment—whether an emotional space or an actual time in history that could be marked in the news cycle.
Aimee Lee, Lapse relapse, 2015, ink and persimmon dye on kozo and hanji, thread. Oberlin College Art Libary collection.
Aimee Lee, Blue moon, 2015, Naturally dyed, spun and woven mulberry paper, mildweed paper covers, thread, 4 leaves.
Aimee Lee, Figure and ground, 2006-2011, pen on handmade paper, tacket binding, 12 pages, CIA Gund Library Collection
Aimee Lee, Arithmetic, 2016, Pencil and stamped foil on handmade paper, 300×300
Firstindigo&Lifestyle: Do you travel to Korea to get new ideas and exchange?
AL: I am able to get back every several years, whenever I am funded. However, because of the distance and difficulty of making enough time to visit (I prefer going for longer periods of time), it’s not a journey I make often. Certainly it is inspiring, but it is a challenge as well because the expectations of me as a Korean American woman can be stressful.
Firstindigo&Lifestyle: Often you hear that there is a division of thought between Eastern and Western approaches or philosophies. Do you feel you are bridging the gap between east and west in your practice, or do you think about these questions?
AL: This idea comes up often and much of my work can be seen as bridge building between cultures. However, I do my best to stay away from the reductive nature of “East/West” because it sets up an automatic “Us/Them” mentality that can become dangerous. My life experience of feeling reduced to a single word, automatically, because of how I looked, keeps me aware of the unconscious instincts we have to categorize everything. I prefer to present my scholarship and artwork as being rooted in and inspired by many different traditions and cultures. It’s impossible for me to work any other way because I was born to immigrant parents and always lived between at least two disparate cultures.
The “east meets west” cliché is one I particularly dislike, as if it has just happened, and as if there are only two monoliths in the world. It also comes from the point of view of a certain place being the center or more superior, which is problematic. Most cultures around the world have been in contact with each other for centuries, so cross-cultural understanding is not a new thing or an anomaly. Rather, it’s the norm.
Firstindigo&Lifestyle: Where do you see yourself as an artist and educator in the future?
AL: My goal is to build a new hanji studio for myself, where I can work, make paper, and teach independently, while continuing to travel to teach and exhibit. I want to train apprentices in this new space so that I can increase the number of people who can support hanji. There’s at least one more scholarly book left in me as well, so I look forward to finding the ideal setting to properly research and write it. All of this will be unlocked, I think, once I find the right place for myself to be.
Re:visioning HANJI exhibition showcases artworks made from Korean traditional paper hanji. Two artists, Ran Hwang and Aimee Lee, have each developed their own contemporary aesthetics and styles based on the traditional modes of mastering the paper in artistic forms. The exhibition is on view until March 31 at the Korean Cultural Center in New York, and connects to the Asia Week New York.
In the old days, the masters of the Korean paper manufacturing were called jijang. This profession was proudly inherited and passed on to the next generation. The art of Korean paper making is a complex production process starting with a fiber of mulberry tree. It has developed into multiple use of materials and techniques that are still valid today. Historically, paper was not only applied into books, but its role was more daily as functional material in architecture and clothing. It was also part of making calligraphy, painting, money and armor. The remarkable part of early Korean paper manufacturing was connected to Buddhist scriptures.
The paper process starts with harvesting. A year old mulberry fiber is harvested during the time of November – February, when the plant has enough moisture and the fiber is soft. The skin gets steamed right after harvesting to make a peeling process easier. The entire making is ecological and does not harm nature in any way. After washing and drying, boiling, and peeling cycle, the fiber is used to make hanji. Then the project involves beating the fiber so paper will become thinner and tougher. Finally, the fiber needs to be dissolved and sieved into paper.
Jiseung is an indigenous art form that Koreans have practiced for hundreds of years. It evolved from hanji; when books were printed and bound, the trimmed edges were saved and used further in making baskets and decorative items. The paper rope became popular, because it was softer than straw, but as strong, and available for use. Many of the traditional pieces have gotten lost through wars and modernization. Yet woven hanji artifacts still include everyday items such as shoes, baskets, wallets, backpacks, and lanterns. For young Korean-American artist, Aimee Lee, the idea of 100 percent hanji includes making the paper herself. She then weaves and naturally dyes the materials used in the artworks. Eventually her objects take a form from the traditional dimensions, gestures and environments. Lee says that her pieces borrow from the historical artifacts. The wedding ducks, which were traditionally given to Korean bride and groom, are one example of this long history. The artist plays with the proportion and shapes creating unique contemporary versions of the objects. She states that none of the original materials went to waste, because paper was so durable and labor intensive to make. Repurposing the paper is a way to connect to the tradition and stories. Paper was carrying secret messages during war. People made sandals out of civil service examinations and other certificates.
My main material is paper and my central concern is how we use it. I make paper with abundant native and invasive species, which involves harvesting plants, stripping and cooking, processing into pulp, forming sheets, and drying. With this paper, I make thread, sculpture, books, drawings, prints, installations, and performance components. Aimee Lee
Korean-born, internationally acclaimed installation artist Ran Hwang creates poetic pieces out of materials that are deployed in fashion industry. She uses handmade hanji buttons to create monumental pieces in installations that display iconic images. Her 9 feet tall work that displays Eiffel Tower and Triumphal Arch, required hours of securing handmade materials on plexiglas panel. The Beginning of the Bright piece, includes also Hangeul, the Korean alphabet. The work was displayed in Paris at the UNESCO headquarters to celebrate Hangeul’s designation as world cultural heritage. For Hwang, the lengthy hours of making the works means hammering each button on pins for approximately 25 times. The work is like meditative ritual similar to those of the zen-masters who concentrate on their practice for hours at a time.
Hwang creates three types of series, including, the plum blossoms, the birds and spiders, and architecture. The blossoms refer to ephemerality, to the endless circulation of life, which flowers depict when growing and falling. Architecture, like palaces, are symbols of power, which in the art also imply tragic events like invasions and deaths. The small creatures, birds and spiders, represent states between restriction and freedom, implying a constant flux and wandering in life. The artist states that all her work is in a state of fluidity. Nothing is fixed or permanent. The art evokes a dialogue between fleeting and the eternal.
The combination of endurance and ephemerality is at the heart of my choice of using buttons as the primary medium. I hammer thousands of pins into wooden or acrylic panels with my bare hands. The process of creating these large installations is time-consuming, repetitive, and labor-intensive. Thus, the production process is a meditation for me to visualize a cosmological amount of time, and de-installation process is to end the cycle of life and start a new cycle. Ran Hwang
Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei’s exhibition opened in Helsinki in September 2015. Ai Weiwei @ Helsinki will be on view through the end of February 2016. His first solo exhibition in Finland features 25 works from 1985 to the present, including selection of wooden sculptures and installations, and taking materials from antiques and building structures of old temples. Ai Weiwei’s exhibition is connecting to historical China, raising contemporary questions and speaking of the critical voice, which requires to be heard. The exhibition narrates of the personal and the cultural, weighting the nuances that the artist has tested in practice.
Ai Weiwei is the artistic figurehead for thinking how today’s east meets west in many forms. I call my perception of the works ‘massivity of matter’. Firstly, the amount of matter in a museum space probably recalls any sculpture display as the intervention of matter over the space. In this exhibition, however, the sculptural speaks together with the space, the airy high ceilings are breathing with the objects. Second, the massivity of matter is more of a feeling that comes with the lack of scripture between the works. An echo of Chinese contemporary art, in which ancestral is disconnected from the line of reproducing the artifacts?
Map of China (2008), is Ai Weiwei’s large opening piece to the exhibition. The sculpture is tall, hard to measure, and made of tieli wood fragments that come from ancient temples. This material is centuries old and told to be very rare today. Map of China is made with traditional Chinese woodworking technique bringing the pieces together. The challenge was to create the work without any visible seams. The configuration has the shape of the country showing how there was not a single history or culture in the first place, but only a forced effort to fit all the richness into a one state.
So a question arises, how to connect historical meaning and the general meaning of the past to those issues that define a contemporary consciousness of a man, after he had to struggle with the fascist propaganda and denial? I am not proposing this question as an individualist concern, but more as a rhetorical phrase to speak of a multiple choices. The artist can mirror his personal position on the power/to shed light on the power, which one-sidedly and univocally has taken over all the other voices, eventually starting to represent masses of voices. This is where massivity arises in artistic aesthetics. And perhaps this is why there is no single narrative imposed in the exhibition, because bringing together all the objects would already be a lot. They would utter so strongly, so let them escape the definition, and let the cacophony sing its well-orchestrated noise. Needless to say, as the wood is concerned, the aesthetics is well rehearsed, well mounted, the sculptural is well organized in groups, following up the international sculptural aesthetics of the moment. Working with wood, and collecting pieces that come from a cultural place with this huge time span; say, goes far beyond our contemporary time. This makes the works epic for today. Historical load is apparent. History arrives with the same massivity, as the ancestral would drive you over.
To be a political artist is not easy from the point of view of artistic aesthetics. Our art world needs the voices to break silences, but often the politics becomes massivity. It would perhaps be different to subtly speak without ruins taking over, as objects do have their own weight without us directly attaching them to ‘art’. In this case, the objects are not simply cultural artifacts as they appear in the art museum context, however they connotate in the form of temples, for instance. Some pieces come from temples – that is the shrine nature of a house, narrating about ancestry and patriarchal dominance. These fragments are ultimate references to the age of property, practice, and material attachments.
Another sculptural work by Ai Weiwei, is called Tree (2010). It is an assemblage of different woods deriving from individual trees. The dead tree trunks were collected from various locations in the mountains of South China. Differences between components is left visible intentionally:
‘We assembled them (the parts) together to have all the details of a normal tree. At the same time, you’re not comfortable, there’s a strangeness there, an unfamiliarness. And it’s just like trying to imagine what the tree was like.’
Wood as artistic material is so much about nature. Tree as a material is beyond our dominance. It exists and grows without our appropriation. But we did cut trees, we destroyed their existence, and we were cutting down entire forests. In the exhibition, the tree-sculpture is made from pieces to look like a whole tree, an original, yet at the same it is not. It is a look-alike, a not exactly, and a make believe of a tree, a form of a tree, a powerful signifier of a tree, of nature, of origin. It is quite interesting how this sculpture ended up being the center, as other objects are made of wood as well, representing crafty continuation of the artifacts as man made materiality, a continuation of time, which was before mass production.
The modernity of artificial materials, known as the mass-production is another question. Mass production creates massivity. Perhaps the ancestral places speak in the same manner as the modernity. The history is long; we communicate and paraphrase with it. Perhaps this exhibition communicates beyond art, becoming dynamic battlefield for matter and spirit, proposing final materiality in art. Where do we stretch the line between the materials that make the essence of an artwork? We draw from culture, bringing cultural objects into museum to speak for the culture. And this takes place ultimately not in the name of individual subjectivity but for all the collective consciousnesses.
After all, the dialogue between poetic and anti-poetic is what we are looking in the massivity. Poetry does not speak with the loudness unless it was dried out of mythological meaning and it communicates more with the naturalist approach to speak with metaphors. Metaphor can be standing for something, which is not invisible, and stands for something apparent, showing the evidence, creating presence of the political as inevitable. It is standing, yet changing?
There is an evident need for change in the cultural. The aesthetic is more of a repetitive force that takes form in the massivity. The criticism toward west comes in the undertone of the material in consumption, as enlightening force. The materialism is our new religion?
Traveling Light (2007), is a sculpture mounted on a temple pillar, appearing as being a gigantic table lamp or crystal chandelier. Ai Weiwei became interested in light as an object from the point of view of illumination and environment. The large sculpture stands for the idea that objects are close to human scale to be experienced physically.
Divina Proportio (2012), is composed of huali wood, referring to the golden mean, and as mathematical proportions to geometry in the Renaissance.
The exhibition includes two previously unseen works, White House, and Garbage Container, the former speaking of China’s developments and urbanization, the latter about five homeless boys who died tragically.
A new piece in the exhibition titled White House (2015) is an entire residential house of the Qing dynasty. The composition includes different woods and is constructed traditionally using nail-less joints. The work stands for the heritage, as the new developments in China have pushed away the traditional. The new white paint on a wooden surface creates questions about past and present, authenticity and change.
But cultures change slowly. The anthroposcience of human life shortly lived, continues in the legacy of a son who outlives his father (in a natural cycle). The artifacts have a longer life than we do, and this ends building the culture as fluid and as anatomically tilted. Objects lend to the patriarchal order creating legacy and interdependency. Objects echo about history, so in the name of the poetics and dialogue whenever they are on display there is an underpinning of voices that mesmerize with their presence.
The exhibition architecture divides the show into two large rooms. On the other side there are objects, which call much of the legacy that is darker, even more personal than the first exhibition space. Ai Weiwei became a prisoner after he was arrested in 2011 at the airport in Beijing. He was sometimes handcuffed to a chair while questioned. He also kept washing his one set of clothes while in prison, drying them on a hanger.
The art in this case becomes a historical conscience of a collective. It necessarily opens as a voice for the people whose history it is part of. The objects, their material consciousness and presence appear as inevitably non-corruptive, with presentation and physical presence, as non-poetic solidity. The substance is speaking through the stone, or the stones would shout, in this case wood objects.
Ai Weiwei’s role as a seer or visionary, means a hard position at home in China. His work Through (2007), is composed of tieli wood once again, having fragments of old temples from Qing dynasty. The scale is massive, and piercing, the tables and pillars form an almost cage-like atmosphere.
He says: ‘Artists are not in a position to decide the conditions imposed upon them but they can make statements about these conditions.’
Artists have their own life, their own existential power, their own presence and saying. When it comes to power propositions with artwork, let’s say this. It is hard to assume that the artist proposes his artwork knowing that the entire nature of the artwork would stand for the resistance of power. Cultural legacy changes in a moment, when it becomes ‘art’. The objects are in a terrain of global and international exchange of matter. When it comes to materiality in the sense or meaning, would not the objects have a saying only inside their cultural reference? Legacy or cultural speaking of the history changes with the art market. When legacy becomes art, it has become layered with different meaning; yet the objects are not entirely free of their cultural origins.
The Garbage Container (2014), impresses as a valuable huali wood piece, reminiscing of a cupboard, and looking like a container when it turned on the side. Another impressive piece is the architectural installation titled Ordos 100 model (2011), which was built together with Swiss architect firm Herzog & De Meuron. Made of carved pinewood, an uncompleted, miniature city was planned to be build in Ordros. Treasure Box (2014), is another construction made of huali wood. interestingly, all the objects seem to highlight the wallpaper, titled as IOU Wallpaper (2011-2013), which has decorative appeal, yet a message that makes everything seem unconventional.
Ai Weiwei’s exhibition atHAM Helsinki in on view until February 28th, 2016.