Your works are monumental and usually found on the floor or the surfaces of walls. Floral patterns inspired by Taiwanese textiles cover the surfaces of the room. The intense colouration – you use many shades of red – escapes from the surfaces because of its brilliance and creates an extraordinary atmosphere in the room. What is the role of sensuality in your work?
The textiles, that I appropriate my patterns from, are used in Taiwan as duvet covers that are given as part of the dowry to the groom from the bride’s family for the wedding. It is mostly used as the covers of the wedding night bed.
Last week, while I was in Tokyo, I had a very interesting conversation with a young architect. She asked me if I ever considered moisture in relation to my works. She explained to me that, because my works are appropriations of textiles, for her they retain the qualities of textiles in terms of moisture. Unlike paper, which is dry and more rigid, textiles contain a certain amount of moisture that allows them to be soft and moldable to the body.
You were born in Tokyo in 1964, grew up in Taiwan and immigrated to the USA with your parents in 1973. You have lived in Los Angeles and Paris and after finishing your studies, decided in 1993 to return to Taiwan where you now live. What role does the place where you live play? How much are you influenced by each of the different cultures?
The move from Los Angeles back to Taiwan was the most important for me in regards to my practice. I moved back to Taiwan in 1993, directly after I finished my studies in LA. At the time the “art system” in Taiwan was very different from the conditions that existed in LA. Contemporary art or for that matter Modern art in Taiwan were seen as something imported, something which did not develop out of its own tradition. There was, at the time, in the arts and the general society, a conscious struggle to search out and define a vocabulary base on its own cultural parameters. Of course this condition was a result of the political predicament that is specific to Taiwan since 1949. The precarious and uncertain state of political and cultural identity due to its isolation from the international community, the United Nations, since 1972, gave rise to an identity crisis that provoked a paradoxical retrospective search for a national identity. I identified myself directly to this condition both due to my own past history and my position as an artist. One of the main reasons for my family’s immigration to the United States was directly linked to the uncertainties brought about by the transfer of recognition from Taiwan to China of the United States. On the other hand, as an artist, I was forced to go back to very fundamental questions in my practice that only came about because of this displaced distance. I posed very fundamental questions such as the relationship between my practice and the specific contexts that I practiced in, which later led to questions about my practice’s relationship to the audience.
Which artists or art movements have inspired you?
There are many obvious inspirational artists for me; Daniel Buren, Dan Graham, and Franz West for example. But what really challenged and provoked me was the very specific circumstance in Taiwan. The Taiwanese New Wave Cinema was something very important for me, the films of Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Edward Yang, and Tsai Ming-Liang. Each of them developed a very specific language in their reflections on the state of contemporary life in Taiwan, Hou with his historical essays, Young’s focus on contemporary urban life in Taipei, and Tsai’s cinema of the body with almost no dialogue. I too, at the time, struggled to reconcile my practice with the context of my new environment. At the time I was very influenced by the ideas of Elaine Scarry and how she spoke about culture in the body. The culture that is learned into the body “is more permanently there, then those disembodied forms of patriotism that exist in verbal habits or in thoughts about one’s national identity.” For me, she pointed the way to the body as a site of culture that allowed me to think about cultural identity and its relationship to art practice in a very different way.
Your ornamental patterns are infinitely expandable, there is no centre and no composition. The term “all over” structure began with Jackson Pollock’s art and deals with surface democratically and on the basis of equality. A structure located between abstraction and figuration. In your case, a natural process of alienation and stylisation? Simulacra that cause mood shifts?
I am not sure what you mean by alienation and stylisation in regard to my work. For me the term “all over”, democracy, and equality seem to be linked directly to American cold war politics. My works create temporary places, not a painting surface but a pedestrian unremarkable place of respite.
I use the term unremarkable for my work, even though they are most of the time monumental in scale, for they recede into the background at the tilt of the head. They are not focus points like a painting or a sculpture.
With your floor works, on which visitors often lie on cushions designed by you, you break with the well-known museum sign “Don’t Touch”, the Christian “Noli me tangere” and the aura of the artwork. Visitors to the exhibition can sleep on the “Kiasma Day Bed” and recover from the exertion of looking. How do you deal with art becoming functional and applied art?
I am not interested in making divisions between fine art and applied art. Art has always been functional. Even if it is a painting on a wall, it is either functioning as contemplative provocation, a decorative object or as a trophy on a collectors wall. I don’t agree with Donald Judd when he said that a chair is not art because when you sit on it you can’t see it. I think that some of the most important works of art are the ones that we live with and effect our daily lives such as architecture, furniture, and fashion, that can be said to even shape our bodies and minds.
You often work together with assistants or students. Even during the production of your works, art becomes a social event. Rirkrit Tiravanija also often tries to make places and situations where people meet possible, places where there is communality and communication. How close is your work to this artistic praxis?
I think that they are in some ways fundamentally similar, but I must add that my practice is less utopic then Tiravanija’s. All my works are produced by groups of people that we recruit on site because the productions are very laborious. There is communality and communication but in toil. The work is not about my personal expression with paint but more about my proposition for a relationship to a place.
The work “Untitled Cigarette Break” from 1999 appears to be an obvious reference to Andy Warhol and Pop Art. What is your relationship to them?
For Untitled Cigarette Break I was thinking much more about the relationship of ornamentation to Modernism. For me the DC2 chair of Le Corbusier reflected perfectly the white cube of the gallery space I was showing in. The chairs became a scale model of the room. The paintings on the wall were scaled somewhere between the chairs and the room. I thought of smoking as a more conscious way of breathing. Smoke describing the breath. The chairs describing the room. The walls becoming a shirt for our body.
Can you explain the technical aspects of your work? I have heard you refer to yourself as a painter; what do consider your position in painting to be?
I refer to myself as a painter because I use paint. I am a house painter and perhaps we can say that that is my position in painting. The first large scale painting that I made in 1988 was titled “House”. It was the first time that I painted directly on the architecture with the ornamental patterns that I found in my home.
Sometimes your work appears to me to be film or stage decoration and the visitors are the potential protagonists. Am I mistaken?
No, not at all, even for my first floor painting, I thought of it as a stage for something to take place on. The works are places as opposed to spaces. Space is an abstraction while a place has a name, is in time, and necessitates physical experience.
The avant-garde – and above all the neo-avant-garde – had the problem that if their claims for art were realised, namely the combination of art with life, art would then become superfluous and completely assimilated into life. How do your works look against the background of this debate?
This is only a problem if the premise is that art is separate from life. On Kawara once said, “Europeans can’t really understand the Japanese. For them, ‘one’ is the basis of thinking. For the Japanese, ‘complements’ permeate all thought.”
You also show outside the classical exhibition space. Thus art as such is less visible and more difficult to identify. With that, you step outside the pre-existing framework of art, the institution. How do you see the institutional critiques of Michael Asher and Daniel Buren?
Buren and Asher critiques of institutions are exactly their limit. I am less interested in the formalized spaces in the institutions for presenting art. These spaces on the margins of the institutional space, the events and social interactions are much more important for me. I am much more interested in the everyday, the general culture. It is in these places that art is not so clearly defined that questions of the function of art come to light. In these marginal places like Taiwan, outside of the clear parameters of art as it is defined in the European and American traditions, that these traditions are exposed and become more susceptible to be redefined.
In your exhibition project for the Kunsthalle Vienna project space you will be making transparent film to be affixed to the inside of the windows. Most of the windows will be covered with a green floral pattern, the rest will show lilac, strictly geometrical, interlocked circles. You designed the work specially with the effect it will have in the evening when it is dark and the room brightly lit. Then the pavilion will take on an almost psychedelic mood reminiscent of Flower Power in the Seventies. Are you playing with these associations and the lightness and hedonism of a lifestyle like that?
I was thinking more of an oriental lamp. This cryptic glass pavilion transformed into a beautiful banal object.
If someone would call you a decorator who, above all, designs beautiful rooms, what would you answer?
I would take it as a compliment. Beauty is something I believe to be a quality.
What I notice in the work for the Kunsthalle Vienna is the contrast between the irregularities of the plants which loosely and casually wind their way over the surface and the strict geometric pattern; is your use of the oppositions in Nietzsche’s view of art which confronts the Apollonian with the Dionysian conscious?
The lattice windows with organic patterns or geometric patterns in traditional Chinese architecture were never seen as being in oppositions, quite the contrary, they are seen as being complementary.
The interior of the project space, the museum room, remains empty. A room which could be used or an empty space for the reception of the facade design?
The gallery space becomes a receptacle for the play of light and color dictated by the passage of time and the sun moving across the sky. The glass curtain wall is made more physical and sensual. The gaze is broken by the screen, like a blink, allowing the eyes to see again. Vision becomes more conscious and active.
What was particularly appealing or challenging about the Kunsthalle Vienna building? How did you arrive at the artistic solution you are now showing?
The KV building is very appropriate for me, one space, one building, a glass pavilion, a very strong symbol of domestic modernism, like the Philip Johnson House. I was very much interested in working directly on the architecture, one work, one space, one building.
The music being played in the café will be piped into the exhibition space. What is the role of music in your work? Are you concerned with a synaesthetic experience or are you following another goal with your holistic approach in relation to constructing an atmosphere?
I wanted to normalize the space with the furniture music from the restaurant. To some how fuse the two spaces with the music. The restaurant as a social space, merging with the exhibition space. One modifying the other, but always returning to the emptiness of the institution.
Are there any things you might term radical breaks in your work?
The most radical break in my work occurred between my first solo show in Taipei in 1994 and my second solo show in 96. In the 94 I was making monochrome paintings on steel two years later I was moving my furniture into the gallery for my exhibition. Again it was this change of context from Southern California to Taipei that changed my concerns in my work.
Gerald Matt (director Kunsthalle Vienna)