Interview with Yao Jui-Chung

Your art practice is very versatile, touching on a manifold of topics and spanning across different mediums. However, there seems to be an underlying thread running across your oeuvre, could you firstly give me an overview? 

    Even though I use different mediums and touch upon several topics, my work focuses on one main issue: death 死亡. I discuss death in order to question the meaning of life. Without death, we wouldn’t need to address life, beauty or ugliness. Death means change and set a limit to time, posing existential questions within humans. Drawing from this awareness of death, my art can be grouped into four categories: Space 空間 , History 歷史, Heaven 天地 and Hell 地獄

    “I am not talking about death, I am talking about the meaning of life”

    In regard to space, I have learnt a lot from temples. Temples in Taiwan are an important hub to preserve traditional culture and religion, often combining the three important philosophies of Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism. I have always been fascinated by the aesthetic decoration of temples – the reason why I use gold leaf in my painting – and their spatial function – a gate that connects life and death. To me, the meaning of temples lies in death, because without death there would be no creation. 

    “I discuss death in order to question the meaning of life. Without death, we wouldn’t need to address life, beauty or ugliness. Death means change.”

    In my early photography, I focused on historical and spatial aspects of death, featuring ruins and abandoned statues of deities. In Roaming Around the Ruins (1991-2001) I imagined that aliens would come to Earth and find our planet abandoned, imbued with ruins left behind by human beings. Ruins not only symbolise death through space, but also question spatial and historical issues of nationality. In fact, many factories were relocated from Taiwan to China in the 1990s, leaving behind numerous industrial ruins in the country. 

    When it comes to death, Heaven and Hell are central topics. There are detailed descriptions of Hell in Christian and Buddhist literature, mostly to intimidate people and prevent them from acting immorally. In response, my series Hell (2003), Hell Plus (2018-19) or Elysium (2019) attempt to tackle human’s desire and communicate heaven and hell on a more personal level: on earth there is no heaven nor hell, they exist in our mind. 

    You are an extremely prolific artist, often engaging with political, urban and social topics, while maintaining a humoristic approach. The first thing that comes to my mind when thinking of your art is your unique representation of ruins; Roaming Around the Ruins (1991-2011) is a celebration of Taiwan’s derelict buildings that have lost their original function. What does interest you in these structures? 

    This series was conceived in response to my personal situation at the time. I was a student and had very limited funds; in fact, I only had a black and white film camera. When feeling disheartened, I liked going to the ruins and reflecting on death. The ruins matched my emotions, fed my depressive state and transformed it into stories.

    “I have learnt a lot from the ruins; they reminded me of death and encouraged me to live”

    I shot 100,000 films in total and developed them in the darkroom. I enjoyed being in the darkroom on my own, it felt like a church, a safe shelter where to recluse myself and converse with my films.

    In Roaming Around the Ruins, you divided the typology of ruins into four main categories: industrial, religious, architectural and military. In observing these photographs, what strikes me most is the absence of human life not only in its visual depiction – which is devoid of human subjects –, but also in the aura that permeates the artwork. For instance, in Roaming Around the Ruins IV - Gods & Idols Surround the Border (Lovers), (1993), even if the title addresses love, the land appears barren and sterile. The depiction too colourless to conceive life. Are you attempting to draw a metaphor between these architectural structures and human life? 

    These photographs create a ritual space to reflect on the meaning of life – human life or architectural life. The pictures appear devoid of human life, being a metaphor between human death and the death of the building. 

    “The ruins are a way to remind humans that we are also going to lose function, die and eventually fade into ruin. Everything will be gone in time, everything will fall into ruins.”

    Yao Jui-Chung, Roaming Around the Ruins I - The Civilization Built by Skeleton Shuinandong Smelting Refinery I, 1993 

    A detached monotone palette also informs your recent photographic series Incarnation (2016-9), however this time you explore the topics of spirituality and the materialisation of human faith. What does fascinate you about religious architecture and its relationship with humankind? 

    This series is a critical representation of the mundane relationship between deities and humans. People often use religion as a vacant means to achieve their materialistic desires, they are not led by a genuine spirituality. In Taiwan, temples withhold lots of money and build colossal statues to worship the god, but I wonder: is god really in these statues? I don’t think so, god is in your mind. I think we should find a balance between these material benefits, spirituality and nature. This is what I attempt to portray in my later landscape paintings. 

    Yao Jui-Chung, Holy Light Sculpture Factory, 2016-17 

    In your series Territorial Takeover (1994), which was selected for the exhibition Taiwan Taiwan: Facing Faces at the 1997 Venice Biennale, you urinate onto six important landmarks of colonial and military power in Taiwan. This time you focus mainly on historic-political architecture, personally disrupting the grand narrative of history in order to provide an alternative account. What do you want to communicate? Why did you decide to frame the photographs within a golden frame and hang them above a golden toilet bowl at the Venice Biennale? 

      This series was the outcome of my research and reflection into the localisation movement and history of foreign colonisation in Taiwan. I travelled to six different locations where the Dutch, Chinese and Japanese landed on the island and I urinated to mark the territory, like a dog. I framed the pictures within golden frames to subvert historical accounts and enhance a sense of fake history. While the gold toilets symbolise ‘self-justification’ 我合 since urinating in public spaces is illegal, but if you use a portable and precious toilet then there is no issue. In the same way, the foreign powers that colonised Taiwan self-justified their violence with different reasons.  Following the de-recognition of Taiwan as a member of the United Nation in 1971 in favour of China, Taiwan was excluded from most international artistic activities. In this panorama, the 1995 Venice Biennale was a major event for us. I remember handling leaflets at the Venice Giardini to promote our new Taiwan pavilion. Nobody knew what Taiwan was! 

      After the exhibition in Venice, you repeatedly stressed the importance of localisation (bentuhua 本 化) as a way to produce meaningful contemporary art in Taiwan. What did Taiwaneseness mean to you at the time and how did you explore it in your art practice? 

        Debates around localisation arose in the early 1990s in Taiwan, busting myths around internationalisation. In fact, formerly there was a strong tendency among Taiwanese artists – and Asian artists in general– to emulate Western style. Bentuhua in Taiwanese art circles mostly took the shapes of a grievous and dramatic trend, which especially focused on February 28 Incident 二二八事件 – an anti-government uprising that was violently suppressed by the Kuomintang, the Republic of China government. Instead, I wanted to use humour to tackle these complex political issues around localisation. 

        When I was a student, I started questioning what localisation meant to me. I did a lot of research on Taiwanese culture and its colonial history. I eventually realised that Taiwan to me is a very liberal and heterogenous society, a point of encounter between Western and Eastern cultures. Localisation, national identity and Taiwaneseness were crucial starting points to re-think my art practice; it was also a way to respond to post-modernism and globalisation.  

        Now that we covered most of the photographic works, I would like to discuss your majestic landscape paintings. In your series Good Times (2013-19) or Long Live Landscape (2012) you emulate masterpieces of Chinese shanshui ( ) paintings while also disrupting their visual authority by inserting autobiographical elements, sometimes even with a sexual tone. You also purposely ignore the rules and formats of traditional Chinese landscapes, employing different materials. Shanshui paintings being the benchmark of Chinese Art History, what is your intent in de-mythologising this visual regime with unorthodox humour?

        “My pseudo-landscape paintings are a response to genuine spirituality set within an appreciation and respect of nature” 

        This is a Daoist concept entrenched in Chinese culture: literati artists capture their adoration of nature in shanshui paintings. Chinese traditional paintings were an integral part of my art education and I was greatly inspired by the Chinese masters. Even though there are two artists I have never touched because I do not resonate with their style: Dong Qichang 董其昌 and Lan Ying . However, the relationship between humans, spirituality and nature in Chinese society has dramatically changed now. The role of shanshui paintings in my art practice is to question: what is traditional Chinese painting and its spirituality? What is the future of China and its spirituality? 

        Yao Jui-Chung, Cliffs & Gully: Internet with God, 2018 

        Formally, I replaced Chinese ink, silk scroll and seals with Indian handmade paper, artist pen and gold leaf inspired from temple’s decorations.

        “I believe Chinese landscape paintings are already ‘done’ and somehow dead, so I had to re-invent them. It is a sort of reincarnation: I use the spirit of Chinese paintings and re-shape it into a different body.” 

        I partly want to subvert the nationalistic exclusivity built around Chinese paintings as the benchmark of Chinese Art History and recreate these paintings with political and ironic tones. In this way, I hope I can bring people to question nationality within painting. 

        I am also playing around the concept of ‘Made in China’ and the cheap reproduction of objects and brands. What I am making is similar: an ironic clone of Chinese art. I create pseudo-Chinese Art History. 

        Yao Jui-Chung, Life is But a Dream, 2015 

        The style of these landscape paintings seems very different from your early photography, however its underlying thread appears to orbit around a similar objective: to insert the individualised body within the grand narrative of culture and history by merging the private and public spheres. What is the importance of the individual in your painting? How does your early political research inform your landscapes? 

        There are three elements of Chinese traditional landscapes I attempt to subvert: materials, subject and frame. I have already discussed the materials above. In regard to subject matter, traditional shanshui only depicts fauna, flora, mountain deities or imperial settings; there is no space for individuality. I instead attempt to employ my private life to break into this impersonal painting culture. For instance, in my Romance series (2009), I focused on the beautiful moments I shared with my lovers, such as the hot spring in Love Spa or the engagement with my wife in Falling in Love as a Flash. My intent is not merely to clone the style of old Chinese masters, but to insert actions and settings that are closer to people’s life. 

        As for the frame, traditional Chinese paintings were conceived to be hung in temples or the imperial palace; while I use contemporary formats and frames for my painting in order to fit modern houses and our collecting purposes. 

        Several of your artworks seem to have been conceived in relation to a story, whether personal or mythological. In series such as Fairyland (2015) and Wonderful Scenery (2009) you seem to re-frame shanshui paintings into a mythical and fairy-like aesthetic. What is the role of stories in your landscape paintings? 

          Stories are very important to me. However, even if these stories look like fairy-tales, they are always real; in fact, it is the landscape that is fake. I subvert the roles of fantasy and reality through my trivial personal stories, which represent reality to me.

          “I question the monolithic concept of history and who has right to set the criteria. I am interested in the alternative accounts.” 

          In your art, travelling seems to play a prominent role. This is true both in your landscape paintings – as journey was a major theme in Chinese traditional shanshui – as well as in your photographs – where you often travel to a destination or ‘roam around the ruins’. What role does travel play in your oeuvre? Are these physical journeys or journeys of the mind? 

            Yes, journey is a central part of my art practice and, more broadly, of my worldview. After spending too long in the same place, everything becomes too reasonable. Roaming gives insight into life and the universe, opening the mind and the body. I particularly love to visit churches and temples as they represent spaces in-between. These physical journeys initiate a spiritual journey.

            Yao Jui-Chung, Journey to Australia, 2005 

            Not only are you an established and brilliant artist, but also a prominent art critic and historian, being the author of several books on East Asian contemporary art. How does this critical framework inform your artistic practice? How do you relate to other East Asian avant-garde movements and/or artists? For instance, in China other important artists work around urban ruins such as Rong Rong 榮榮, Yin Xiuzhen 尹秀珍, Song Dong 宋冬 and Zhang Dali 張 . 

            I graduated in Art Theory and I have always been passionate about writing on contemporary art. When I travelled to Europe the first time, I realised Taiwan lacked critical books on local contemporary art; we just did not have much education on contemporary art at the time. So, in 2005 I published three volumes on contemporary art in Taiwan: New Wave of Contemporary Photography in Taiwan, Performance Art in Taiwan (1978-2004), Installation Art in Taiwan (1991-2001). However, after a dispute with performance artist and friend Lee 

            Min-sheng, I decided not to write about contemporary Taiwanese art anymore. But I have been involved in other projects, especially with my students. We published seven volumes on Disused Public Properties in Taiwan, a photographic collection which documents the changing urban landscape of their hometowns around the island. 

            With regard to contemporary Chinese art, due to the political situation in the 1990s, China and Taiwan did not know much about each other at the time. In 2002, Lu Jie, founder of Long March Space in Beijing, invited me to participate to the Long March project – a moving curatorial project to promote contemporary art from the region; during that month I met the first generation of avant-garde artists. Although we depicted similar subject matters, our focus was quite different as they mostly approached the ruins with emotional spirit. For example, Rong Rong and his partner Inri used the ruins to narrate their romance, while my early photography is mainly about politics, history and death. There is no space for human emotions. 

            To conclude, you have had an important solo exhibition at C-Lab Taipei last April. You planned to transform the ex-military warehouses of C-Lab into a virtual space called Republic of Cynic, ironically re-phrasing Taiwan’s official title, Republic of China (ROC). Could you briefly speak about this project? 

            Republic of Cynic is an imaginary country with its own flag and citizens, that took over C- Lab through four video works. The project is about the absurdity of human history and explores the complex relationship between China, Taiwan and the United States. I selected four historical events that had a big impact on Taiwan – such as Armstrong landing on the moon in 1969 or the UN dismissal of Taiwan – and re-stage them with humorist tone and personal perspective. 

            Republic of Cynic mainly represents a critique of national violence through history. The citizens of ROC are devils and cynics, it is a sarcastic way to represent humanity and our violent actions. While the golden babies represent the future of the ROC; they can be a hope or a threat, depending on the future of human rights. C-lab used to be ROC Air Force Command Headquarters, so the space perfectly fits the purpose of this show. 

            Interview conducted by Maria Dolfini


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