LIÚ, Yung Jen 劉永仁
Breathing as Time and Space
YX Art Space Versus Liú Yung-jen
YX Art Space(YX) : We've often heard about your experiences in Italy and working at TFAM, but we're also interested to know more about Chishang in Taitung County, where you grew up. In what ways did living in this area famous for its fertile plains form and nurture you? Can you please talk about your background and how it has influenced you?
Liú Yung-jen(Liú): I was born in Chishang, Taitung. I spent my elementary and middle school days wandering the hills and plains of Huadong Valley and breathing the purest and freshest air. Chishang is situated between Hualien and Taitung and was named for Dapo Pond, which is fed by a natural spring. The area surrounding the pond was completely planted with rice, and early residents started using the rice in boxed lunches to sell at Chishang Railway Station. These lunch boxes have become quite famous over the years.
After growing up, I was left with the impression that the pond was vast and immeasurably deep, and therefore preternatural and mysterious. Year round scenes of the sky, green fields, and mountains shrouded in clouds are the primal images occupying my mind. Curiosity drove me to explore the area with my schoolmates, and we would take a boat out on the pond to pick water caltrops. Everywhere, the sprouting of rice, greening of lush paddies, and heaping of golden rice straw followed the change in seasons. My memory of this is all vast stretches of color, and this is my strongest and deepest impression.
As a child I became interested in calligraphy and painting. My father was an elementary school
teacher and after school, he would often teach me how to do calligraphy, especially during summer and winter vacations. My deepest impression is of practicing on newspaper or grid paper. Perhaps writing Chinese characters to strengthen my concentration is what inspired me to become an artist.
YX: When you were living in Milan, Italy, for eight years, you experienced the interaction and balance
between the Eastern and Western worlds, and this shows in your work. Would you please share
your experiences of this period and how it influenced your artistic concepts?
Liú: When I was a student in the Department of Fine Arts at Chinese Culture University in Taipei, I became fascinated with traditional Chinese landscape painting but was drawn to atmospheres that differed from those that were typical of this tradition. I mainly studied ink painting because I thought that to be an Eastern artist, one had to first understand the essence of the ink painting system and then equip oneself with feelings ready to be expressed. But I also started exploring different styles and art languages because traditional subject matter, such as landscapes, flowers and birds, and the human figure, was too conventional and lacked freshness for me. I completely understood that art must convey unique ideas and spirit, and therefore cannot be constrained. Real art is not just a copy of another painting or a faithful representation of reality.
In 1990, I went to Europe to expand my vision. Everything about the atmosphere there deeply influenced me and my breathing—it was as if I were liberated from shackles. In Italy, art is life and people discuss art all the time. Even small towns have art galleries and museums. The way people enjoy life there is completely different from what I was used to. I continually explored and sought new ways to express myself through art, and decided to use the rich texture of oil paint to present the charm and spirit of ink painting, and also decided to seek artistic inspiration solely from my own thoughts. I lived and made art for eight years, exhibited my work, and assiduously attended exhibitions and then wrote about the marvelous art that I saw. Almost all of my precious time there was spent absorbing stimulating Western art concepts and fusing them with the Eastern art concepts that I had formerly internalized. This is the visual language that I now explore.
YX: In your work, you initially used ink, and then moved on to acrylic and oil paints, and most recently
beeswax and lead foil. Could you please elaborate on the points at which you switched from
material to material, and your use of uncommon art materials, such as beeswax. Specifically, what
message do you wish to convey with the organic quality, malleability, and texture of wax?
Liú: In my work, I have transitioned from ink, acrylic, and oil paints to abstract, mixed-media painting employing oil, beeswax and lead foil. I have been using this last group of materials for more than ten years. I long to present a feeling of life within the tranquility of my paintings. From conflict and balance, harmony naturally arises, and my images are created through the juxtaposition of bright colors.
I think that melted beeswax, which is yellow, translucent, and warm, gently mediates the heavy metallic quality of the lead foil, which is gray, cold and stiff. Even though the two materials maintain their original qualities—that is, are not chemically transformed—the beeswax seems soften and enrich the lead, thus constructing an ambiguous, yet persistent, mental image. In this way, I try to express my various concepts of breathing.
YX: What influence did working at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum have on you?
Liú: While at the Museum, I devoted myself to curatorial work. I simultaneously continued my
artwork, as the workload at the Museum was never a barrier, but rather increased my desire to
paint and to eke out more time for painting. After finishing the many tasks of art administration, I
felt free to pursue art, which is actually the best way for me to relax and breathe freely.
YX: When did you first get into abstract art?
Liú: It was around 1991. My abstract painting arose from a latent desire—mainly driven by the greater art environment—to transform figurative art to semi-figurative and then abstract art. I was thinking about the essence of creativity, and this led me to a new consciousness in my artistic practice. I think there are conceptual differences between the Eastern and Western art systems, but at the same time, the goal of the two systems is the same. In the past, due to cultural constraints, Eastern artists had to be reserved in their self-expression while Western artists were encouraged to be more radical, but this is no longer the case today.
The many changes in the art environment are very enticing, and their visual manifestations can produce ripples that drive artistic transformation. However, my abstract painting is not simply abstract for the sake of being abstract, but rather is a gradual distillation of visual perceptions, and the many temporal and spatial encounters that have arisen over the course of my life.
YX: Are sketches a part of your creative process? Are your finished works different from preliminary
sketches? Also, how do you decide when to stop working on a painting?
Liú: I always make sketches on paper. This a dialog between the mind and hand or a way to think about
the starting point for a painting. Once the sketch is transferred to canvas, I may make some
adjustments, and the result is not necessarily the same as the sketch. I don't always follow the
original composition, and decide to stop working on a painting when I feel it is complex enough.
However, I sometimes feel that I have to stop before overdoing it, and therefore just trust my
YX: From your work, it can be sensed that you are always exploring the intrinsic nature of the self.
What kind of life outlook does this continually deepening exploration give you?
Liú: No matter how long I live, the rice fields of the Dapo Pond area will always be with me. Little things don't affect me, as my personality is naturally optimistic. The sky and rice fields with towering mountains by their side, and mountain peaks shrouded in quickly moving clouds filtering sunlight will always be in my memory. This is my life outlook.
YX: How do you represent the notions of “in, out, inhale, and exhale” in your work? What medium
conveys these ideas?
Liú: We can transform ideas expressed with words into images. We can experience things through words, but needn't get mired in their limitations. Vehicles of meaning between images and words can include changes in form, brightness of color, atmospheric shading, heaviness, or intersections between the imaginary and real, and all of these vary in many ways to generate different sequences. They present subtle relationships between in, out, inhale, and exhale, but they flow slowly. I think an artist's personal traits are revealed in the quality of his or her conceptual integration. The process of reducing and refining ultimately leaves just breathing, which is the final foothold.
Only breathing remains, and breathing is the simplest reduction of form. This is a process of refinement or abstraction. I can tell you, my college teacher, Mr Liu, vaguely hinted at this direction, and when he did, it was the first time he inspired me. He deeply influenced me. Although my teacher Liangyou had not painted much, the way he thought about painting was very powerful. I don't have the opportunity to realize all of my ideas, but my conversations with him opened up another path.
YX: You have said that for you, art is as natural as breathing. I want to ask you when you became
aware of breathing in your artwork.
Liú: I realized this in 1991 when my paintings gradually began moving away from representation. When I knew that I could let go of the rationality of identifiable objects and embark on a deeper exploration of myself, I was only able to express myself through my own breathing. I didn't need to think, or limit myself to the rational thinking of the left side of my brain. When I was breathing deeply, I stopped thinking about cause and effect and went deep into my mind, and only the simplicity and purity of breathing was left. I found simplicity, purity, and cleanliness.
Breathing is both an instinct and a method. By instinctively breathing, of course I survive, but this can also lead to broader perceptions and intuition. Breathing is both the most primitive and simplest thing, and the most complicated and mysterious thing. I have given up on thinking too much and only have breathing left. Breathing is an in and out exchange, that is, a dialogue. We breathe oxygen, and can also breathe feelings. Thoughts are the oxygen of the soul. As long as feeling can be gotten from my work, I will have a dialogue with you, my audience. Causing others to feel something means that there is a dialogue. If something goes in, and something goes out, then there is breathing and there is life. Breathing is a kind of molecular exchange, molecular infiltration, and molecular conversion that results in energy.
YX: In the paintings, we see forms that belong to your concept of order, but they cannot be connected to specific objects. Could you please elaborate on how you organize the forms, colors, and lines of your paintings in a way that is like breathing, and is balanced and natural?
Liú: I don't think that the representation of objects is important for painting. I care about form and color, and an internal balance that is not visible to the eye—which is similar to our experience of objects as opposed to our visual perception of them. This is also the basis of my concept of breathing, which I have continually explored. I like to use yellow and create bright rays of light and large areas of space are important to me. I cannot breathe unless I feel a carefree openness. I also often use orange because I think this color is full of joy. Of course color combinations are also very important. I use dark colors together, such as indigo and black. The triangular elements you see in my paintings are not entirely geometrical, but rather are natural forms that have been transformed, such as triangular heaps of rice straw, and star shapes. I have now formed these into my visual vocabulary.
YX: Are there any conflicts when you switch roles from curator to artist and back again?
Liú: I think an artist needs to have keenly subjective perceptions. We all play different roles, and mine do not conflict with each other, but rather supplement each other and help me to think about art. Artists build their own structures in which to work, and must be especially brave when practicing their art. Curators must be able to offer insight and look at an artist's creative approach in a comprehensive way, as well as be able to organize. I can do this job because fortunately I have these abilities. The only real conflict is that I don't like having so many identities. I only get nourishment from painting, and only painting proves that I am alive. I have been lucky to fall into these other responsibilities, and I have just tried to do these jobs the best I can.
I worked in the Taipei Fine Arts Museum's exhibitions department and curated exhibitions from 2003 to 2018. I entered the curatorial field because it was an opportunity to create and comprehensively administer art exhibitions. Over the years, I have planned about 30 exhibitions, and luckily they were all well received.
YX:Before, you said that when you were working at the Museum, making art helped you relax. Now that you're retired, your time available for painting has changed a lot. Has your state of mind or experience changed when you're making your artwork?
Liú :While working at the Museum, my time for painting was fragmented, and although I can say it
helped me to release stress, the real reason that I painted was to satisfy my need for self expression. Now that I am retired, I have longer, continuous periods of time in which to paint. My state of mind has changed because I no longer have to worry about disorder in my office routine. Worrying easily interfered with my concentration and made me tired.
YX: What are your interests other than art?
Liú: Painting is both my interest and my profession. Besides this, I enjoy reading, seeing art exhibitions, and traveling. There are also some other small amusements in my life. I like that painting and physical exercise offer infinite pleasure in terms of breathing.
YX: What do you think beauty is?
Liú: I believe that anything can be beautiful as long as it is expressed with enthusiasm and sincerity. Time and space come together to create the perception of beauty.
YX: What message do you hope to convey with your work? What connection do you think contemporary art has with society?
Liú: Artists wield little power these days because art lacks a vital connection to reality. But art has been very important in the long course of human history because art has always been the most precious thing left after those connections disappeared. When an artist recognizes this, he is duty bound to dedicate his life and breath to art, and therefore can overcome the restrictions of time and space.
YX: Please briefly discuss the theme of your new 2019 work being exhibited at YX Art Space.
Liú: The title of the exhibition is Breathing as Time and Space. It’s about the repeating cycle of in and out. The universe that I perceive is an infinite arc. It is slow and balanced, such that it is integrated into one and cannot be defined using notions of speed or before and after. Everything in my paintings is a moment crystallized from time and space, but can be extended infinitely in the mind.
Themes in my work for this exhibition are an extension of my breathing concept. The show includes a number of paintings on circular canvases, which present new discoveries and variations in form and composition. Perhaps I was influenced by a trip I took at the beginning of the year to Europe, where I rode a train through forested, snow-covered mountains. Moving so quickly through this frozen land was visually arresting. The blacks, whites and grays of the landscape seemed unusually distinct. I was deeply impressed by the timelessness of the universe and vastness of the Earth.