Art and Design Deriving from Body Swing
─────── Timonium Lake
Time: March 24, 2015
Interviewee: Timonium Lake (TL)
Interviewers and Guests: Hsin Chen (Chen), Mirr Lo (Tsen), Juliet Lin (Lin),
Jow-jiun Gong, Guan-jhang Chen
Location: Office at Tsung-Yeh Arts and Cultural Center
Compiled by Guan-jhang Chen Translated by Li-fen Wang
Lines Created from Body Swing
TL───I am a calligraphy and seal carving major, but I also study contemporary art, so my idea is to bring contemporary renditions into the two traditional fields. Even if I love writing, I find the two are haunted by conventions which lead to the loss of creativity. While traditional models are good, they can be a restriction in modern days, such as Zhen-qing Yan’s style or Xun Ouyang’s style as in Nine Chequers.
I think those models are the cream of the masters. They might spend their lifetime to come up with the styles as these masters tend to develop a rather mature style after their fifties. With characters bearing such maturity and essence, it is hard for most people to imitate well, and some may thus lose confidence in writing with a brush. It should be natural to write this way. It is a pity that we dare not pick up brushes simply because we are overwhelmed by the difficulty at the onset. I have been trying to integrate conception in contemporary art with the traditions, so I carved the Heart Sutra on a seal when I was a junior. I spent a whole week on it. The characters should be in tiny size and you can imagine they underwent lots of structural adjustment within and among themselves, that’s why I often had to throw my hands with a pen to relax my joints.
At first, I did not care much about the bodylines which were later integrated into my writing style. The key of the integration is “contemporary art.” It was in the second or the third year when Chih-cheng Chen returned from France, and he was interested in me for my majors, so he shared with me his understanding of the qualities inherent in traditional lines. He said there are many details in calligraphy and seal carving that deserve people’s attention and appreciation. He also mentioned that he ever saw the cell of an inmate serving life sentence. There were numerous lines on the wall as the prisoner drew one line daily, and those lines were so powerful. He sees lines from the perspective of the body as it reveals a man’s history. While I was throwing my hands mindlessly, I created a bodyline exclusive to me.
Calligraphy learners should start with imitating ancient writings, such as the inscriptions on bones or turquoise shells and those on pottery for the lines are playful. After going through each of the styles, they should be able to find the right one to imitate. Take mine for example, it looks like the seal script. Si Li ruled that the small seal script should be the official character style in the Qin dynasty, and it was later replaced by the clerical script in the Han dynasty. While the transition took place, an alternative style was created and mine is similar to that.
Chen───So you have found a similar style in the history of calligraphy?
TL───Yes, it is a bit like the script written on silk books. Official documents tended to be written neatly, but for prescriptions, notes or loan acknowledgement, people wrote less rigidly. Those unearthed silk manuscripts are closer to this alternative style developed in between the Qin and the Han dynasties. It keeps the form of the seal script but the rendition has been personalized in the transition to the cleric script, so the silk script is diversified. Anyway, I treat lettering in the context of contemporary art, and it has always played an important role in my presentations. For instance, I would highlight characters or have them go with videos. Now, I still keep my writing habit, because it has been the root of my design or creation.
Lettering has certain impact on my design. For example, my arrangement of fonts is slightly different from the mainstream, and that difference comes from my experiences in calligraphy and seal carving. In seal carving in particular, you have to mind the basic lines of the characters and the detailed compromise made among the lines. You literally make adjustment and arrangement in a micro space. Also in calligraphy, you structure the space with strokes. Actually I wanted to study western painting, but my scores were not high enough to go for that pathway, so it never struck me that I might apply what I have learned from my majors to my work one day. I mean, seal carving and design are so much alike.
Lo───You also do portraits, right? Is On the Road your first portrait design?
TL───My very first portrait was for Chen-nan Cai’s concert, but On the Road is a more complete presentation of portrait design. Like this one is for Nanhai Gallery’s exhibition Real Park. The organization was diverse in that I had a portrait along with edgy characters to break the squareness inherent in Chinese characters. I wanted the characters to resemble those in calligraphy and that the arrangement of lines and space created a sense of motion. I have some of my works here. This is both the advantage and the disadvantage, because I have to figure out how to make the characters look lively within that square confinement.
Lo───You started with seal carving but then changed to design. Is this your idea or did your seal carving teachers inspire you in any way?
TL───The teachers focused on teaching us seal carving techniques, though they might find my experimental creations interesting, they also frowned upon them. Generally speaking, they were open to my creations.
Lo───Did they teach traditional stuff, such as temple painting? Did any temple painting piece ever go into your life when you were a student?
TL───The academy was not as open as it is now. For example, the teacher talked about everything west in my contemporary art course for the first two years. Not many local issues had been brought up, almost none. But I tried to do both. I still carved conventional seals just that I brought in some differences without telling others. Most of the time I worked on the basic (showing pieces of yellowing and mould-specked paper on which there are red stamps of various sizes).
Chen───You did carve a lot (The amount of time spent on the work has piled up an immense sense of quantity on these fragile pieces of paper).
TL───These are the manuscripts at that time. When I was immersed in seal carving, my then roommate used to say, “Are you building a house?” because I just made the sound all day along, “kiang kiang kiang.”
Chen───Other people may also have experiences in seal carving and design, but seldom mix the two as you do.
TL───I think the medium bringing the two together is contemporary art. Chih-cheng Chen has enlightened me on the possibilities of lines, so I have been thinking about making breakthroughs. There is no limit in contemporary art, but it still takes various experiments to break through the established. It is only when I am in the design process that I can make connections between these two seemly unrelated fields.
Lo───With such a unique kind of creations, have you encountered any difficulties in contemporary art?
TL───I have not been able to strike a balance between living and creation until recent years. I worked as an in-house designer at Eslite ten years ago. At that time, creation was my priority and I saw design as nothing but a job. But I realized that no matter how hard I create, I could never make money out
Once I was talking with Chien-hung Huang. He said my work was not quite pleasing in the sense that it could not be placed in the western context for discussion nor did it belong to the orthodox east. It was almost impossible to communicate with those contemporary art people then. Moreover, curators at that time were not capable of developing discussions from both the western and the eastern perspectives. Particularly, calligraphy and seal carving demand personal experiences, and it is only with that that one may evaluate the work with reference to aesthetics.
Chen───Even if your work is placed in the context of traditional calligraphy and seal carving, people will not give credit to it.
TL───Exactly, it was difficult to communicate with them. Therefore, I had to prioritize design to creation and make a living by taking design cases. I was not willing to change the priority, but I had to, yet little did I know that my creation would be made possible because of design.
Resonating: Melody of Local Designs
TL───My first design case was to work with Ming-chang Chen. I learned to understand his music during the process. He told me that his music was grass-rooted. I once followed his team to Pingdong and proved the things they had described. Then I found it easy to get the messages he wanted to convey simply by listening to his music which was very straightforward. For example, he mentioned he had spent ten years learning how to play the moon lute and the nanguan and beiguan music, so he could apply the fingering to playing the moon-lute-guitar. Whenever he strikes the strings of the guitar, the air vibrates to form the music that is so Taiwanese. People in the west also wonder about why no one but he can use the same instrument to play such distinct music.
That experience was a solid proof that you can use what you have extracted from home culture to mix with the western culture and create something that is yours. I also realized then that creation and design could both be very local, and the key is the way to transform.
Lo───Did this picture later become the cover of the book?
TL───Yes, it did. What is special about this is that I used a charcoal pencil to create the texture particular in ink and wash painting.
Chen───So you started to sneak in your ideas since then?
TL───I have been trying to sneak in personal imprints whenever I design, like I tried to show the eastern logic with a different way of drawing. One of my friends had the poster of my 2009 solo exhibition Book design and sketch posted in his clothing store. One day, the choreographer, Tsung-lung Cheng, noticed it when he was shopping and then he invited me to watch the rehearsal of On the Road.
He asked me what I thought about the performance after the rehearsal. I told him that I was not a performance goer, but that was unexpectedly good. Then he invited me to design for the poster of On the Road. At that time, I chose a pose which they regarded as one combining yin (陰) and yang (陽), making the body an east one, not the west. We have had this understanding of each other since On the Road and have been collaborating since then.
Lin───Is this him in the picture?
TL───That was his dancer.
Chen───The personal imprints you sneak in your work help shape your style.
TL───To a certain extent, yes. Although I am not willing to admit this, I think the decision was right looking back now. Through the design cases, I give a second thought on writing, and get to know what takes place in Taiwan.
Chen───So because of design you have to step out of your small world, understand other people’s creation, and get to know people in different fields like Ming-chang Chen or Tsung-lung Cheng.
TL───If I see myself as an artist working with other artists, I may not have such understanding. That cooperation would be in a segmental manner, because each artist focuses on his own work. On the contrary, design requires everyone to work in a parallel manner or even in a hierarchical manner. In other words, I, the designer, have to submit to the consignors’ capability. By doing so, I then am able to see the context behind their work.
Chen───It suppresses your arrogance.
TL───Right. I cannot only focus on my work. I have to interact with the whole team, which allows me to treat my creation more objectively. Being a designer means that I am part of a team and it is different from being an artist.
Inllungan na Kneril and On the Road were nominated for the Taishin Arts Award in different years. They were two perfect examples. Pisui Ciyo watched On the Road and came to me for design. She was cautious about the result because she did not want me to design from a city guy’s perspective. In our first meeting, we walked along the river bank and talked for the whole afternoon. My legs were painful afterwards, but she had the right feeling after meeting with me. I was just puzzled about why would someone hold a meeting this way.
She has been collecting indigenous music for a long time. Not only does she record it, but she learns to sing those songs. Although she is Atayal, her collection covers all tribes which may sometimes be regarded as violation of some tribes’ codes, and this makes her subject to critiques. Because of so, she is sensitive. When I worked with her team, I tried to understand the indigenous people and came to realize that their life and belief revolt around their ancestral spirits. The ultimate goal for them had been to return to the ancestors’ residence until the Japanese cut off their belief and left them rootless. Now I am more understandable about why they are so sad and why they reiterate their wounded life. Knowing them more enables me to understand what confronts them.
Design as a Midwife in Work Creation
TL───I actually got a case to draw a pamphlet about “the infernal generals,” but I could not make it then.
Chen───There are times when you cannot make it?
TL───Whether it is about the indigenous people or the infernal generals, you just cannot make it without inspiration. You have to get to know the people and do research first, so before taking this case, I visited here with a discreet mindset. It was also an opportunity to take my wife and children out.
Chen───We want to know more about your book design.
TL───Hsiao-jung Kuan and I developed a close friendship when we worked on his book Bachihmen. We chatted and communicated so I know naturally what he was concerned about, not just tried to know him from the photos. There is a nuance between communicating from the perspective of art and communicating from that of design, that is, they lead us to reach mutual understanding in different aspects. Another good example of bringing creation and design together is Kenzaburō Ōe’s book, Okinawa Notes and The Beautiful Annabel Lee was Chilled and Killed.
Lo───Yes, you sneaked in some strange fonts and mixed them with general fonts.
TL───Not much was sneaked in. Each field has its conventions and limitations, and so does book design. Although publishing is a career for ideals, it has budget limitation. If people in this field do not think creation is important, then limited budget will inevitably restrain its development. It applies to all fields. It is imperative for the essence of contemporary art to be applied widely in all fields, but the key point is how to transform the concepts and how to communicate with the society.
I also published some small books, such as Heart Sutra twice, it is a book summarizing my life before thirty. Wakayama Opera is the book of the photographer, Jojo Kao. Her works are quite nice, so we talked about publishing a concept photography book. Before we knew it, the book was in the making while we were talking. The photos collected in Wakayama Opera touch the reader directly, they are attractive. She recorded life of people born between 1981 to 1991 in her photos.
Chen───But it targets only a small number of people. Did you propose to publish for her?
TL───Yes, I suggested to publish for her, but it was quite indie, meaning the book does not even have an ISBN number and there are only six to seven hundred copies. I told her there would be no reprints.
One of my complete exhibitions recently is the one held at Dear Deer Café. The person in charge of the exhibition was a drama therapist (Hug Chen) whose clients were mostly children diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome. There was a classroom on the second floor and the exhibition space was on the third floor. She hoped that when the children went upstairs, they could see many adults engage in creations just like what they did on the second floor, and that they might learn to communicate with the society in their own ways. The first part of this exhibition was named Tshing-tshun Tsiām-tōo (青春暫度) consisting of six performances. First, Lim Giong, then Chen-da Chung (drummer for the Labor Exchange band), Pei-yu Huang, and then Pisui, the Nineteen Tael band, the Kou Chou Ching band, and Ming-chang Chen. Later, Ming-chang Chen invited Chien-hung Huang to be the discussant. I collaborated with them because of my design cases, and I took a step further to bring them together and made this exhibition possible.
Lim Giong and I did a performance together. He made a forty-minute electronic song in “experimental noises” to translate the Heart Sutra into music. For me, writing the heart sutra took me an average of forty minutes. So he was playing his DJ mix with the song while I was writing down the heart sutra on the wall, and the performance was then made an album with all the money going to the Taipei Autism Children Social Welfare Foundation.
I had similar experiences like this afterwards, so I thought I might publish something out of them. Like the photographer Yo Yang coming back from Japan. Her photos always had funny perspectives, so I collected her photos with similar concepts and published a book. Editing and the negotiation process took us more than a year, and our relationship was more like that between a curator and an artist. To make it possible, I had to persuade her, step by step, until she had trust in me.
Chen───Why are you so attracted by publishing?
TL───Because it is an act of art to me. Publications are rich in content even if they are about different fields. They are the result of certain collection and there is power in them. The people may not be artists, but the things they collect and accumulate form a sense of beauty. Whenever I see that density in their work, I try to talk them into publishing. But both sides have to acknowledge each other’s talent to proceed, so I think publishing a book is an act to combine creation, design and interpersonal interaction.
Chen───I used to think the work of a designer was to make beautification, but when I see how you deal with design cases, I now think that being a designer is more than what I expected. A designer seems to have a special relationship with his work, that is, both define and shape each other.
TL───I once designed for Elsa Hsiang-chun Chen’s project, City of Swallows—Migration, Post/Colonial Memory and New Taiwan Color at Shin Len Yuan Art Space. I was heavily influenced by that exhibition. I went over each detail with the team members to figure out possible scenarios occurring in an exhibition, then I realized what it was like to have a cross-disciplinary cooperation. Many writings have elaborated on this concept which touches upon how to create a platform for people to know one another and how the author exchanges life experiences with others via important creations. But I was there in the process, and that interaction was instinctive.
Chen───A designer is like a midwife in a deliver room, she assists the mother in the birth-giving process. Some people may not yet find the way to present their work, and you are there to embody what is in their mind.
TL───This is what cooperation is all about. We all have our own strengths, so he is able to take so many stunning photos, and I can edit the photos with my design and help him identify the main concept of his work. I think an artist should have this ability to visually present work based on one single idea. Of course, you need frequent negotiations which are something I never stop doing. It actually leads to a lot of feedback allowing me to see my design more objectively. My consignors become my good friends after working with me, and that may not be an intimate friendship but it is definitely an enduring one.