Hsiao Chin

On the occasion of his bi-city retrospective, an exclusive interview with this leading figure in China's abstract expressionism movement

Co-organised by the China Art Museum Shanghai and supported by Hong Kong's 3812 Gallery, the retrospective exhibit Coming Home explores the long and prodigious career of Hsiao Chin — one of China's most influential contemporary artists and a founding member of the avant-garde Ton Fan artistic movement. Throughout Hsiao's oeuvre, circles and dots feature prominently, representing the infinite energy that, according to Eastern philosophy, permeates every object and being. And it is through these references that the artist would develop his individual, Eastern approach to abstractionism, diverging from the Western dominated movement. Design Anthology seized the occasion to talk to the venerable artist, now in his ninth decade, about his personal and artistic journeys through life, and his uniquely Eastern contribution to the global canon of art.

Design Anthology: You came of age in Taiwan after immigrating there during The Chinese Civil War. Tell us about that experience.

Hsiao Chin: Well, we went to Taiwan after the civil war in 1949, when I was fourteen years old. Then in Taiwan I met Mr Li, my art teacher. He was the one who really opened my mind to what is art creativity because usually in Taiwan or in the Far East art schools are very academic. So I was lucky to meet him. He was a very good teacher. Not a very good artist, but a very good teacher. He really knew how to teach everyone differently, according to their own way of working because we are all different. He was the only teacher like that in Taiwan, maybe in all of China. And I feel very lucky to have studied under him. 

It was through Mr Li’s studio that you first established the Ton Fan Group. Why did you organise? What was your aim?

We thought that if we want to have a voice in the international arts scene, we had to be something ourselves.

If we look back through history, some of the greatest moments of creative ferment have occurred during periods of great political upheaval and insecurity. And when you first moved to Taiwan, that was certainly the case. It was a major historical period of transition for Chinese culture. How do you think that influenced your early identity as an artist?

At that time, it was the anti-communist period and Chiang-Kai Shek was a terrorist. If they believed that you had anything to do with communism, they would just shoot you. So the safe way to be an artist was to do abstract painting — no one could accuse us!

Mr Li had studied art in Japan in the 1930s under the first important Eastern artist to present his work in Paris, so he knew how to do the Eastern way of contemporary art. He taught us the concept, and we tried to figure out our own way.

Then in your early twenties you went to Spain to study on an art scholarship.

When I went to Europe, I just wanted to work with art in my own way, to research art. Because of what I couldn’t do in Taiwan or in the Far East I went to Europe — to give myself this opportunity. But they were very conservative, so I didn’t go to school. I have no degree.  I didn’t want to waste my time to learn what I already knew.

But then I had to learn by myself, because if I’d followed the Western teaching, I would again be nobody. I tried not to walk the same way as everyone else. I was just hungry to learn from everywhere what there was for me to learn. The place to learn is in the real world.

What did you learn about yourself as an artist when you first arrived in Europe?

In the 1960s, I realised I knew very little about my own culture. I asked my friends to send me lots of philosophical books, for me to rediscover my own culture. So I went to Europe to learn more about my own culture. I began to learn about Chinese culture in Europe.

What were some of the materials that you asked your friends to send for you to learn about Chinese culture?

I was particularly interested in Chinese philosophy, and particularly Taoism. That’s why I started to learn Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu and all their theories to learn, ‘Who are the Chinese?’ and ‘Who is an Easterner?’ If I cannot find out my own identity, I cannot find my artistic creater.

How did that discovery and greater understanding of your heritage then translate into your art?

It’s kind of metaphysical. It’s difficult to explain the ‘how’, but it did.

Let’s talk a bit about the thinking behind your art because you have developed a very individual style based on your philosophical beliefs that differentiates you from the more mainstream abstract expressionists from the West.

In the 1950s to 60 in Europe, you had informal expressionism movements and in the US, abstract expressionism. Both moreorless were an expression of one's ego and one’s unconsciousness. When I met Antonio Caldera, we both thought that that was passe. Because you didn’t bring any new message to the art work. Therefore, we thought we should work out some way to express art differently.

We looked from a different cultural origin for some substance. In this way, we looked back to the Eastern philosophy. Also we both had a very curious life accident — he had just lost his daughter. I also had just lost my daughter. And you try to find something to cope with the loss. And this was the way in which we went back and looked at the philosophical base, to see if we could find out something. This searching made us understand that we have to work in a different way through informal art expression.

And then, since we come from different cultures — he from a typical Western culture, me from a typical Eastern culture — we thought we should work out something from our own culture. Something not just informal or so instinctual, but more intellectual. More philosophical.

You've remained abroad most of your adult life, even though you continued to play an active role in the Ton Fang Group. Why did you stay away? Why not go back to Taiwan?

Because Chiang-Kai Shek was still in power. He was such a dictator. I didn’t want to go back. It was a difficult political situation. But since he died, I’ve returned.

As told to / Jessica Vahrenkamp