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Insights of an Eco Artist

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In conversation: Tseng Yu-Chin

Insights of an Eco Artist Team

Get ready to meet the extraordinary artist, Tseng Yu-Chin, as we delve into the depths of his captivating artistic journey. Hailing from Taiwan, Asia, Tseng's creative path began as an experimental filmmaker and has evolved to encompass video, photography, and mixed media installations. Despite facing immense challenges and government suppression, Tseng's unwavering commitment to truth and self-expression has shaped his powerful body of work. Join us as we explore his exploration of the human moment and the disorderly state of human self-consciousness.

2 June 2023

Born in Taiwan, Asia, Tseng Yu-Chin began his creative career as an experimental filmmaker and now works mainly with video and photography and mixed media installations, living with his partner in Amsterdam and Berlin.

At the age of 29, he was selected as one of the youngest artists at the 12th Kassel Documenta in Germany for his work "Who is listening? ", The following year, he was awarded the China Contemporary Art Award and became one of the most representative video artists in the world at that time. He was thus criticized by the people of Taiwan and the Taiwanese arts community as a traitor to the state, During his early years of international visibility, the Taiwanese government used a flexible but strong request to ask him to abandon his long-standing work that questioned humanity and society in the hope that he could begin to promote the government and help to promote its reputation for democracy internationally, which he refused to do, and as a result the government used meticulous methods to keep him from appearing in major international exhibitions and to try to eliminate his voice in his own country. He was silenced in Taiwan for almost fifteen years. And he began to suffer from mental illness as a result of all the bad criticism and silencing.

As a gay man in Asia, he was sexually victimised as a teenager and bullying as a college student, and has a deep understanding of the oppression of authority and the collective blindness of the group. He has a deep understanding of how people can lose control of their own mentality. Since then, his interest in the conflict of self-consciousness in every moment began to emerge, and he concentrated on the artistic expression of the medium of video as a way of embodying the human moment of existence in the present moment during his postgraduate studies, and formally entered the field of video art production. (or extended cinema).

Now he trying to escape from his own government, Not even recognised internationally, from a government that is considered by the world to be democratic, Taiwan, a country that is eager to deal with authority and is gradually turning itself into another totalitarian consciousness. He felt deeply the disguised dictatorship of the democratic world, or the backroom political manipulation of Taiwan, and the embarrassment and disappearance of the presence and existence of the people he had long discussed in his work in each moment.

First, introduce yourself to our readers. Who are you and how would you describe yourself as a person and an artist?


My name is Tseng Yu Chin, a video artist, a radical thinker but a moderate behavioural person. Born in an Asian country, my mother tongue is Mandarin, and I am currently living in Rotterdam, Netherlands with my partner.


All along my artistic journey, I have often recalled an incident from my early childhood. My parents were very strict and conservative, even too strict. I always remember a dinner party where my parents met their good friends and their children, i.e., the two families, to have dinner together at a Japanese restaurant. As a child, I felt a sense of extreme impatience as I watched my serious parents and their friends having a serious conversation, as I watched my parents smile politely and speak in a serious, stilted voice, I suddenly imagined a scene in which my parents and their friends started bumping their heads against each other's, like two balloons bumping into each other, they kept bumping their heads against each other, but still keeping the conversation in a serious manner. I started to imagine this unexplained behaviour, like watching a cartoon in my head, I started laughing, and I couldn't stop laughing with sound, at that moment my mother tried to stop me from laughing out loud, and it all stopped when my mother slapped me until my mouth bled, and all I could see was my mother's maddened angry face.


Wow, so the imagination can hurt or be capable of damaging, passively or actively - I thought at the moment.


That's when it started. I have been fascinated by the sudden moments of disorder or disorientation that occur in everyday life, whether in a group or in solitude. Is it a loss of normalcy? But no, and very briefly, although I do like to see people in a state of mental breakdown. These sudden occurrences, whether in my mind's image or in real life, see a very subtle look on the person's face, a blank but misty look in their eyes. Is the person present in that state or is it a fading or reinforcing one? All of these things make me think and imagine what kind of story could be happening, and it's a scene that actually occurs in our lives almost every day. It's like a fragment of everyday life suddenly appears, and I like to watch it happen in silence.


I am very used to capturing these fleeting and sudden everyday events with my camera, video recorder, audio recorder or just my eyes. They become elements and nutrients for my artistic creation. And then, I present these captures in films, photographs, illustrations and installations, as a kind of record, evidence and specimen. After a period of life observation and artistic creation, I turn my attention to the quieter or solitary condition of human collapse, and the physical and mental state of a person before or after an episode of grief or anger, which is a quiet and forceful response to the world, an atmosphere that is about to happen, or the aftermath of what has happened, which fascinates me even more, a deeper and more extreme aesthetic and philosophical aspect.

Why do you dedicate your work to using the human body as a creative text, discussing the distortion and aphasia of politics, society, and values that have been violently and coldly inflicted on the individual's body?

The body is the best vehicle for experiencing incidents and moving through time and space, and our body is the most direct recipient of all external circumstances during an incident, which also has the most direct impact on our psychological state.

I often say: all past experiences result in your present body


No matter what period we are in, teenage, middle age, or elderly. The way you speak and the way you walk reveals what you have experienced in the past. It is beautiful and fascinating to look at a person who is alive, and the body is evidence that you are alive, you are experiencing, and you are going to die.


You say it is a violent and cold attack on the body. I can say that it is the inevitability of life. We all use our bodies to meet all the events and emotions that come our way, even if we are fully clothed, we are actually exposed. This is a kind of violence, even if you meet joy or warmth, it is a kind of violence, we meet it with our naked bodies, and then we leave marks on our bodies - this is an abstract metaphor.

The body can be discussed in the sense of abstraction. We discussed the existence of the physical body, and the abstract body is the subjectivity of being a human being. But how I want to present it in the picture is actually the presence of the person, the impending entrance and the impending departure. We all have moments of thought in any state, and this is what I like to discuss and gaze at.


The Wall by Tseng Yu Chin. Image courtesy of Tseng Yu Chin.

In your artist statement, you mention that you use “images to express the political embarrassment of the body's presence but the absence of the spirit.” Can you deconstruct this line of thought for us?


We can never escape from the state of politics. The politics mentioned here is not only the politics of the government, but also the existence of various issues, such as LGBT issues, racial issues, physical issues, and mental issues, all of which are political.


The existence of these issues is often something that we are always forced to face. Especially when it comes to an artist's work, there is no way to get away from the discussion of these issues, which is always awkward. We have to live in these political states constantly, but we never see ourselves living in this world in an awkward way.


In the gaps of these issues, I see the state of existence of being a human being. We are in fact just trying to exist, we are being washed and impacted by many life events, and we are constantly facing them.

I see that at some point in these moments of life, people will suddenly withdraw, in a state of disorientation, like a spiritual absence, where their spirituality is no longer present, but is it really an absence?

How has your creative freedom been restricted by political pressure in Taiwan, and how have you navigated these challenges?


It is important to understand that Taiwan is a very small island, surrounded by sea and very closed, and the international community does not yet fully recognize it as a country. Very few people in the world know Taiwan on many levels, and it is very easy for the Taiwanese government to control the whole island. Everything is politicized, including the state of the arts, which follows the government's policies.

The international community is completely unaware of how the government on this island actually controls the people of Taiwan, and Taiwan has developed its own political and artistic environment that is completely parallel to the international one.


At the time, I was the only artist from Taiwan to enter the Documenta in Kassel in 50 years, and Taiwan had not been on the Documenta watch list. When I returned to my country from the Documenta, many paradoxical situations occurred, which can be discussed at the level of the Taiwanese government and the artistic environment in Taiwan, as well as the reaction from China.


Politically, Taiwan was internationally regarded as democratic and free and maintained a long-standing international image of confronting Chinese power. However, Taiwan embraced many Chinese artists at the time, including Ai Weiwei. Taiwan's largest official art museum never helped Taiwan's own artists to hold solo exhibitions in its largest exhibition space, and Taiwanese artists could only exhibit in the basement of the museum but helped Chinese artists Ai Weiwei and Xu Bing to hold solo exhibitions in their largest exhibition space. Even all the art magazines in Taiwan have given full coverage to every Chinese artist at Documenta in Kassel, while my presence was never mentioned in Taiwan at the time.


On the Chinese government side, as I was about to go to Documenta I received a phone call from a completely anonymous person asking me directly if I was going to attend Documenta. When found out that I was definitely going to attend, the caller said: "How can that be! Taiwan is not on the list! After that, he hung up. After the Documenta, China took it upon itself to award me the Ai Weiwei Prize for China Contemporary Arts Award, Taiwan was in outrage and found a powerful force to call me a traitor, a traitor to my own country!


Absurdly, Taiwan sent the government's biggest co-curator to meet with me privately and in a moderate but forceful manner, hoping that I would stop making work that questioned the state of Taiwan society as a whole, but of course, I didn't believe they could understand my work. They wanted me to start promoting the good side of the government, such as the government's tolerance of foreign workers, or the government's focus on the well-being of low-income people, and they wanted me to shoot foreign workers in my work. They wanted me to do this kind of work to promote the international image of Taiwan, but I refused on the spot.


Of course, the image of Taiwan is still liberal and democratic, so the government has used the most tactful and subtle methods to slowly make me lose my international visibility. And this brings us to the art environment in Taiwan, which is controlled by the government. The government is not only the main financier of most art activities in Taiwan but also controls the quality of the content of each work.

The entire art environment is designed to please the government for the sake of funding and position, and even the entire jury system is designed to assist government censorship. Sadly, all art exhibitions and competitions in Taiwan have been judged by the same group of judges for a long time. In the year I entered Documenta, many important exhibitions and competitions in Taiwan openly disqualified me on the grounds that I was not a professional artist. The fact that I got into Documenta was a complete disruption of the political and artistic balance in Taiwan.


So, while the government was trying to keep me out of the international spotlight, the art environment in Taiwan was actively cooperating. I later learnt that after Documenta, I was approached by many international institutions and curators, and at a time when Facebook was not even very well developed, they could only find me through government agencies and art institutions. But all the institutions in Taiwan were unanimous in saying that they did not know me as an artist, and then they took it upon themselves to recommend artists that fit the government's profile, and some even declared me dead, which gave me the shivers.

Can you tell us about the 3-channel video work entitled The Wall?

This is one of my few works on direct political issues. A few years before I was going to leave Taiwan, there was a student movement in Taiwan to protest against a bill that was about to be introduced in Taiwan that would be extremely favorable to China, and many students took to the streets and began to protest. I was there at that time.


There is a very absurd situation in Taiwan. We have two biggest parties, the Green Party and the Blue Party, and they have been fighting against each other for years. But many people know that they are both corrupt, but no one dares to stand up and protest. Many political officials, regardless of party affiliation, have a lot of investments in China, and most government officials in Taiwan even have two passports, meaning they can leave Taiwan at any time, as they have residency status in different countries. And these two parties have always wanted to be the only ones to be dominant, not to be replaced by any other party, and even many of the smaller parties in Taiwan are actually fake parties that these two parties have deliberately split up.

In the corrupt state of Taiwan politics, the student movement became an event that the government wanted to hide from international view, so the party that played the role of the opposition party came out and took over the struggle, pretending to support the movement, and the students of the movement became members of the opposition party a few years later.

I can't give a very concise description of the entire state, to the entire state description is very difficult.


I find it absurd that this was supposed to be a protest against the entire government with a new voice and a new mindset, but instead, it was harvested by the incumbents and turned into a trophy of the previous generation.


In my work, I recorded the voices of protest at the scene of the student movement, and these faded youthful bodies became the evidence, the evidence that is no longer there.


How do you address the tension between physical presence and consciousness in your work, and what emotions do you hope to evoke in your audience?

I believe in my own creative instincts. Because of my past experience, combined with reading and watching a lot of films. I've trained myself to bring together the states of life and observation and the fantasies in my head, which I like to describe as a kind of orgy, very direct and relevant, a very intimate process of closeness and penetration, and to let it all happen in my head, to produce images and sounds in my head intuitively. It's like I'm being told passively that I need to make these images and sounds, letting this happen.


But for the audience, I always see it as a mutual learning process. I am offering my perceptions and observations of life. I hope that the audience will reflect on the meaning of their own lives and the impact and importance of their own perceptions of life. As human beings, we often deliberately ignore our own perceptions of life, each of us has our own profound and serious views. The viewer becomes an element in the moment of watching the work, a kind of projection that feeds back into each viewer and brings away a richer experience of life.


Scenery other end by Tseng Yu Chin. Image courtesy of Tseng Yu Chin.

One of your submitted works is called Scenery other end, where you explore human vulnerability. Can you talk about the motivations behind the work? And, is it's creative process?

My works are all about sadness and anger. But this work is the softest work in the series in those years. I want to touch the softest part of the human spirit, although it is still sad and angry in nature.


Life is a huge grassland with no boundaries, and we have been climbing forward all our lives, and this so-called forward is everyone's own forward, and the meeting of people is a kind of attachment, and we continue to climb forward with each other, even if the sun is hot and there are insects everywhere, but we can't stop climbing forward until we die.


I used a scene that we often see in movies, a movie scene lying on the grass, many people will be familiar with such a scene, and I treat it like an eternal pause, where we stare at this pause and let our bodies slowly feel the event.


Scenery other end by Tseng Yu Chin. Image courtesy of Tseng Yu Chin.

How has your perspective on the relationship between the body and politics evolved over the course of your career?


I am not a political artist, but there is a professor in Taiwan whom I respect very much. He said repeatedly that no matter how I use my physical experience to make my works, there must be politics in my works.

I mention the political state because my experiences are clearly political, from being banned by the Taiwanese government, being bullied and sexually assaulted as a gay man, to family tensions, all of these are political, but they are also life.

My experience is political, it is best to talk about it in person, and interviews such as yours are also very helpful.


After decades of experience, I have a deeper sense of human existence. It is inevitable that we will die, but before we die physically, we should face our spiritual state. But before the death of the body, we should face our spiritual state and have a deeper understanding of human nature, a deeper and more intense feeling of anger and sadness. Therefore, I continue to make artworks and continue to discuss the present moment in which we live. I also began to discuss the state of the artist's existence in this contemporary situation. I am looking forward to what I can do next. I have been preparing drafts of my work for almost five years and I will start making them slowly.

Can you speak to the significance of being selected as the youngest artist in the 12th Kassel Documenta Biennale and how it impacted your career?

So for the next fifteen years, I almost disappeared from the international art scene and Taiwan tried to vanish my voice in Taiwan. I tried to do a few exhibitions in Taiwan but was met with strong negative criticism, and no one would believe my experiences in my home country where you are not considered an artist in your own country, simply because Taiwan is internationally regarded as a free and democratic government, and I could no longer defend myself with my artistic work. I also tried to run a non-profit art space to help young artists but was suppressed by the government. During the years of silence, I began to suffer from mental illness for a long time, when I met my partner, but of course, I continued to make art and did not stop creating. At that time, I decided to disappear from Taiwan on my own, and my partner, seeing my suffering, the anger and sadness I was suffering alone, asked me if I wanted to leave Taiwan to start a new life, so I decided to leave Taiwan.


And this has greatly influenced my art career, Taiwan completely erased me from their art history.

I was unable to have a complete exhibition experience, and I had to constantly work on my own to find resources outside of Taiwan, and I am still struggling and trying.


How did we get to this place? by Tseng Yu Chin. Image courtesy of Tseng Yu Chin.

How do you hope your art will contribute to the broader conversation about the human experience, and what message do you hope to convey to your audience?


When I was in Taiwan, there was a playwright who said that extreme optimism comes from extreme pessimism. At the time, this statement made me think about it for a long time. Although I don't believe that optimism exists, I do believe that sadness and anger are the driving force of being human. We should face the power of grief and anger, the deeper philosophies that are transformed when we read all the anger and grief in detail.

Know more about the artist here.

Cover Image:

How did we get to this place? by Tseng Yu Chin. Image courtesy of Tseng Yu Chin.

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