Psyche's Pursuit— Expressions of Être-Pour-Soi in the Art of Tsong Pu

By Huang Yi-hsiung for Tsong Pu (莊普)

Psyche's Pursuit— Expressions of Être-Pour-Soi in the Art of Tsong Pu


Huang Yi-hsiung

According to the Greek myth, in a moment of weakness Psyche defied the gods and sought her lover's identity by bringing a lantern near his face while he slept. Stirred from sleep by a drop of lamp oil, her lover, Cupid, was outraged and vowed never to see Psyche again. Psyche flew to the four corners of the world in search of Cupid, facing many trials before finally being reunited with him. In my interpretation of this allegorical myth, Psyche embodies the human spirit's lack of self confidence. Once Psyche is confronted with doubt, Cupid slips away, and she must struggle in order to regain wholeness. 

In the world of contemporary Taiwanese art, Tsong Pu's artwork can be said to have maintained a high degree of purity. The diversity of his art, from his early, predominantly minimalist or material based work to later painting, mixed media, installation, conceptual art and public art, rarely contains strong emotional content or expressive lines, but rather presents well planned and rational compositions made with short brush strokes. This purity applies to the precise and active manipulation of materials, space and composition, and is significant for its methodology. In the 1980s, Tsong Pu started combining the material with the spiritual, continually using his unique logic to condense and recall various moments and bringing spiritual paradigms into his work which testified to his own existence.


In 1981, Tsong Pu said goodbye to Spain, his home of eight years, and returned to Taiwan. The following year he had his first solo exhibition, A Meeting of Mind and Material, at Spring Gallery in Taipei, which created quite a sensation in the Taiwanese art world. In 1990, the Taipei Fine Arts Museum held Tsong Pu's exhibition The Space Between Body and Soul which included the juxtaposition of everyday objects such as a garden hoe and water bucket. According to J.J. Shih, this exhibition was different because it included “canvas and metal strips, newspaper and metal plates, branches and aluminum, cast steel and mud, among other materials which were essentially left unprocessed and arranged in such a way to call attention to aesthetic differences such as light and heavy, soft and hard, amorphous and of definite shape, organic and inorganic, or natural and man-made. This emphasis on materiality was a conceptual extension of Tsong Pu's 1983 exhibition, but differed in attitude, which shifted from 'subjugate and manufacture' to 'respect and harmonize'.” (1) As his first museum exhibition, this was extremely encouraging to Tsong Pu and a few years later in 1992 he was awarded the first prize at the Taipei Biennial of Contemporary Art. Since this was the first time the museum presented the features of contemporary art and encouraged young artists in a competitive exhibition, the award had a definite impact on Tsong Pu's career. From that point, Tsong Pu has continually shown work in important exhibitions, such as Love Never Dies at ITPark in 1993; You Are the Beautiful Flower in 1997; and I Hate Takashi Murakami and the two person show A Flood of Tender Water, I Take One Only in 2008. If we consider The Space between Body and Soul at Taipei Fine Arts Museum in 1990 as the start of Tsong Pu's career, then this 2010 solo exhibition can be seen as a survey ranging several generations.

In addition to his artwork, Tsong Pu is also an active promoter of art programming and pioneer of conceptual art. Tsong Pu formed the Studio of Contemporary Art with Chang Yung-tsun, Jun Tsun Tsun Lai and Hu Kun-jung in 1986, and ITPark with Liu Ching-tang and Chen Hui-chiao in 1988. These two venues initiated the trend of alternative space and the recording of avant-garde art in Taiwan.


Much has been written about Tsong Pu's artwork, yet due to its variety there seems to be no comprehensive way to describe it. At this point, I will discuss Tsong Pu's artwork from the perspective of the existence of the artist's self and spirit.

Since I came to know Tsong Pu many years ago, I have always felt that he embodies the ambiguity between the soul and material. His work is a visible testimony to the reciprocal relationship between abstraction and experience, which is a concept that does not reside in the materiality of the signifier used in his work, but rather in the immateriality of the signified. Immateriality lies in what existence expresses, therefore it is fruitless to seek its locus in material things; the search must take place in immateriality. Clifford Geertz has said, “To be of effective use in the study of art, semiotics must move beyond the consideration of signs as means of communication, code to be deciphered, to a consideration of them as modes of thought, idiom to be interpreted.” (2) Looking at Tsong Pu's work, we discover that his symbolic systems don't carry explanatory power in themselves, but rather jump to the next level, and this suggests the immateriality of Tsong Pu's symbolic systems.


Tsong Pu considers himself shy and not skilled at verbal expression, and so art became his way of communicating. He has said, “In my long career as an artist, it has seemed that art could be both very spontaneous, yet controlled, and while there has been a need to communicate, there has also been a desire to maintain mystery. These paradoxes and formulations rely on historical concepts such as form, intuitive reasoning and dialogical truth. From expressions of heated debate about eccentric conjecture, to the exploration of the spirit of material, the formless or the formal, the work must speak for itself.” From this we can see that Tsong Pu's concepts are dialectical, and exist in the paradoxical formulations of spontaneous/controlled and mystery/communication.

Tsong Pu's most well-known artwork is his series Imprint. In this series, Tsong Pu expresses a pure concept by covering the work with hand-stamped prints, serving as a metaphor for both empirical experience and gnosis. He uses hand stamps in place of a brush to cover the canvas with evenly spaced marks in a grid of one-centimeter squares. Concerning this technique, Tsong Pu has said, “Working slowly and methodically, I make mechanical movements printing simple colors to create what seems like monochromatic paintings. […] I haven't chosen a painterly approach to create traditional images, but rather a rubbing technique where I repeatedly stamp. This is like an echo, like the tides, like a mirror that never stops. Each stamp is a testimonial, and the information created in the juxtaposition of the stamps transmits information. This information is not a recognizable image, but rather the notion that variation is the basis of existence.” Using this unemotional and repeated stamping process, Tsong Pu creates his own form of the cun painting technique.(3) Tsong Pu sees the cun technique is a paradigm of traditional ink painting, and he appropriates its idea in his repetitive actions to attain wholeness and integration. Therefore, Tsong Pu's paradigmatic stamping is like Chan meditation, and the result of his practice is a dialectical existence, or being-for-itself.

Tsong Pu's choice of titles has led me to another observation related to being-for-itself. For both his prints and installations, Tsong Pu seems to choose nonsensical titles with hidden or implied meanings. He has explained that this is mostly because current events, things in his life and even information that he passively absorbs are all traces in his poetic memory. Tsong Pu once wrote in an artist statement, “In a world abundant with riches, everything that we come in contact with, all that passes before our eyes and every name lodged in our memories becomes history. This includes every temporal experience, indistinct moment, bit of confusion, chaos, and hidden or undefined thing. I inscribe my innermost thoughts and feelings in my work through the manipulation of materials. Every imprint occupies its own space and each square in the grid is a testament to existence. Applying each print with unequal force to overcome the test of dialectical reason and breaking down psychological defenses, I am ultimately seeking the forbidden zone of extreme perception.” (4) Unique titles can be seen in many of Tsong Pu's works, such as Nomadic, which is taken from a title of a rock and roll song; and N96 which is related to the shortage of N95 face masks during the SARS crisis. At the time, Tsong Pu saw a news story telling of an older women who made a face mask from a brassier because she could not find any N95 face masks in the stores, and so he made a humorous double face mask for lovers using both cups of a brassier. His 2007 work Blog is based on a conversation he had with his girlfriend one day about problematic Internet terminology. Tsong Pu's titles are much like his stamping in that they are traces of his existence, and the title of each of his works are related to an experience, and they also stand as testaments to his own existence. Tsong Pu freezes these fleeting moments and discarded experiences by inscribing his work with their memories.

In Tsong Pu's simplified explanation of his art, the inscription of fleeting moments seems to serve as a destination for his spirit and his ultimate principle is "the moment is forever." For his exhibition A Tree, A Stone and A Piece of Cloud, Tsong Pu used a drip painting technique and inscriptions and seals generally seen in traditional Chinese painting as the basis of the work. Titles of the work in the exhibition were: Plant Ink in a Flower Garden, Ba Guai Sprinkling August Spanish Red in the Treetops, Black Ink Encounters Green Leaves in an Eleventh Century Monastery; Move a Yangzhou Painting Stone, Ask it to Lie in a Rose Garden and Accompany the Ink of the Falling Leaves in Beiruila; and With a Passing White Cloud as a Backdrop, Sprinkle the Previous Day's Ink, To Become a Tasty Summer Day'sMeal of Spanish Black Rice. These titles are like the extensive use of allusion to classical poetry, but they are all Tsong Pu's own allusions made up of significant little details in his personal recollections. Inscribing the work with the moment relies on the awakening of memories in an temporal sequence. Because these memories are made into language they can be communicated. They originally belonged to the artist's unique and personal realm, but as titles their significance becomes indistinct and multiplied. Tsong Pu's use of this kind of language seems related to Roland Barthes' discussion of haiku: “The number and dispersion of haikus on the one hand, the brevity and closure of each one on the other, seem to divide, to classify the world to infinity, to constitute a space of pure fragments, a dust of events which nothing, by a kind of escheat of signification, can or should coagulate, construct, direct, terminate. This is because the haiku's time is without subject: reading has no other self than all the haikus of which this self, by infinite refraction, is never anything but the site of reading.” (5) This is the implicit reader spoken of in literary theory.

Tsong Pu's imprinting and titles contain personal references to events, people, things and thoughts that he has experienced. Conscious and unconscious operations link memories that he makes with recollections of the moment, but ultimately all memory is just traced back starting from now to a different now in the past. Only if the era that is traced back to creates an experience that transcends the individual, then tracing back is considered remembering. All individual remembering transcends pure personal memory, for it exists in a dynamic state that moves from a larger event or context to another situation that is unreachable. Creating a single memory depends on the media used, and this media testifies to the fact that a single memory has transcended the time and space that it is in. Therefore, memory in practice always transcends the individual and a specific culture. In the act of remembering, Tsong Pu leaves himself, and his memory becomes part of the audience. Perhaps Tsong Pu's artwork ultimately does not help us to understand the world, but rather helps us to understand how Tsong Pu sees the world, and perhaps this is why he uses hidden elements in his work to communicate.


Therefore, Tsong Pu's artistic language maintains a great degree of openness to interpretation. His titles are perceptual symbols, and audience members produce many narrative possibilities from them, creating connections between the artist, the work and the audience. Regarding his understanding of open-ended artwork, Umberto Eco has said, “A work of art, therefore, is a complete and closed form in its uniqueness as a balanced organic whole, while at the same time constituting an open product on account of its susceptibility to countless different interpretations which do not impinge on its unadulterable specificity. Hence, every reception of every work of art is both an interpretation and a performance of it, because in every reception the work takes on a fresh perspective for itself.” (6) Each time Tsong Pu creates one of his works he cannot know what the audience will identify in the work, or by what standard the work will be subjectively defined, regardless of what conditions of artistic language are at play. The objective identity of the work is not just waiting to be discovered or waiting to reveal itself, but rather is revealed in its connection to society or how it comments on society. Depending on whether the language conditions are suitable, the work speaks for the artist or creates other possible expressions.

Finally, I would like to discuss another characteristic of Tsong Pu's art: his use of visual puns. In his material-based painting Laozi Says from his 2008 exhibitions I hate Takashi Murakami, and A Flood of Tender Water, I Take One Only, Tsong Pu used visual puns. He presented matches in such a way that they looked like the remains of a dead tree, arranging them like a skeleton. He then arranged matches to create different patterns which he numbered from one to ten. Number one looked like the profile of a cellphone, number two like chopsticks, three like swimming trunks, four as himself, five a house, six a credit card, seven his dog, and so on. He also arranged spoons that were connected and wrapped in string to symbolize a network of lakes and rivers, and placed his caption A Flood of Tender Water, I Take One Only next to the work. These works brought into play Tsong Pu's powers of observation of common objects. His use of unprocessed materials created a distance from production, so that his work went beyond materials which are traditionally used, and allowed him to freely bring other objects to his repertoire of art materials. Tsong Pu made symbolic connections with matches and spoons, and nonsensical associations to everyday needs and desires. In this way, Tsong Pu intentionally created conceptual transformations through material exchanges.

Several days ago, while attending the exhibition Every Chalice is a Dwelling Place, which is a miniature recreation of ITPark in the courtyard of the Taipei City Government Building, I was suddenly reminded of the idea that modernism in Taiwan seems about to utter its last. When chatting about changes at ITPark, Tsong Pu made the point, “Twenty years ago people were very curious about the intrinsic nature of art, but in our overheated information age anyone can say that their things are art. Many people still come to ITPark, but what they talk about is very different; they talk more about opportunities and themselves, and less about intrinsic qualities.” Tsong Pu's observations are full of sentiment, and his recollections of the days of interest in art's intrinsic qualities makes one curious. How does someone like Tsong Pu, who lived through the now fading modernism of the 1970s and 80s as well as later contemporary transformations, face a changing art world? Does he lament its passing? Or does he redefine the notion of être-pour-soi for a different era while continuing his pursuit of the soul?



[1] J.J. Shih made these observations in a 1990 article entitled "The Space Between Body and Soul."

[2] Geertz, Clifford. Local Knowledge: Further Essays in Interpretive Anthropology.

New York: Basic Books. 2000. p.120.

[3] "Tsong style cun" was first coined in Tao Wen-yueh's article "The Throbbing Pulse

- Tsong Pu's Imprint Art."

[4] These comments were taken from one of Tsong Pu's artist statements.

[5] Barthes, Roland. Empire of Signs. trans: Richard Howard. New York: Hill

and Wang 1982, p78.

[6] Eco, Umberto."The Poetics of the Open Work" in The Open Work. trans: Anna

Cancogni. Massachusetts: Harvard University Press 1989, p4.