AAA Researcher for Taiwan, Larry Shao (LS): In your work you have chosen to investigate the dynamics of everyday life and the urban environment. Can you speak about your relationship with cities and how you came to create these works?
Tsui Kuang-Yu (TKY): I am often asked questions like this; let me take this opportunity to clarify. Stereotyping works by their medium is a very crude way of categorizing in the art world. For example, one might say “You are a video artist”, or “you belong to this genre of video”. I prefer to call my works ‘action videos’. Although ‘action video’ is common in the West and so perhaps they prefer to call it performance art, but that’s not a very interesting discussion. I don’t make a certain type of art for the sake of it’s medium, like making a performance for the sake of performance art, or acting for the sake of making action art. The question that should be asked is “why the everyday?” and “why a city?”. I believe when one wakes up, the first thing he or she thinks about is the issue of daily life, not art. What you have to face everyday, what you come in contact with – these are the issues I deal with in my work. What I do is not so much making art, but more finding solutions, and even more than that, giving suggestions. What are the possibilities in the everyday life and how do I face them? I use myself as an example to examine how I deal with daily life and how I transform it. Videos are a symbolic way to suggest the possibilities or alternatives people have. Sometimes the end result can be humorous, which can distract some viewers from what I really want to say. When my viewers say to me “Hey Tsui Kuang-Yu, I like your art, it’s funny”, I am a bit disappointed.
LS: In Jian Tzu-Chieh’s review of you he pointed out that your work brings out “the rare laughter in art exhibitions” but, like you said, viewers sometimes stop at that level and categorize your work as slap stick humour. Do you feel limited by this?
TKY: I think any interpretation can be limiting. You’ll find that mostly the people who talk about art are curators, critiques or people with a background in art history. Let me give an example: the reason people visit art museums is because they are interested in art, but when we talk about art, when we go to see a biennale, what we are interested in and concerned about is not art issues, nor art historical issues, nor issues on critiques, but social issues and life issues, issues people encounter everyday. We don’t usually wake up and first think “art” but rather other things. These other things are what I want to deal with. A writer is conditioned to interpret art according to a certain methodology in review writing. Most works of art have multiple layers; people see different layers based on their professional background or life experiences. Some people’s experiences allow them to see what I am trying to do in my works. I feel that the writing of most curators and critics is still stuck in the dialogue of aesthetics, using Western concepts of aesthetics or philosophy to discuss art. These kinds of dialogues are disconnected from reality. Slap stick is only the surface layer and they can talk about that if they like but I hope they also find something deeper.
LS: So humour is only a vehicle for you to investigate issues of daily life?
TKY: I don’t know where I get my sense of humour from; I am not really a very humorous person. You’ll find that I am quite serious in conversations. This sometimes disappoints people because they expect me to be funny. Having said that humour is a good platform from which to invite viewers to enter my work, but I usually don’t discuss humour. I say my works are more satire than comedy, although many satires are comic.
LS: During an interview you commented that “art is boring”, as did Xu Bing recently. Can you elaborate on that?
TKY: I believe many people have the same sentiment, but just haven’t put it into words. Xu Bing and I are both guilty of this crime because, like many artists, we have made many boring things. Curators such as Manray Hsu have also said this. We all feel the same way but the question is why do we still make art? Artists have to hustle within the industry, we have to go to social events, art fairs and biennales. To me it is important to make connections in the global art community; it has to do with what’s practical. Exhibitions derive from these activities and only after you get these opportunities do you get to speak. It is very tricky. At talks I often say that my works are not related to art and this confuses people. They don’t know the sacrifices artists have to make to get into a venue in order to say what we really want and, by the time they see our works, we have already been labelled as artists. Although I have to say many of the biennales are inviting artists who are more activist. I think it is very important to keep an open mind and not be restricted by the art bubble. Artists can’t be compared with scientists, they are at the forefront of a society, their expertise is not our expertise and vice-versa. But if artists want to research and contribute to our environment and community, be a reference, suggest a possibility, then that is a positive contribution rather than just playing in our own playpen. You make a sample for people, it might be a video, (we are all making videos because it is quick); you can post it online, burn a DVD for a friend, it is just a medium. We artists should have a greater intention and ambition; our abilities need to exceed the past. In my case I sometimes feel a lack of ability when I attempt something. It is because my past training is different from what is available to students now. I try to move with the pace of this age, but you need to get hold of a lot of resources, tools, and weapons. I didn’t have training in the web, or programme writing, or the skills of an engineer and I do my best to compensate for this.
LS: Taiwanese society, like many others, often goes beyond the absurd (for example the corruption of the Chen family). How do you see your works in relation to the ‘real absurdity’? Compared with reality are your works really absurd or funny anymore? When you conceptualize your work do you think in terms of what is happening everyday? If so, how far do you go with the concept?
TKY: I am organizing an artist talk for a group exhibition at Eslite gallery in July called ‘Looking up, Looking Down’, but the direct translation from Chinese is ‘Nothing wonderful in life when you look up’. It will examine the relationships between art and life. There was a foreigner on the news recently who jumped over parked scooters while holding a stuffed bear, like going over an obstacle course, similar to one of my videos from City Spirits. The authenticity of the piece is beside the point, but when a news report is aired it is treated as a current event. I will put my work next to this to compare and contrast and begin to look at the distance between art and reality. News is about realty in a society, but the artist brings his own interpretation of that reality. These two need to be brought to the table and examined. Artists are viewed as people who can only make works of art, but people don’t perceive works of art to be social events. When artists make art, we attempt to have a relationship with society, not just to create an absurd piece for the sake of absurdity. Once it is on a platform we can then have a discussion. Unfortunately, at artists’ talks people still discuss art within art instead of extending the discussion to a social level. I think that is a shame. Many biennales today are attempting to change this. Artists have already raised the reality they face in society; shouldn’t we treat it like an affair, an incident and have a discussion? People reflect on news once it is reported so why treat art simply as art. Art is very inclusive but also, because it is a piece of art, we except it for what it is, put it in a little box labelled “Art” and put it on the shelve. This is a problem. The international art community is still stuck at this level, although many curators and artists at the forefront are trying to do something different, not for the sake of being different but just doing what they believe is their duty. Instead of staying in the art bubble, in that box, we need to ponder and reflect on this in order for change to happen. The art scene is a discipline of society. For me it is like environmental and urban research. Let’s return to the first question – people live in cities they created and, although they are all manmade, ironically man has to adjust and learn to live there.
LS: Being an early-mid career Taiwanese artist, what kind of advantages and challenges do you come across? Does Taiwan’s political polarizing environment effect/inform your art?
TKY: I don’t have any strong feelings on this; perhaps I am used to it. Manray Hsu once said “the dilemma the Taiwanese artists face is that they don’t have an international platform, they have been marginalized”. Who is paying attention to Taiwanese art? People pay attention to Chinese art. Maybe being on the fringe is our advantage.
LS: What do you mean?
TKY: When you are on the fringe, you have a position and although people don’t always pay attention to this position, if you are doing well your position will then be valued. The recognition would not be on Taiwan, but the individual. Instead of Taiwan’s international reputation the artist would be valued as an individual. I’ve met people who say “Chinese artist are all great”. I understand this is a result of the West’s need to mystify the unfamiliar. On the flip side Asian artists also think that the West is great. People envy and crave what they don’t have. Taiwanese artists have worked hard to participate on the international stage, but we have not received wide acclaim. We are not under the Western tradition and we are not in a position that is easily recognizable to the West. In addition, because of the political and economical climate of Taiwan we have very little in the way of international connections. If you asked a Westerner what Taiwan is like they would have no idea. Maybe this is a result of many years of self-containment. Even though I often travel it is only beneficial to me personally, it doesn’t change the greater environment.
LS: I hear you are going to the Antarctic Circle. Why does it attract you and what’s next on your agenda?
TKY: It is very attractive to many people. I have always made works related to the environment, not necessarily just an urban environment. People live in a city and we have to learn how to live well, to most, Antarctica is unfamiliar, it is very harsh. Although I don’t have a lot of time there, only around twenty days, I hope that it will be enough time to allow me to think about the possibilities there. What could we do in Antarctica? How could we adjust there? What kind of solution can I provide to exist there? My art develops in stages; it starts very small and gets bigger. I started first with myself, then the city, and now I want to see if I can stretch it further to include something even larger, like the weather – I can’t control the weather. So I thought let’s include a harsh environment and add it to my research in cities, let’s see what the differences are. I want to provide a broader train of thought, not only about what else can be done in a city, or how it is funny. These are only some of my expectations, and I will find out once I get there.