Tansy Xiao – The Echo of Journeying

Domestic Language, multimedia installation, 2017

Tansy Xiao is a curator, artist, writer, translator, and an overtly out of the box thinker. She shares with Art Spiel some insights on her upcoming curatorial project at Radiator, her art-making, as well as translation and writing processes.

AS: Tell me a bit about yourself and what brought you to art – writing, translation, curation and making.

Tansy Xiao: I wasn’t properly schooled, neither did I consider myself an artist when I was travelling around and painting abstract murals in exchange for food and accommodation. Now you might call it an unprompted residency. During my long trips and brief sojourns, I would write book length letters to my friends, with a mutual understanding that they were not obligated to reply. I joined and formed communities, then left them, until I have relatively settled in New York, a city with such transience that the fear of being trapped in a constricted niche no longer haunts me. That’s when I began my practice as a curator and translator. If I were to describe my status quo now, I’d quote D. H. Lawrence’s last paragraph in Rainbow:

“If she were not the wayfarer to the unknown, if she were arrived now, settled in her builded house, a rich woman, still her doors opened under the arch of the rainbow, her threshold reflected the passing of the sun and moon, the great travellers, her house was full of the echo of journeying.”

I get to have conversations with space and time while I build my own castles through curating and translating other people’s works. I become the host and the medium of languages and narratives that are not my own, which allows me to step back, being a humble observer. It’s a rather vulnerable position, yet it requires one to be stronger and more certain about themselves in order not to be completely submerged.

Onomatopoeia, acrylic on found violin, 2015
Dual, digital video, 2016

AS: It seems to me that language, or more specifically, the failure of language, is at the core of your work. What’s your take on that and how do you see the relationship between language and art?

Tansy Xiao: In one of my installations, “Domestic Language, I filmed a computer-generated script read by real performers and projected their faces on gessoed eggs in a floating cabinet, nevertheless the narrative was strictly written according to the classic three-act structure in narrative fiction. The failure of language is a Wittgensteinian notion that follows through, with the act of repetition, a common method in modern experimental theater and music to abstract and alienate the familiar. During my travels I was constantly placed in situations where nobody understood my language. The absence of functioning language to a certain extent validates and celebrates the existence of emotions and instincts, those that come before verbal and literal expressions. The same concept applies to my multilingual poetry reading events, at which the interpretations of many spoken and artistic languages had been presented before the meanings of the poems were revealed.

I don’t have an opinion on the relationship between language and art, as language, the visual representation of language, is abused in art just like the value of art has been inflated by language. However the process of artmaking, in Ortega y Gasset’s idealistic words, is “the importance of a language or system of expressive signs whose function was not to tell us about things but to present them to us in the act of executing themselves.”

Domestic Language, multimedia installation, 2017

AS: You are having a show at Radiator Gallery. Can you tell me about your curatorial work there?

Tansy Xiao: Yes, it’s opening on June 7th. 6-9 pm. and will be on through the summer. It was my friend and an artist that I’ve worked with, Pablo Garcia Lopez, who first suggested a show on bioethics and relevant politics of our time. Pablo holds a PhD in neuroscience and his recent work comments on the military use of brain studies funded by the unwitting public.

Then we brought Suzanne Anker, Kathy High, Anh Thuy Nguyen and Eva Petric on board. Each of the artists reveals a different aspect of how the biological researches and inventions of our time create ethical dilemmas in human societies, and how they would affect our relationship with nature. Since actual tissues of human organs and ashes of lab animals are involved, the team made a decision to donate a large percentage of potential sells from the mentioned artworks to local charities on relevant studies. I’m excited to see it gradually taking shape.

AS: Let’s look at your other artwork. I find your drawings fresh and love their flow. Tell me about your drawing/ painting process.

Tansy Xiao: Those are impromptus which I let grow organically. I wasn’t professionally trained as an artist, especially not with traditional mediums. So that is the only way that I know, no matter, miniature drawings or large-scale murals. It’s a very obsessive and meditative experience playing with those lines. They are almost completely separated from my theoretical and conceptual work. in the current art market they would be considered ornamental. And ornamentation is cheap. Such an awareness frees me in a way, that the notion of the potential audience is erased from the picture.

AS: I am curious to know more about the genesis of your “Mental Illness” series of silk screen prints.

Tansy Xiao: Those were created a decade ago, initially requested by a horror fiction author for their book. Funny because for some reason people considered my drawings bleak enough for such a genre. However, the publisher regarded those drawings too abstract to serve the storytelling, so I developed them further on my own.

I was fascinated by the terminology of mental illness and conditions as a teenager. My favorite word was “Zoanthropy”, a disorder in which one believes oneself to be an animal. I grew up refusing to identify as a human being and installing a tail on my pants as I played so I guess that resonated with me. As long as someone does not consider themselves suffering, those conditions could just be a different perspective of viewing the world instead of an error that needs to be corrected.

Think about the Ship of Fools: a ship that carries all the “disabled” and “dysfunctional” characters of a society, separated from the civilization: an allergy for Plato and a possible historical fact for Foucault. However where is the fine line between reason and madness? In some conservative societies, even nowadays, homosexuality is still claimed a mental disease that needs to be reported and treated. Are we really liberal and more advanced as we consider ourselves, just because we believe the truth we think we hold in order to authorize the judgments and corrections of certain behaviors that we regard abnormal?

But I guess we all have to believe in something.

Mental Illness Series, from left to right: Acousma, Melancholia, Zoanthropy. Ink on paper/Silkscreen prints, 2007

AS: From our conversations I got a sense that you engage in quite a thorough investigation throughout all facets of your work. Is that correct and if so, can you give me an idea on how you start a project? Let’s take your curatorial project “The Map and the Territory” you curated at NARS for example.

Tansy Xiao: I guess I still think like an artist at the very beginning, I would come up with instinctual ideas that speak to me and my kind. But the process of developing the ideas tend to be less spontaneous. At a certain point academic references, loaded cultural histories and the questioning of such heritages would come along, that the project is no longer a trunk of solid personal narratives but a collective of sliced, translucent specimens-admitting how little we know and how narrow our visions can be, yet still contributing to the observation of a broader cultural scene.

For “The Map and the Territory, in particular, the idea first came from reading Michel Houellebecq’s book of the same title, but mine is of a more literal interpretation. I prefer to use the word migrators over immigrants, as the word immigrant means a person who has come to live permanently in a country that is not their own. The idea of emphasizing the alien citizenship serves the purpose of modern anthropology. In both Eastern and Western antiquity, the act of exile had often been associated with errantry, which was encouraged or even celebrated. The idea of nationalities was yet to exist. There was no deprivation in the loss of territory. Identities and lineages were not inscribed in physical lands.

Years ago I read about the Australian songlines. Those ancient tunes depict the location of landmarks, waterholes, and other natural phenomena. The indigenous people could navigate vast distances by singing the songs in the appropriate sequence, at the appropriate speed. The rhizomatic maps have long existed before border lines were drawn to separate “us” from “them”.

When I first met Bonam Kim, one of the participating artists, she was showing at her studio the model of a vending machine that sells passports of varying kinds. That’s a very interesting and ironic response to the fact that nationalities are most likely pre-assigned. On the other hand, multinational enterprises have obliterated borders and turned the exploration of new territories in outer space into another economic warfare. “The Map and the Territory is an ongoing project that goes beyond the six artists being represented at the show, and beyond the idea of social-political geography. It’s a restless state of mind that constantly introspects how globalization really affected us.

The Map And The Territory exhibition view, curated by Tansy Xiao, NARS Foundation, 2018

AS: You also translate poetry. Can you tell me a bit about that, and do you think it affects your other practices?

Tansy Xiao: My first complete translation work was to translate Alejandra Pizarnik’s 1965 book “Works and Nights” (Los trabajos y las noches) into Chinese. There’s a certain simplicity in the Spanish language that is easily lost in the English translation, which surprisingly can be regained in an Asian tongue. Also, English is not a rhyming language, another aspect that I have restored in the Chinese version.

I do the poetry translations on subway trains and ferries. Keeping in motion and concealing in the crowds give me a certain sense of security.

Poetry might be the only genre of literature in which some slight alterations of the original to serve the smoothness of the flow could be considered less of a sin. It feels like a secret consensus with the author whom I most likely will never meet. An interesting observation might be that I get the same kind of pleasure going to the movie theaters. They’re both activities that I do to breathe my solitude, which is the fuel for an extroverted introvert.

Dyspepsia exhibition view, curated by Tansy Xiao, Areté Venue and Gallery, 2018

AS: Can you give me three examples of recent readings you would you consider as seminal in your development as a creator?

Tansy Xiao: I believe that my identity and thoughts as a creator change organically so there’s no core influence even at a given period of time. Let me just list some random recent readings, I mean it almost completely depends on what I found in the used book stores: Édouard Glissant’s “Poetics of Relation,” Lee Maracle’s “Sojourners and Sundogs,” and Fernando Pessoa’s “The Book of Disquiet,” which I’d constantly revisit. But there is some consistency in my reading list: intentionally or not, I don’t read a lot about art. The language being used in arts pulls me away instead of drawing me closer. The artworks however, with their own vocabulary, sometimes do resonate with the non-verbal part of me. It is the lack of knowledge within my practice and the echoes of the vast world surrounding it that lead me to create.

AS: You founded “Raincoat Society”, a non-profit organization that features artists with fluid identities. Can you tell me more about your premise?

Tansy Xiao: The word raincoat came from Jim Jarmusch’s 2016 film Paterson, in which a character invalidates poetry translation by saying: “Poetry in translation is like taking a shower with a raincoat on.” Naming the organization “Raincoat Society” sort of indicates that we’re here to enjoy the shower of literature regardless. Galleries, even the alternative ones sometimes, and the art market in general, have the tendency and the power to manipulate the voices of especially international and minority artists. We’re expected to talk in the tongues of certain cultural narratives. We’re expected to focus on the social issues in our own communities that the West regard as crucial. Bearing such often fetishized cultural heritages, the art world seeks to preserve certain authenticity in an already mingled and miscellaneous global scene, and the easiest way would be to announce the categorization of people and their cultures by putting each one of the prototypes on a pedestal.

With in-depth interviews with artists and multilingual poetry/literature events, the purpose of Raincoat Society is to give voice to the uncategorizable and the deterritorialized, to give them an opportunity to answer “who are you” with an option of skipping the ubiquitous “where are you from”.

All photos courtesy of Tansy Xiao