In-between the Reality and Animation: Paper-offering Art
──── Zhan Zhang-Xu
Time: August 22, 2015
Interviewee: Zhan Zhang-Xu
Interviewers and Guests: Jow-jiun Gong, Yen-ing Chen, Mirr Lo, Juliet Lin
Location: Zhang-Xu’s studio
Compiled by Yu-kuan Ho Translated by Li-fen Wang
A Commitment to a Challenged Tradition across Two Generations
Since my great grandfather Gen-qi Zhang started Mao Hsing Chai (store) in the Guangxu reign, my family has been running the business for four generations. My grandfather inherited the store later he changed the name to Mao Hsing Paper Sculpture Store and it was passed down to my uncle. Now, my father Pei Zhang-Xu has his own store named Hsin Hsin Paper Sculpture Store. In other words, my family has witnessed the ups and downs of this craft in the Taiwanese society. My summer vacation had always been different from others’ as the ghost festival is in the summer vacation, moms would ask children to help them to clean up the house, but on top of that I had to make paper sculptures as well. Our whole summer vacations were all about paper crafting and nothing else. It takes numerous steps to make a paper sculpture and what I did when I was little was to make molds and wire paper houses up. When others were having fun after the ghost festival, my family still had to make paper puppets used for offerings. I dared not tell friends about my family business as children would make fun of the craft and that eventually turned into verbal bullying. They called me “Zhan the Paper Guy” while they were making fun of me, they said, “Your name is Zhan Zhang-Xu, you make paper figures, so you are ‘Zhan the Paper Guy’ or ‘Zhan the Paste Guy’.” I was called names so I did not want to say much about my family.
As a traditional craftsman, my dad thinks people like him are not appreciated by the society, and that is why his self-esteem is low and is quite reserved in the family. He sees his art works as nothing but a means to make a living, therefore, although the paper sculpture art represents Taiwanese culture when we discuss about the issue of folk culture, we also have to bear in mind, that if all craftsmen think their craftsmanship is nothing but a business, they would depreciate their work when the business does not go well. Even if the craft is a cultural representative for Taiwan, it is just useless and not promising if it cannot generate money. Having said that, my family worked hard together to make paper offerings, yet I myself thought of it as a must to help rather than felt honored to engage in this craft. I was perplexed. When I graduated from junior high school, my mom said to me, “Since you help with the paste work every day and that you didn’t get good scores at school, why don’t you aim at the arts and craft department at Fu-Hsin Trade and Arts School and come back to help the business later?” I thought, “Over my dead body.” There is no way that I would continue living in such a stifling environment and having a career that I was not proud to tell others about. Then I chose a totally irrelevant major to art—data processing, because I desperately wanted to leave that environment.
The business was very different from present day, my father was asked one day by an acquaintance about what it was like when paper offeringing art was thriving. He replied that my great grandfather was a successful celebrity known by everyone at Dalongdong and they would know that my father was the grandson of Master Qi when he walked on the streets. But later on that same day, some customers came and said, “We want to buy modern paper iPads.” My father asked them, “Do you want to consider some traditional paper sculptures?” The customer answered, “If you don’t have modern ones I will go to other stores.” On that very day, I witnessed the moment when my father talked about the beautiful old days and when he failed to meet customers’ needs nowadays. I can see the stark difference between the two generations.
My dad once told me that there was a rich man wanting to serve filial piety to his dead parents, so he paid two paper puppet offering stores to compete and my great grandfather was invited to be the judge for this competition (He set the rules for the paper house and made sure the two teams were separated.) and craftsmen from the two stores were asked to finish the assigned tasks with their own techniques. At the end of the competition, they had to assemble the paper house without knowing the blue print. And it was because opium was legal at the time, my great grandfather also had license for it, he then offered opium to the artisans to lift their spirits up during the completion, although he himself doesn’t smoke them at all.
When my father was young, the paper offering works he made was spectacular and splendid, but when he had his own store, the industry was gradually shrinking. He lives in-between the two eras and has seen the ups and downs of the craft. For me, I have only seen the business withering away in the process of modernization. To progress is the desire of human beings, and it inevitably leads to the change of industries, however, if an industry does not recover, neither do the craftsmanship, the techniques and the demands.
Shortly after I graduated from college, I was invited to attend the International Short Film Festival of Berlin, before I left for Germany, my mom called a family meeting on whether we should close the store. She thought letting it out would be more profitable than running the paper puppet offering business. In short, she questioned the value of paper offering art. When others think it has high cultural value, the people relying on it to make a living barely survive. If it seems to be valuable to no one but scholars, then what are we fighting for?
I kept asking my family not to close the store, and suggested we apply for subsidies to pay for all the costs, but it was not until my father was awarded the “Heritage Award” with the recommendation of some scholars based at Dalongdong that my parents started to sense the value of their profession. Being a laureate traditional artisan, however, does not help much with the business, the difference is that my parents now think paper offering art has its own value, so they are more likely to hang on there and work harder. For example, my mom had been talking about setting up a blog on “Wretch” (a Taiwanese blog portal site) since 2009 for marketing, yet we totally ignored her idea until Facebook became popular, so now we have a FB fan page named Hsin Hsin Paper Sculpture Store to voice our ideas.
Paper offerings can be used either on joyful occasions (red events) or at funerals (white events). If it is for the latter, the offerings are for the deceased and customers’ main concern is that the price has to be cheap. Red events basically refer to the ghost festival and all god-worshiping occasions, which are not as frequent as funerals. The funerals in the north part of Taiwan used to be extravagant, and relatives of the dead would keep the body at home for as long as three months or even a year just for the funeral to be held on a good day; therefore, the artisans had rather long time to make the paper house. Back in old days printers were not available, the artisans needed to draw bricks, stones or other patterns by their own, my family was most famous for the drawing. My dad started to draw those patterns when he was a child; despite he does not sketch, he knows all the techniques in wash ink painting and color ink painting, so he can draw onto paper houses flowers, birds and the stories related to gods. Nowadays, printing houses provide customers with various colored paper and more choices of prints, but my dad is not convinced that prints can replace hand-made works, instead, he sees printing patterns and products as merely a progress in materials and that he enjoys having more choices of color and pattern for his work. When I observe him as a detached bystander, I find that he relies heavily on patterns to show the texture of his drawing. For example, he uses marble patterns to make paper marbles, he has no attempt to change the texture of a pattern to make them something else than its own original texture.
Image and Spatial Expansion in Paper Offering Art
I majored in data processing at a vocational school, so what I learned was programming and other computer-related skills. I had an animation work done on Flash in 2005 when animation software caused a sensation. My instructor was so impressed that he sent the work to a contest and it did win an award, he suggested that I transfer to a department related to animation, but unfortunately as a vocational school student I could only take animation courses as optional credits. Later I went to Chihlee Institute of Technology to major in multimedia design and learned about the aesthetics of video, but the ultimate reason was that I wanted to continue working on animation. When I was in my junior year, I did not have much money, so I attended contests trying to make money by winning awards. After graduation, I collaborated with some of my classmates and directed a hand-made anime film to compete in international film festivals like the “Tenth Asia Digital Art Award” and the “Twenty-Seventh International Short Film Festival of Berlin.”
I did not have my own camera until I was twenty-three, this is quite late for many creators. At that time, filming was nothing but images and videos to me, it was after attending those international contests that I started to consider about going to a professional school. When I was little I did not want to do art as I associated it with paper offering art, yet I took a detour and came back to do art related projects in the end. Later, I wanted to master in artistic animation, so when I learned about Chun-fu Ma, an artist based at Taipei National University of the Arts (TNUA), and his unusual experimental animation works, I applied for TNUA after being encouraged by my girlfriend. Then I became a graduate student, majoring in art and technology; however, my first two years were tough and I almost drop out. It was because I was used to the logic of filming, which is for story-telling, narration or discussion, this is totally different from that of video-recording, which focuses more on the medium itself. I discussed this issue frequently with my respectable teacher, Goang-ming Yuan, and I told him my doubt about if I was right for coming to the graduate school of technology and art. He then shared with me his opinions and told me that I had to realize what kind of work I wanted to present. His words changed my thoughts.
At first I hand-made my film because I did not want anything to do with paper offering art, it was until later, I decided to use paper puppets in my animation. I guess the initial unwillingness was because I had little identification with my family’s business and did not think it had cultural values. Regardless of my major being data processing or design, everyone in my school always associated me with my family business in paper offering. For example, some would ask me to develop a program which allows people to worship on the Internet. Requests like this were numerous, but the more they associated me with my family business, the more reluctant I was to involve in paper offering art. Later I realized that the unwillingness resulted from knowing that it would never be separable from me, but I just did not want to have anything to do with it.
Education also plays a role in this. Many Taiwanese people do not identify with their faces, appearances and local cultures, they feel ashamed of themselves, and it is more obvious when they go abroad. I have been aware of my sense of inferiority for a long time, and this is why I did not want to get involved in paper offering art. It was not until when I was mature that I started to recognize my relation with the craft and that I was willing to retrieve the family culture. The paper offerings my father makes are fully developed artisan work pieces, it will be meaningless if I appropriate them for my creation as they cannot show my personal thoughts and the thread of context of my works. In my opinion, paper offering art is more than a means, a technique or a concept, therefore, I have been waiting for a way to express my very own core and central idea, and that very way is animation and videos.
I presented short films in international film festivals world-wide, and attending those festivals was the best I could do. Participating those festivals was important to me, as the content of the image itself was essential, as the time goes by, I had several chances to present my work in an exhibition space, when my film transformed into image, that’s when I start to realize the interaction between the people and the space, it also changes the way I had on images.
I regard images in motion against fixed background as “Image Sculpturing.” When making animation films featuring paper puppets, the motions of these death puppets were created by folding their body parts and are shot frame by frame, in a way, they become alive in images in which time is a parameter; on the other hand, they are dead because the puppets’ “skeletons” are damaged or broken after the shots are done, I think of it as a metaphor that culture can only be preserved in time. Also, with a large hand-drawn projector, I divided the narration into five parts yet all of them revolt around the same issue, and symbols carrying opposite connotations appear simultaneously in the same frame. By doing so, I think about the issue of the interface of animation and images. These works have prompted me to apply the concept of “expanded cinema” or spatial projection. In a nutshell, the medium and the way images are used in animation play fundamental roles in my creation.
The reason I named my work Inferiority Bat—Hsin Hsin Paper Home 003 at 2015, was because there were too many paper offerings at my home. In order to save space, my family would hang all the paper puppets, components, paper horse heads or unsold pieces and plastic flowers on the ceiling. I lived with them in the same space, so whenever I looked at them up on the ceiling, I would picture my house as a bat hole and many bats were stranded in this paper sculpture store. The project Inferiority Bat is a metaphor referring to the paper pieces’ suffering in the drying process; second, it also symbolizes the bare survival of paper offering art nowadays; last, it depicts that my restrained family is in the lower stratum of the society. Most of my works are actually autobiographic in that they show how I see my relation with paper offering art, and that is why when I use paper puppets in my creation, they mean more than just a craft itself.
Professor Ping Lin, commented on my earlier works by saying that they were creepy and with lots of details. Their texture is similar to paper puppets in my animation in that they are wrinkled and have a sense of deformation. In reply, I would say that when I was younger, I preferred Western and East European animation styles, and that is why I leave such preferred aesthetic traits in the animation.
The Dual Identities in Engaging in Paper Offering Art
Unlike many people who are afraid to approach paper offering art, I see them as dolls when I make them, I think this also indicates a great conflict between viewers’ perception and the exhibited works in Hsin Hsin Paper Sculpture Home─Zhan Zhang-Xu’s Stomach series. Once when my family was interviewed, my parents mentioned that puppet making was like realizing wishes of the dead to make up what they could not have accomplished when they were alive. I think when my parents remedy for others’ regrets via the craft, I, too, remedy my own soul via paper offering art.
If there are three layers of artistic creation, the first layer must be for viewers to see the uniqueness of the visible; the second layer deals with the connotations given by chosen materials; the third layer is for a shared and underlying context to be explored. One of my video projects, Houses in the House, is the product of my misunderstanding of new cinema. I thought it would lead to the narration of “home,” so all the images were about family, but that was misrecognition and that is the reason why I used some “family” trait in that project. As the director, I directed the film by imagining how it should be to work on the third layer. The Japanese director, Kōji Yamamura, explores humanity in his remake films A Country Doctor and The Old Crocodile, the director reincarnates Kafka’s literature with his personal perspective and combines it with universal cultural experiences, I think this is his “third layer.” As far as I am concerned, I do not think the third layer of creation in the Taiwanese context should only be about politics, history and colonization, yet meanwhile, I am still figuring out where to focus for my third-layer creation. I think I have to go back to listen to the elder’s stories, and then start from asking, constructing and understanding; on the other hand, while I am thinking about the third layer of artistic creation, I am also thinking about how to pass down the family business. That will result in the overlapping and switch between my two identities, but it is a way to avoid forcing myself to explore the third-layer just for the creation only.
I hope to rebuild the dignity of Hsin Hsin Paper Sculpture Store with a variety of methods. A Malaysian artisan, who wanted to open a paper offering art museum came to Taiwan to survey, he came to us and we exchanged information. This makes me believe that we can build up our own connection for others to understand and appreciate paper offering art. In 2014, my family and I had an exhibition resulted from the intangible assets policy by the Department of Cultural Affairs. The exhibition forced us to figure out the story behind each photo and made my father recollect his old memories. We double-checked with a history and culture expert, Tai-ying Hsu, in case my father’s memory did not serve him correctly. In preparation for the exhibition, I realized that the photos were the inspiration of my third-layer creation. When I was sorting them out, I am also sorting out what have defined me.
When I engage in paper offering art, I play two roles. One is the good boy inheriting the family business, my sister and I often think about ways to revive and pass down paper offering art when I play this role. I would put myself in my father’s shoes and think as an artisan to preserve and pass down the craft with a cultural strategy. The other role is the executor of animation projects, when I play this role, I tend not to talk about the cultural context of paper offering art. To put it simply, those puppet animations are a way to re-evaluate my life, which is a creator’s unavoidable question about life. Therefore, when I prepare for the Hsin-hsing Paper Sculpture Home series, I actually present my life in about ten pieces of works. They will serve as a map and simulate the authentic arrangement of each room in my house, with my life experiences embedded in them. This will be like fixing a broken autobiography piece by piece.
Being an artist and the son of a paper sculpture store keeper forces me to build up an archive with my sister, and personally I hope to connect the two roles together rather than rapidly consume the underlying cultural values of paper offering art. That is why I avoid attending too much to the form or imposing an exotic sense or personal thoughts in any of my creation. The knowledge I have about paper offering art is enough to answer others’ questions, but I need to be clear about its history and intrinsic culture in order to answer the questions such as why it has to be passed down and why it should exist. For instance, I would never burn down my animation scenes like other paper offering artisans do traditionally. I need to know clearly to whom I burn them to and which demands I meet if I have to do so. These are important questions to be answered.
I think the pursuit and fascination of animation medium is more important than contemporary art. In spite of the fact that my conservative family think animation is not promising and I do not achieve anything, the creation of animation gives me a sense of existence, it is like putting myself into a film to perform for others. I remember seeing a short film about a child being bullied at school uses a DV to film others. In one scene, you see him editing the images he has got, images of those who have bullied him. In a way, animation is the pathway leading me to reconstruct the reality. There was a period of time when I often went to Ming-liang Tsai’s seminars, from “Concert of Old Songs” held at Tsai Lee Lu Coffee to “Sleeping at an Art Museum” as a part of the Stray Dogs at the Museum exhibition. Ming-liang Tsai once said in one of his seminars, “When we create, we often see old movies and see how others shoot. You want to see this and that, but it is useless trying to learn from others unless you know the purpose is to find who you are in their creations. In the end, you have to deal with your own problems. You take a detour but eventually it has to come back to you.” This is also my belief in creation!