“My creative practice is filled with endless experimentations. Every step along the process, I am constantly exploring the possibilities within, and always failing too. As the saying goes, ‘Successes are coincidental, while failures are essential’,” Taiwanese artist Wu Chi-Tsung said with a laugh. Sometimes the act of creating resembles an experiment, with its incessant attempts and failures after more failures; one awaits a coincidence to create a “successful” work. Amid a sophisticated and fortuitous creative process, Wu’s recent works the Cyano-Collage series struggled against, adapted to and interspersed with time and light to realise one experiment after another.
Currently exhibiting at Galerie du Monde, Exposé is a public display of the experimental series Cyano-Collage Wu created in recent years. In 2019, his Taipei exhibition Echo also exhibited the Cyano-Collage series, following the same concept of going beyond shan shui (landscapes), but with a completely different curatorial approach. Echo showed the works in a dilapidated building that exudes heritage. Some of the works were attached arbitrarily on walls with lime peeling off it, or lying around the table edge in suspension. Exhibiting the works in a four-square, clean and elegant gallery this time presents another way to experience Wu’s works. “We deliberately placed a large 6-part work at the entrance of the exhibition space, so that visitors must make their way around this work to see other exhibits, much like hiking, where one must overcome one mountain to see other scenery. We hope that visitors may discover and explore layer through layer, as Chinese shan shui paintings often emphasised in the quality of being ‘passable, discernible, navigable’; Wu shaped the landscapes in his work in the same spirit,” said Ying Kwok, the curator of the exhibition. While setting up, Kwok chanced upon the light that seeps out of the spaces between the panels of the 6-part work. The obscure rays echo the ying bi (screen walls) in Chinese gardens, such that visitors are given an uninhibited view of the work that appears suspended, and imaginations about space expand.
“No matter what medium I create with, my mentality and the world that I project are of paintings and landscapes. Only through navigating between tradition and the modern, or the East and the West, am I conscious of what changes, what overlaps and what is constant,” Wu said. Keen on painting since a young age, he began experimenting with different mediums in his university years, but has always been fascinated by images. This exhibition includes the Cyano-Collage series, as well as the Wrinkled Texture series from earlier on, both deriving from Wu’s dissatisfaction with digital photography. “There is only one way to produce images in digital photography, which is almost to say that there is only one way to do photography in the contemporary world. Thus, I wanted to return to the essence of photography to record light itself, taking a more open approach to materials and techniques and combining different papers to experiment. This is the reason I reverted to the more classical, time-consuming and uncontrollable medium of cyanotype.” His experimentation this time took the archaic approach of cyanotype photography to create patterns on paper – soaking Chinese Xuan paper in a photosensitive solution, exposing the paper under direct sunlight, ceaselessly adjusting and shaping the creases of the paper to create exquisite textures and layers. When the sunlight was strong, the paper produced a dark blue colour, and when cloudy, the blue came in a lighter shade; The colour intensity also varied with the duration of exposure. After repeated attempts, Wu selected the parts that he liked to place onto the scrolls, and thus Wrinkled Texture came into being. Cyano-Collage, on the other hand, adds collage and painting on this foundation to present in three-dimensional view the spectacular hills and soaring mountains shrouded in mist and clouds. This not only embodies the shan shui concept in traditional Chinese ink paintings, but also documented time, light and shade and the expression of bodily forms of the moment.
What Chinese shan shui painting presents is the union of sentiments and scenery. As such, what kinds of sentiments were bestowed by Wu when he was creating? “The Wrinkled Texture and Cyano-Collage series swapped the ink and brush for photography, and what they explore is the possibilities of ‘shan shui’. They attempt to expand the boundaries and space for the imagination of shan shui. We conducted countless experiments in every stage of the creation. This experimentation was perhaps not so much as sentimental or expressive, but more of an exploration grounded in reasoning.” Wu said that the Cyano-Collage series was still very much a controlled work before this year. He has been pursuing perfectionism in techniques, such as in the treatment of liu bai (leaving areas blank) and misty clouds in the composition, for which he rubbed the fibre in the Xuan paper to an extreme fineness. As his techniques neared perfection, however, he felt at loss somehow with the meaning of the pursuit. “The biggest breakthrough lately was when the state of my creative process grew more relaxed, and closer to ‘natural spontaneity’. That not only allowed the photographic paper to develop naturally when I worked on the composition, but also enabled certain things in me to be released naturally. This is similar to the state wherein ancient people painted shan shui. In creating Cyano-Collage, I gradually placed my consciousness elsewhere, such as in listening to radio programmes, as I let my hands move unconsciously. The more I do this the more I was able to enter into a sort of meditative state.” Wu also said that while creating the two series, his thoughts and pursuits were “figurative”, like a response to a certain shan shui painting classic; whereas now his thoughts have entered into less literal realms, opening up more possibilities, “To be able to project oneself entirely into a ‘discernible, habitable, passable’ imagined space is more in keeping with the spirit of ink art instead.”
Roaming around so many works, my gaze lingered on the Wrinkled Texture on the scroll inadvertently. Seen in close proximity, it was a gradient, creased paper; seen from afar, the shan shui landscapes came through. Not to mention using the most classic Eastern art forms to fuse with Western cyanotype photography technology is a continuation of traditional aesthetics within the modern vernacular. Rolling out the scrolls, there was even a sense of optimism as one feels when entering into nature or hiking, that is, the excitement and anticipation for the unknown. No wonder even Wu said laughingly that he held a personal preference for the Wrinkled Texture in scrolls.
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