LIÚ, Yung Jen 劉永仁
An interview with Yung Jen Liú
by Artist Liù Yung Jen and Independent Art Critic Giusi Daniele
Taipei, August 4, 2013
Giusi Daniele(GD): This new series of paintings still concerns breathing. It seems to me that breathing has been present as a theme since the beginning of your art career. Could you explain its meaning and the reason for focusing on this theme?
Yung Jen Liú(YJL): Yes it is true, since 1996 the theme of breathing has been present in my paintings and installations. I think that the act of painting is for me is like breathing. Art is like breathing in that neither require planning, but both absolutely must happen with self-awareness. Looking deeply into its sources and impact, I realize art is infinitely powerful. I arrived at my worldview through painting and this self-aware attitude serves as the active principle that drives my art development and is the justification for my practice. Breathing is an important concept in my art, and I am still deeply inspired by it.
GD: Was this breathing concept already in your mind before becoming an artist, or did it occur to you at some point in your career?
YJL: When I was a student at Chinese Cultural University in Taipei from 1979 to 1983, I studied classical Chinese figurative painting. I was using ink as my medium, but also began to investigate different styles and art languages. I was not inspired by traditional subjects such as landscape (山水shàn shǔi), flower and bird painting, or portraiture. It was already clear to me that art is to express spirit in a special form, and real art cannot be a copy of another painting or a representation of reality. After a period of continuous exploration of non-representational art, an opportunity presented itself and I went to Italy. The country’s atmosphere had a strong influence on me and on my breathing. Art is everywhere in Italy; there are even galleries and museums in small towns. Italian people enjoy life very differently from the way which I was accustomed. I was searching to express myself through art in a new way, and so I decided to combine the solid quality of oil on canvas with the atmospheric spirit of ink painting and tried to be inspired only by my own thoughts.
GD: It is true that everywhere you go in Italy you can breathe art from antiquity right down to today. There is also an incredible stratification of historical styles, and each region, town and village has created their own original artistic style, which has partially arisen from the influences of other Mediterranean cultures. There is also a specific Italian attitude in thinking, living life and art. So in Italy, you breathe a different aesthetic and cultural environment than anywhere else! But how did you come to understand the importance of breathing?
YJL: In Italy art is not an exception, but a normal part of life. People are surrounded by art, design, architecture and music. This nourishing environment made me aware of changes in my artwork and thinking. I tried to assimilate all of it and while liberating it at the same time looked back at my essential nature, and present my individual taste and preferred style. But the concept of breathing comes from Asian culture, it is an artistic attitude extracted from my personal experience. Breathing is an attitude; it has become a symbol of my life as an artist, and manifestation of my internal reality.
GD: Yes, I think that in Asian culture breathing has a different meaning than in western countries. In the last century the West has understood the importance of breathing better thanks to the influence of Asian philosophies such as Buddhism. Buddha attained enlightenment through a technique that focused awareness on breathing. Breathing is also of key importance in techniques that discipline the body, such as yoga.
YJL: I focus on concepts of assimilation and liberation and their essences. This is a process of refining forms, and the breathing that appears is ultimately just the perspective from which I work, breathing is the only way. In this process of extraction, simplified elements are isolated and shapes are discarded. When I was in college, my professor Liu Liang-yu vaguely suggested that I go in this direction. This left a very deep impression, and it was the first time I felt inspired.
GD: When you paint, you don't have specific subject matter in mind, yet seem to like using certain recurrent elements such as specific colors and forms. Please talk a little about this.
YJL: The subject is not at all important to me; I prefer forms, colors and invisible phenomena such as the feeling of things. This is why I continue to experiment with the concept of breathing. Yellow is one color I always like to use in my paintings. Bright light and big, open spaces are very important because I cannot breathe until feel relaxed and free from worry. I also use orange because I think it is a surprising color. Color combinations are of course also very important to me. I use dark colors like indigo and black. The triangles you see in my paintings are not geometrical elements but natural forms that have been transformed. They are now part of my artistic language.
GD: You move among traditional ink painting, abstract oil painting and semi-abstract painting. Personally I think your triangle form with a rounded side looks like an up-side-down lotus fruit. Also, I see you use special brushes.
YJL: You can associate this shape with the lotus, but in reality it is just a free form. I want to create ambiguous forms, like semi-abstract shapes that are between abstract and figurative. My intention is to find a way to create forms that are beyond the geometrical dimension. Before, in 1999, the form I frequently used was reminiscent of an arrow. The brush I use is a special kind that I discovered in Italy. It is used to whitewash walls. It is a long-handled brush that is bent at the point where the bristles are attached to the handle, and when I use it I feel I can make freer gestures.
GD: Considering, as you just said, your paintings are semi-abstract, is it still possible to clearly recognize breathing in them?
YJL: Yes, of course! You can see breathing in all my paintings. For example, in the painting The Alchemy of Breathing VII breathing is represented by color combinations and by different kinds of brush strokes. The small and quick brush strokes in the middle of the blue surface, and also the yellow drops are all representative of breathing. You can also feel breathing in the border between the big yellow and blue areas of color, because the border is not perfectly linear. But for me breathing is also about mystery. I want to put some elements of surprise inside my art. I breathe with my heart, and breathing is my art attitude, which is rich with philosophical aspects. Breathing supports and guides my qi.
GD: Alchemy is a process of transforming base metals into noble ones, such as gold and silver. It is also an influential philosophical tradition with secret aspects. Chinese alchemy is connected to Chinese traditional medicine, and in Taoism it concerns the search for a grand elixir of immortality, or for long life.
YJL: The alchemy of breathing is a spiritual process. I always try to experiment like an alchemist because I want to create images that have never before existed. I added two contrasting materials to my canvases: lead foil for its strength and malleability, and beeswax for its softness and translucence. When the two are put together they make breathing rhythms more fascinating, and is like an alchemy of endless variation. The alchemy here is also a metaphor for life.