When my maternal grandmother passed way, I still had many things to say to her but it was too late. For the next year I wrote many letters to her, as if she were still alive, in order to share my thoughts and feelings with her.
For The Letter-Writing Project, I invited visitors to write the letters they had always meant to but never taken time for. Each of three writing booths, constructed of wood and translucent glass, contained a desk and writing materials. Visitors could enter one of the three booths and write a letter to a deceased or otherwise absent loved one, offering previously unexpressed gratitude, forgiveness or apology. They could then seal and address their letters (for posting by the museum) or leave them unsealed in one of the slots on the wall of the booth, where later visitors could read them. Many later visitors come to realize, through reading the letters of others that they too carried unexpressed feelings that they would feel relieved to write down and perhaps share. In this way, a chain of feeling was created, reminding visitors of the larger world of emotions in which we all participate. In the end, it was the spirit of the writer that was comforted, whether the letter was ever read by the intended recipient or others.
(Commissioned by Whitney Museum of American Art, 1998)
The Dining Project originated during my first year at Yale University, where I completed my MFA. Feeling isolated, I posted hundreds of posters all over the campus, inviting anyone interested in "sharing foods and introspective conversation" to contact me. By the end of the first day, I had received approximately 45 responses to my invitation.
This project involved an after-hours encounter in the museum's gallery. Through lottery, I arranged to have a private dinner with a stranger on scheduled nights during the exhibition period. Four times a week I carefully prepared a meal, according to the dietary preference of my dinner guest, using food as a catalyst and medium for trust and intimacy. Our ongoing interaction and dialogue was recorded on audio/video, with the camera lens at the level of the food, as we sat across from one another at the low table. The following day, the recording was played in the gallery, slightly altered and barely audible. This visual/aural trace allowed the next guest to experience the previous night’s meal along with their own, while maintaining the earlier guest's anonymity.
While reading Lewis Hyde's "The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property," I was fascinated by his examination of the effects of both our total immersion in a market economy and the myth of the free market on our views about gifts and our abilities to give and receive them.
For the Lyon Biennial, I created an inviting space in a gallery containing beautifully presented fresh flowers. Museum guests were invited to take one of these flowers with them when they left the museum, if they would agree to do two things: first, to make a detour from their intended route when leaving the museum and, second, along this detour, to give the flower to a stranger who they felt would benefit from this unexpected act of generosity.
I did not choose to document what happened once the flowers left the museum. As in life, we rarely learn how far our kindnesses (or unkindnesses) extend. In this project I chose to let others be kind, and leave the rest to fate. The gift I received in return was the knowledge that somewhere in Lyon, during the months of the Biennial, some strangers had connected through acts of unexpected giving and receiving.
(Commissioned by Lyon Biennial 2009)
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The Mending Project was an interactive conceptual installation in which I used very simple elements—thread, color, sewing—as points of departure for gaining insights into the relationships among self, other and immediate surroundings. It also constituted an act of sharing between myself and a stranger.
Visitors initially saw a long table, two chairs and a wall of colorful cone-shaped spools of thread. During gallery hours, I was seated at that table, to which visitors could bring various damaged textile articles, choose the color of thread they wished, and watch as I mended the article. The mended article, with thread ends still attached, was then placed on the table along with previously mended items. Owners returned to the gallery to collect their mended articles on the last day of the exhibition.
The act of mending took on emotional value as well, depending on how personal the damaged item was, e.g., a favorite shirt vs. an old but little-used tablecloth. This emotional mending was marked by the use of thread which was not the color of the fabric around it, and often colorfully at odds with that fabric, as though to commemorate the repair. Unlike a tailor, who will try to hide the fact that the fabric was once damaged, my mending was done with the idea of celebrating the repair, as if to say, "something good was done here, a gift was given, this fabric is even better than before."
The sacred Sri Lankan city of Anuradhapura was established around the Sri Maha Bodhi, The tree of enlightenment. The Sri Maha Bodhi is the direct descendent of the original tree under which the historical Buddha is said to have achieved enlightenment some 2500 years ago. The current tree is now on the grounds of the Maha bodhi Temple in Bodhgaya in the Indian state of Bihar.
For The Bodhi Tree Project, commissioned for the inauguration of the Queensland Gallery of Modern Art, I brought a cutting from the Sri Maha Bodhi in Anuradhapura to Brisbane and planted it in a garden created on the Queensland Gallery of Modern Art site. During a four-year collaboration between the Buddhist communities in Anuradhapura and Brisbane, this sacred cutting was planted on the gallery grounds on the Buddha's birthday in 2008.
When the Sri Lankan high priest placed the sapling in my hands, he said to the tree: "You are embarking on a great adventure to an exotic land called Australia. Your duty is to grow as big and healthy as you can, so you can offer shade and protection to the animals and children there, and be a focus for contemplation."
(Commissioned by Queensland Gallery of Modern Art)
During a visit with my nephew Sean in Rome, he took me to the Roman Forum, treating me to a guided tour through his six-year-old eyes and basing our itinerary on where various groups of feral cats lived. This tour inspired me to create a project in which I asked individuals to take me on tours of their own cities based on locations significant to them.
The Tourist, conceived for MoMA New York, asked randomly selected volunteers to take on the tour-guide roles. These guides took me to popular tourist attractions as well as to more private or idiosyncratic locations across New York City, each creating for me a new city or borough as seen through their memories and emotions.
Using the tourist trope is a fruitful way to explore issues of personal identity and cultural multi-centerdness, of memory and history, and raises a number of issues: What draws us to the places we select to show others? What is the dynamic between foreigners and locals? How does one define the roles of guest and host? When does the external tourist become an internal explorer? "How does here," to borrow Lucy Lippard's phrase, "look from there, and there from here?"
The Tourist was first conceived for the Rice University Art Gallery in 2001.
(Commissioned by Museum of Modern Art, 2003 and Rice University Art Gallery under the project title "The Tourist Project", 2001)
In Guernica in Sand, I used Picasso's Guernica as the departure point for a different view of the damage done when human beings are victimized. Instead of simply being critical of what happened in the Basque town of Guernica in 1937, I wanted to use the concept of impermanence as a lens for focusing on such violent events in terms of the ongoing phenomena of destruction and creation. I used sand to symbolize these processes, since its "lifespan" includes being "born" from the erosion of rock by the action of water or wind, and being reformed into rock by the action of pressure or heat. My goal was to draw attention to the creative power of transformation rather than to the pain caused by clinging to things as they are.
I began the project by creating the majority of a sand-painting version of Guernica before the exhibition opened. I then created the remainder of the piece within one day, midway through the exhibition. This performance started at sunrise and concluded at sunset. Throughout this day, one person at a time was allowed to walk (ideally barefoot) on the sand-painting, effacing it at the same time I was creating it. Visitors were allowed to view this process of simultaneous creation and destruction from the vantage point of a small island constructed above the sand-painting. At sunset on that day, four participants were invited to sweep the sand toward the middle of the installation, and the project was then left in this condition until the exhibition closed.(Commissioned by Chicago Cultural Center, 2007)
The project at Mount Stuart is a sound installation composed of new work in three separate parts which focuses on my perception of the nature of contextual sound within the gardens and house. While the visual senses are bombarded with cultural and decorative information, the sense of sound--what one herars--is curiously muffled, sometimes deeply resonant, changing with the echoes of sea, trees, wind and weather. Inside the majestic interiors the visitor listens to real and imagined sounds, past and present, public and private.
A large bronze wind chime sculpture placed in the landscaped park refers to Taiwanese symbols of circular (enlightenment or the realization towards the ideal) and square (earth), and is supported by a net structure resembling a spider's web. The public's ability to enter the installation through or under these forms reflects the relationship between natural and man-made elements.
The journey through the house introduces further auditory experiences and a heightened sense of awareness. I use an invisible location (the Armory) as a source of sounds, here the echoes of live music lessons, which can be heard throughout the Palace.
A further installation of three canaries, each within its own bamboo cage within the conservatory, originally conceived as an astrological observatory and subsequently used as a surgical operating theatre during World War I, symbolizes repair, renewal and the ongoing transformation of space.
All of the three sound performance are of an anti-performance nature. The canaries, the music students and the wind chimes are all in a way performing, not for an audience but just because of who and what they are. That an "audience" experiences their sounds is due only to chance and fate, not the audiences's "attendance" at their performances.
(Commissioned by Mount Stuart, 2009)
I have always been fascinated by the monetary component of Art and the question: "When, under what circumstance, does one equal the other."
The original ”Money for Art" project documented the fate of nine small origami forms made from ten-dollar bills that I created in a cafe, attracting responses from passersby. In exchange for one of these small sculptures, nine of these individuals agreed to stay in touch with me for a year. After six months, two of the individuals had transformed their origami into money by unfolding and spending them, and I photographed their purchases. At the end of the year, five of the origami remained folded, one of the origami had been stolen, and three had been exchanged for goods. The original project included photographs documenting the fate of all nine origami ten-dollar bills.
For the gallery version I invited participant to take an origami one-dollar bill from a compartment in one of three multi-compartment shelves mounted on the walls, and to leave in exchange any object they considered to be of equal value, along with a card on which they wrote their first name and their profession. The objects left in exchange included a bottle of Prozac, a credit card with pin number, and a condom; one visitor left only the card, with her first name and the word "thief."
When both my sisters were pregnant, I was so intriqued by the miraculous evolution taking place in their bodies that I wanted to share it. Being unable to do so in the real world, I turned to my friend Virgil Wong, a master digital artist, to father my child.
"100 Days with Lily" was created at a time when I was grieving the death of my maternal grandmother. I chose to live with it 24/7 for the following 100 days, as a form of ritual grieving for her. From the day I planted the lily bulb, through its germination, sprouting, blossoming, fading and death, I experienced at close hand a full cycle of its life and, by extension, my grandmother's and my own. I randomly chose a moment in each day to document what I was doing with the lily present.
In the final presentation, text was overlaid onto five of the photographs to create images showing both various stages of lily's life and my activities at various moments: day 1, 10:23, planting lily; day 2, 06:34, sleeping with lily; day 3, 12:05, eating with lily; day 4, 09:14, walking with lily; day 5, 07:12, meditating with lily. Lily died on day 79, at which point I postponed the exhumation and carried the now dormant lily bulb in my hands for the remaining 21 days as I ate, walked, slept, gardened, bicycled, shopped, cooked, read, and contemplated, until I had lived with the lily for the fulled 100 days.
This project originated in a high school experience, when I traveled on an overnight train from Paris to Prague, sharing my sleeper compartment with an elderly Polish gentleman who was going back to receive his compensation after surviving the horrors of a Nazi concentration camp. At my request, he shared memories of this experience and also told me about things his family and others had told him about their time in the camp. He was the only survivor in his family. After our conversation, he bade me goodnight and went to sleep soundly.
I was the person who was not able to sleep, realizing that, years ago, there were people traveling on these kind of nights, possibly on the same track, who would not live until morning. It is only after all these years that I am able to create a project in response to the emotions I experienced that night.
In "The Sleeping Project", I examine the differences between "sleeping" and "sleeping with." How do two strangers shape a night together into an open, profound, mutually influential encounter that they know will not be sexual?
Each night, a participant chosen by lottery is asked to bring objects from the space in which they usually sleep--a clock, a photo--and spend the night with me. Next morning, the participant leaves these objects on the nightstand, along with a tape of the conversation from the previous night. During the remainder of the exhibition, these personal objects and recorded voices provide gallery visitors with clues about the interactions between myself and the anonymous overnight guests, interactions that suggest the range of ways in which individuals experience intimacy and trust when confronted with an unknown other.
In The Living Room, originally commissioned by the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, I have transformed the museum's gallery into a modern "living room," allowing volunteers from the Museum's staff and management, local teachers and students, and others having long-term relationships with the Museum to act as hosts in that room. These individual hosts were invited to bring in their own collections of objects having personal or aesthetic significance to them, and engage visitors in dialogues about these. In this way, The Living Room revived the experience of personal sharing that had disappeared when Mrs. Gardner died. I have used the same approach with Taipei MoCA and the Govett Brewster Gallery, again inviting those with long-term relationships to participate. Every week, a volunteer will be selected to play the role of the living room's "host" and share his/her personal collection of treasured objects, transforming the exhibition room into an exhibition within an exhibition, and allowing the host and visitors to have personal encounters with the host and collection. This project raises questions such as, "Why do we collect?", "What does our collection say about us?", and "How do we relate to our collection?"
(Commissioned by Isabella Steward Gardner Museum, 2000)
When I first arrived at Echigo Tsumari, I was struck by its similarity to my mother's hometown of Pu Li in central Taiwan. Most reminiscent was the fragrance of nearly matured rice in the mild summer afternoons of late August. This inspired me to create a project based on a visit to my grandparents in Puli when I was a boy.
For the Artists as Residents project there, I and two other artists came to live in Echigo Tsumari for two weeks each. While there, we had three tasks:
1. With the assistance of a Japanese aide, to become active participants in the community;
2. To clean up and improve the living space we were to occupy, as a gift to both the community and the next resident artist. Here, the community came to our rescue on the very first day, presenting us with clean tatami to sleep on, tatami purchased with money they themselves had raised.
3. To accept the community's hospitality in very concrete ways, making them an important part of this interactive project. Every morning we would find baskets of freshly picked vegetables from our neighbors' gardens, and nearly every day someone came personally to bring us bread, pickles, sake and other delicious homemade items. And as if this were not enough, they were always asking us what else we needed, or anticipating our needs and bringing items we did not know to ask for but obviously needed or would enjoy. Such generous exchanges truly made me feel like I was visiting my grandparents again.
The morning before my departure for New York, Kobayashi-san came running to the car to hand us two small but heavy paper bags, still warm with the cooked rice inside them. He had prepared a lunch for our four-hour trip to Narita airport, just as my grandparents had done for our drives back to Taipei years before.
(Commissioned by Echigo-Tsumari Triennial, 2006)
A childhood photograph of my mother holding my hand, me dressed entirely in clothing she had made for me, was the point of inspiration for "Fabric of Memory". The photo was taken on my very first day of kindergarten, and the idea of being away from my parents made me very unhappy. I finally agreed to go to school after mom told me to think of the jacket I was wearing as her embracing me throughout the day.
For "Fabric of Memory", I focused on personal clothing and other fabric items in the possession of Liverpool residents; items made for them in childhood by parents, grandparents, other relatives or persons close to them. I asked them to search their homes for such items, ones they had treasured and kept, then write down all they could remember about these—who made them, when, how they were used, and whatever other memories and associations they evoked. Thus, when a museum visitor opens one of the wooden boxes, they find not only the object, but a very personal story about, a story which reveals the intimate relationship between the object's receiver and its maker.
(Commissioned by Liverpool Biennial, 2006)
All is visible and all elusive, all is near and can't be touched. --Octavio Paz
"Between Going and Staying" was inspired by lines from Octavio Paz's poem of the same name. In a dimly lit gallery, fine black sand falls continuosly through a broken light bulb suspended from the ceiling, quietly filling the entire room along with a voice-like sound track played on a Central Asian cello-like instrument called a MaToChin.
The project deals with the ephemeral experience of an artist who finds himself existing between Heaven and Earth, caught in the currents of history, facing himself and the "self" that is part of eternal time in the cosmic torrent, asking visitors to reflect on the nature of the moment. Whether the immediate experience is of "going" or "staying," mankind continues to "go" and "stay" both physically and emotionally.
Antonin Dvorak composed the American Quartet in 1893 during a summer retreat from teaching in New York. The piece was deeply influenced by American Negro spirituals, which aroused great empathy in the homesick Dvorak, and also in myself, having migrated to the US from Taiwan when I was 14. In the Quartet Project, I wanted to challenge viewers to expand their familiar auditory experience of music to include visual and philosophical elements. Conceptually, this project deals with the nature of artistic wholeness.
When visitors enter the dark gallery space, they find one video monitor facing each of the four walls. Standing in the middle of the room, they hear all four parts of the Quartet, but as they move around the gallery they notice that each of the monitors shows the image of just one instrument being played and emits only the sound of that instrument's musical line. In addition, as they approach any one monitor, sensors turn off both that instrument's sound and its visual image. So they have a choice: they can either see the flickering lights of and hear the musical lines of all four parts, or lose each part if they approach its monitor. I am reflecting here on whether, in life or art, one can perceive a whole if one looks or listens too closely to any of its parts.
While visiting New Zealand's south island, I was awed to discover the Pororari River Valley, a wonder of nature sculpted by glacial movement 70 million years ago. That glacier also produced millions of smooth round stones which now line the river's bed, and which I found unusually cool and soothing when I held them in the palms of my hands. While picking up 11 of these stones as souvenirs, I suddenly realized that simply by taking them out of the river I was changing their circumstances forever. When I returned to Taipei, I had each of the 11 stones replicated in bronze, yielding 11 pairs, one original and one bronze replica.
This project centers on two ideas. First is the notion of ownership. What does it mean to own something, either natural or manmade? Second is the concept of value. Which stone is more precious, the natural stone or the fabricated one?
I ask those who become the owners of these stone pairs to decide when, where and how to discard one of them, a decision involving considerations of ownership, control, value and loss. It is this thinking/valuing process that I believe to be the heart of the project, not the stone pairs themselves.
Originally commissioned by Harvard's Office for the Arts (OFA), this project brought together seers from various spiritual traditions within the Harvard community and individuals seeking guidance. Under the light of the towering stained glass windows in the Memorial Hall, amid the stone plaques commemorating Harvard's Civil War dead, I created a wood and canvas enclosure in which visitors could consult seers in private. Each evening, a different seer would occupy the enclosure, ready to share his or her wisdom with visitors on a first-come, first-served basis. An important aspect of the project was that the seers were largely Harvard faculty and students talented at card reading, astrology, or other forms of divination who had, until then, only shared their skills in unofficial settings. This project required them to "come out" within the Harvard community, a process which many of them had to think through before deciding to participate.
(Commissioned by Harvard Unisersity Office of Art, 2003)
Particularly in Asia, though in much of the rest of the world as well, we are surrounded by churches, temples, mosques, and smaller local shrines. For those who are not religious these have little significance, yet most of us still have some sense of sacredness, that there are certain spaces, objects, events, or people who are special in some "spiritual" way, and to which we devote time and space in our internal worlds.
For most of us, that sacred time-space is externalized in some way—a shelf of photos or mementos, a box of special objects, a wall of posters, a special collection of recordings—visible to ourselves and others. For The Shrine Project, I have created five free-standing structures, arranged in a circular form. Within each of these structures are niches for participants to place such sacred objects. Each week, five volunteer participants did so, sharing objects sacred to them, thereby elevating aspects of their internal world into the public mind.
(Commissioned by Taipei Biennial, 2000)
During the annual Jewish havdalah ceremony, performed at the end of shabbat, a "Spice Box" is passed around so that its fragrant scents may be enjoyed and recalled later during the secular work week. Commissioned by The Contemporary Jewish Museum, I have interpreted the spice box as a kite in the form of the mythical Taiwanese goddess NuWa who, according to legend, patched up the sky after GongGong, the god of water, ripped a huge hole in it during a battle with ZhuRong, the god of fire. She made this repair with a gigantic multicolored fabric she had woven from human dreams and emotions. After using up all the fabric, there remains a small hole. The only thing she could do, in order to save her human children, is to patch up this hole by throwing herself against it.
(Commissioned by Contemporary Jewish Museum, 2005)
Reflections was the thesis project for my MFA at Yale.
When I graduated I was relatively confused about what I wanted to do with my life, whether to go to the Bay Area to teach or to stay in New York and explore the art world there. This project reflected my introspection at that time. A dark two-way mirror sits in the middle of a long booth. Participants enter both ends of the booth and sit across from each other, where they see their own reflection superimposed on that of the person sitting on the other side of the mirror. The loss of personal boundary allows both participants to see themselves in a new way.
Nomad Exquisite harnesses early twentieth century classical music, video, the natural world as metaphor for human behaviour, and my interests in architectural space and Minimalist aesthetics. The proportions of the room refer to Tadao Ando's theory of a restrained aesthetic within architecture; a simple, meditative space for living. A hermit crab dances into view, it inhabits a delicate discarded shell that becomes a temporary but ideal home.
(Commissioned by Taiwan Contemporary Art Biennial, 2008)
Grandfather's Incline is a proposal for a permanent public artwork that, if completed, will be located at a parting between ancient oak and redwood trees along a popular trail facing east within Montalvo's communal parklands. A narrow, forty foot long, suspended wooden platform extends beyond the hillside at a slight incline hovering above the nearby Garden Theater and historic Villa. A single potted tree is situated at the far end of the platform providing a shady, contemplative space for hikers to rest, refresh themselves and to experience a unique view of Silicon Valley.
(Commissioned by Montalvo Art Center, 2009)
I treated the inauguration of the new building, the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, like a baby shower, introducing the newly-arrived individual to the community. Invitees included the people who were involved physically in creating the new space--architects, contractors, builders--as well as those financially and emotionally evolved in realizing it--donors, fundraisers, facilitators, supportive community members. Each participant were invited to bring a gift to this new member of the community and placed it in a specially designed room/container reminiscent of a tent/cottage. Gifts were placed in individual niches into which the donors also placed cards bearing brief texts that describe their feelings about, hopes for, or associations with the new museum.
(Commissioned by Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, 2006)
Sited in one of Kinmen's historic, semi-abandoned villages, "Shueito Legends" offers visitors an empathic connection to the village of Shueito through a tour of its architecture and folklore conducted by the villagers. As visitors meander through Shueito, motion-activated speakers reveal the multifaceted history of Kinmen, one that extends far beyond its recent military significance. Visitors hear only the beginnings of local legends, and are then invited to ask the villagers to complete these stories with their own received versions and/or memories. It is hoped that this interpersonal contact will create a greater understanding of local lore on both sides, with both documented and non-documented stories mixing together to remind us that history is always an organic process.
(Commissioned by Bunker Museum of Contemporary Art, 2004)
Each museum visitor is invited to take part in this project. Visitors will find a stack of notebooks and be invited to write a personal story about "leaving home", then send the book to someone they think will be interested in continuing this process. When the book is full, the last writer will be asked to send it back to the museum. Those books that eventually make it back to the museum will be displayed for visitors to read.
The process here is analogous to what happens in small villages and towns. When someone leaves, it is uncertain whether they will ever return. Those who do usually return with adventures, new information and skills, and perhaps even wisdom.
(Commissioned by Chinese Museum of America, 2010)
I associate certain feelings and possibilities strongly with my birthplace, Taiwan, where I am able to rest, contemplate, create, solve problems and be completely alone when I desire. Most importantly, I feel somehow in touch with a mystical quality and sense of ritual that I can't quite locate in the U.S. For the Eslite project, I will create an interactive installation which attempts to evoke this quality.
Within the two rooms of the Eslite gallery there were two visually different yet conceptually related installations. Before entering into either space, the participant was asked to remove his/her shoes. A very sensitive microphone was placed on the his/her chest to pick up the sound of the heartbeat, which was then amplified and broadcast into the gallery spaces.
One of the rooms contained an over-sized black vanity-like structure with a reflective surface. The participant was left in this space, free to walk around or to sit and examine him/herself in front of the mirror.
The second room contained 11 slender black sculptures on wheels, each with light emanating from beneath, created the sense that they were at once both heavy and light. Most of these were about seven feet in height, and of an abstract shape that subtly suggest an animal, a house, a tree, a humanoid form, or other familiar object. The participant was encouraged to arrange these sculptures to reflect his/her emotional state or interior world. This space was intended to suggest to the participant that he/she is in large part the creator and originator of the events and formations in his/her world, a mystical insight which we all tend to forget.