Personal Projections

Tsai-Ling Tseng is an award-winning and recognised Taiwanese artist with a studio practice based between Taipei and Brooklyn; she produces paintings that are a fever dream of colour and curiosity. The compositions depict dripping forms, swelling bodies and compelling characters – teapots, rubbish bags and cars sit amongst underworlds and ethereal planes.

Her paintings explore the possibilities of the surreal and the innate emotion of colour. Tseng’s works have been exhibited internationally at distinguished galleries, exhibitions and art shows, and she has been awarded with admission into highly selective artist residence programmes such as Anderson Ranch Arts Center, supported by the National Endowment for the Arts.

A: In Issue 101 of Aesthetica we display Disposable Me. This is an oil-on-canvas piece which depicts you inside a rubbish bag, surrounded by a pile of similar bags. What was the thinking behind the piece? Do you think it would have been a different composition had you not created it this year?
I made the sketch of this painting in early summer 2020, when the Covid-19 stay-at-home restriction had just lifted in New York. During that time, one of the few outdoor activities I did was to walk from my apartment to my studio. Brooklyn was quiet and felt abandoned. The piles of garbage bags I passed by every day next to the entrance of my studio building became the visual inspiration for Disposable Me. I was also thinking about how insignificant artistic practice seemed in comparison to the gravity of the virus and the economic and racial injustices affecting everyone’s lives around the world during that time. Then I imagined myself being thrown away in a field of garbage bags, where there was no activity around the field besides the flies around me. 

A: How does Disposable Me relate to other pieces such as 7:32pm, Seven Creatures in my Heart and On my Way Home?
All three paintings were inspired by daily life experiences and social observations. The main characters in the paintings are animated versions of myself. I made the sketches of these three works at around the same time, and the paintings are all 50 x 55 inches. On My Way Home and Disposable Me were both done with wet-on-wet painting techniques. I focused on building specific landscapes (pond and rocks, garbage fields) to support the simplified main characters (a turtle and a garbage bag girl) in these two paintings. 

However, Seven Creatures in my Heart is a much more complex composition. This piece was inspired by the seven deadly sins. It took me almost eight months to finish this painting due to my determination to build each character’s personality, along with keeping the harmonious relationships between the creatures and the landscape. 

The last step I applied to this painting was to exaggerate the yellow woman’s skin colour with neon yellow pigment. By transforming the yellow woman’s skin colour into a light source, it not only solved the muddiness of this painting but also elevated the presence of this character: an Asian woman that people would usually neglect. 

A: Who is Yellow Girl? Is this scene one that it depicted later in the same evening, after 7:32pm?
Both Yellow Girl and 7:32pm are depictions of indoor scenarios. I like the way you read the paintings as a continuous story happening in the same evening. I didn’t set the narratives to be in the same evening intentionally. Both paintings emphasise the Asian female in indoor scenarios. Yellow Girl was inspired by the stereotype of Asian women: that they are always polite and smile when interacting with people. I took that assumption and dramatised it. By naming the painting Yellow Girl and depicting the girl taking off the smiley face-skin costume in her bedroom, I hoped to convey how I felt about the stereotype of Asian women attached to my appearance and identity. It’s as if I could only get away from it by peeling off my skin.

A: How do you think your self-portraiture has evolved – for example from Self Portrait, painted in 2019 – and the Self Portrait, 2020 you created last year?
Back in 2019, I focused on amplifying certain feelings and emotions through otherworldly creatures and half-abstract, half-surreal scenarios. The Self Portrait in 2019 was a turtle on an orange background. I was trying to depict the discomfort of the heat in my studio during that summer. However, in the Self Portrait, 2020, I approached my self-portraiture with a more straightforward attitude. I made this drawing in winter 2020. I recalled a memory of 2020, where most of my days were spent painting in the studio. Occasionally, there would be one or two visitors and I would wear my mask, hold my brushes on one hand and use the other to open the studio door anxiously.   

A: How is working on paper different from working on canvas? You have explored using paper and canvas for the same subjects.
Works on paper allow me to execute a more intimate and straightforward attitude. Sometimes, certain content presents best on paper. However, the final visual effect I can convey in oil paintings is so rewarding. I usually prepare several sketches before committing oil paintings on canvas. Once I find the right composition from the sketches, I develop a more complex work on paper with markers and coloured pencils. The goal is to find the light sources and the basic colours for the oil painting. Sometimes I reverse the process and make a work on paper to study the painting. 

A: Do plan to explore new mediums in future, or do you think that exploration of yourself and socio-political issues through paintings offers unlimited possibilities for you?
I think the traditional pictorial format benefits my artistic practice the most. I have much more to explore in oil paintings. From taking off and rebuilding textures, creating forms and spaces to finding lights, I enjoy the fun and challenges this medium provides me. I chose oil paints as one of my primary mediums not because of any conceptual or theoretical reasons, but simply because of my passion for it. 

On the other hand, I am really interested in further exploration of my works on paper. I really appreciate the spontaneity and the immediacy paper can offer. In my current practice, I am experimenting with different sizes and kinds of papers, and searching for more dense markers and coloured pencils for the next body of work on paper. In the future, I would love to explore etching and screen-printing.

A: Tell me about the painting entitled Minor Feelings
On the surface, this painting is a criticism about consumption: a woman eating a pile of bananas, while a skinny girl behind her begs for food. However, I also present the straight male perspective of fellatio by illustrating an Asian woman eating a banana with red lipstick and smeared eye makeup. I hope to force the viewer to face the long-term Western fetishisation and objectification of Asian females. This painting’s title is directly borrowed from the Korean-American author Cathy Park Hong’s book, Minor Feelings.

A: How do your experiences in the USA shape how you view yourself when you are in Taiwan?
Being in New York has presented a lot of opportunities to interact with people from all over the world and it has made me more aware of my own identity. I have gradually learned to be more outspoken about politics, social events and race issues that relate to my Taiwanese female identity. Because of the experiences I have accumulated in both Taipei and Brooklyn, I strive to amplify my cultural background as a Taiwanese person whose country is still fighting for its democracy with Mainland China, while simultaneously working with the history of Western painting in my work.

A: Regarding the work On my Way Home, where is home? Does the answer to that question remain the same as always, does it change with time or for you will it always be a question that can’t really be answered?
I always think of home as a very abstract term. It’s like a crowded package filled with many memories and people. I guess turtle’s shell would be the closest visual form as a metaphor of my definition of home. As time goes by, the shell grows larger, and will always be carried by the turtle everywhere.

A: What has your prestigious admission to the artist residency at the Anderson Ranch Arts Center in Snowmass Village, Colorado meant to you and what are you looking to achieve during this time?
It’s a great honour to have been admitted to this programme and the culmination of years of developing my craft. During my six-week residence, I want to further experiment with different printmaking techniques and further explore my drawing practice. I plan to take advantage of the printmaking facilities at the Anderson Ranch Art Center, as well as to cooperate and interact with other practicing artists in this intimate setting. My goal is to come out of this programme with a large body of work on paper. 

A: Tell me about your highly-anticipated forthcoming exhibition at the gallery 濕地|Venue located in the cosmopolitan Zhongshan District in Taipei City. How have you adapted the gallery experience to an online forum?
I arrived in Taipei City in April 2021 to prepare for this solo exhibition. Since then, I have been working on a new body of work entitled Tu Di Gong Doesn’t Bless Me. The work will address and explore Taiwanese culture and politics as well as gender equality, amongst other social issues. The show was due to open on 25 May 2021, just as Taiwan started experiencing its first Covid-19 outbreak, so the gallery had to close its doors until further notice. As people and businesses have done over the past year, I have adapted to the situation and transformed the physical exhibition into an online virtual show so that the public in Taiwan and around the world can nonetheless view and experience the works from the intimacy of their own homes. We will launch the virtual exhibition in early July 2021.

A: What is a typical day like for you? Has your schedule changed greatly since early 2020?
Since early 2020, life has become quieter. I was really lucky to still be able to keep a studio practice in Brooklyn. I also had more time to reflect and read more books that I didn’t have time to pick up before. I came back to Taipei recently, just before Taiwan’s first Covid-19 outbreak. Recently, life here feels like “Groundhog Day” replaying from the Covid-19 outbreak I experienced in New York last year. At least this time I have my family around me, which is a really precious thing especially after being apart from them for three years.

Images: all images are courtesy of the artist.

The work of Tsai-Ling Tseng appears in the Artists’ Directory in Issue 101 of Aesthetica. Click here to visit our online shop.