The Intercultural and Avant-Garde in Tsong Pu's Art

By Pedro Tseng for Tsong Pu (莊普)

The Intercultural and Avant-Garde in Tsong Pu's Art  

Pedro Tseng

Tsong Pu is about my age and, like myself, was born in Shanghai and studied in Spain. Unlike me, however, he arrives at poetic perceptions in his contemporary art practice by way of reason. He became well known for working in a minimalist style when his career began in 1983. Although Tsong Pu has wide ranging artistic interests, he is mainly inspired by those moments of insight that life provides, works in mixed media, installation or painting, and is adept at subjectively mixing in pleasantly surprising expressions. He sifts subtle and unnoticed things, or little things that don't seem like much on the surface, out of the stream of everyday life and uses them to refine his ideas about the field of modernity.

The Evolution of Tsong Pu's Thinking


   The Finitude of Life

Modern philosophy categorized things by intrinsic properties, claimed being is manifested in things and is directly associated with them. Since human existence is subordinate to things, and things are finite, then human existence is finite as well. Since people work, live and talk, their existence is necessarily finite and non-transcendent, and furthermore they are only made manifest by the relationship formed between these activities and things. Modern philosophy claimed humans are not independent from things; they are merely organisms, which means they cannot escape aging and death. Preoccupied with the problem of artistic representation, modern artists since the twentieth century have been asking: under what conditions, on what basis, and to what extent can things be represented? Can things appear in a place more profound and lasting than that of our perceptions? It is in this place where things and art come together that Tsong Pu transcends the limited life of a modern artist using what representation reveals.

Born in Shanghai in 1947, Tsong Pu came to Taipei with his family at the age of two to escape the chaos of war. He has said that his interest in art began in the fourth grade during a school sponsored art contest. Tsong Pu had forgotten his paint kit on that day and so borrowed a pair of scissors from a classmate, and then collected leaves and whatever materials he could find to make a collage. Despite being unprepared for class, he won the grand prize. Henceforth, in his lifelong art career, Tsong Pu has been inspired by ideas more than techniques, and these ideas have been well received and encouraged, making him a devoted artist. From 1972 to 1981, Tsong Pu attended La Escuela Superior de Bellas Artes de San Fernando de Madrid in Spain where he specialized in painting. After returning to Taiwan he held his first solo exhibition, A Meeting of Mind and Material, in 1983, raising the notion of materiality in painting. This exhibition had considerable influence on Taiwan's art world, even encouraging following generations of artists to explore mixed media in their work. As artist Chen Kai-huang has said, Tsong Pu's painting is not active signification, but rather involves what ultimately must persist after the creative process; the marks he makes extend equally among concepts of life and art. Chen also believes Tsong Pu's work possesses a metaphysical aesthetic intent, and it is these aspects, taken together, which synthesize a kind of mutual intricacy, making Tsong Pu an artist who has been influential for three generations.


   Empirico-Transcendental Doublet

Modern philosophy claimed the production of knowledge is contingent on form, yet form is manifested through objective experience. Limited to human reflections, knowledge is derived from the systematic categorization of things in the physical world. Experience of the world forms the foundation for judging reason, and principles established on this foundation are the standard for judging objectivity. When analyzing experience, modern artists tried linking the objective natural world with experiences shaped by perceptions, or join language with the history of a culture. We could say this way of thinking was the distance created when artists contrasted individual experience and transcendental knowledge, or the efforts that they made to this end. The formal symbols relied on by modern art maintain distance between experience and transcendental knowledge, yet also maintain a connection between the two. These formal symbols are qualitatively quasi-perceptual and quasi-dialectical, and functionally connect bodily and cultural experience.

Tsong Pu boycotted beginning art classes while attending vocation high school. Academic training during his four-year stint at university in Madrid included classes in traditional European art forms and emphasized the study of materials, giving Tsong Pu a more concrete understanding of western painting techniques. Social issues in Spain such as the student movement, the continuing fad for Pop art and the economic recession, as well as westerners' fascination with Buddhism began to sow doubts in Tsong Pu. These doubts resulted in dissatisfying work such as his experimental Prisoner of War paintings or artwork juxtaposing ready-made clothing and rubbings taken from manhole covers. It was at this time that books arrived from Taiwan regarding Buddhism, Chinese art theory and an Antoni Tàpies exhibition, adding up to an aesthetic emphasizing both the spirit and materialism, which greatly influenced Tsong Pu. He started to think about the nature of painting, specifically how oblique lines and cross hatching is often used in western academic drawing to create shading and modeling effects. Furthermore, during this drawing process, an artist makes repeated actions and continual decisions about the manipulation of materials. These discoveries prompted Tsong Pu to move in a new direction, and it was at this point when he started using a pencil and fine threads to make oblique lines at specific fixed intervals on sheets of paper or cloth, leaving the traces of his process on two dimension surfaces. This method inspired Tsong Pu's later journey of self exploration, and when he returned to Taiwan in the early 80s, Tsong Pu's ideas were different from those he took with him to Spain. Richard Lin's minimalist point of view and work also strengthened Tsong Pu's work and artistic direction.


   My Cogito and the Non-Thought

Modern artists had always maintained an open-minded interpretation of being. Being existed in the thinking processes, but also progressed from pure comprehension to the realm of experience, and this realm of non-thought avoids experiences of the self. A priori consideration of modern forms has always aimed at the unknown. While this existence is silent, artists continually used symbols to explore its possibility. Starting from the unknown, modern artists were constantly called upon to reflect upon themselves. Modern philosophy asked how thought could exist in forms of non-thought. Artists asked how to form the being of art, as well as consider the existence of their own lives. Modern artists were always thinking of how to connect with and explain the language and concepts of their own existence at the time of creation. Tsong Pu addresses how to link cogito with non-thought.

In his long career as an artist, Tsong Pu has encountered many paradoxes, such as the very spontaneous yet controlled quality of art; the need to communicate with an audience, yet the desire to maintain mystery in artwork; and the simultaneous narcissistic and self loathing quality of artists. These contradictions and principles come from notions such as form, the logic of direct perception and truth revealed through dialog in the canon of art history. From expressions of heated debate, eccentricity or conjecture, to the exploration of material and spirit, the formless or the formal, the work must speak for itself. In a world abundant with riches, all that passes before our eyes, whether it be indistinct, confusing, chaotic, hidden or undefined, has the possibility to be fixed in time through art. Tsong Pu successfully inscribes his innermost thoughts and feelings on his canvases through the manipulation of materials. Every imprint occupies its own space and each square in his grids is a testament to existence. Applying each print with unequal force to overcome the test of dialectical reason, Tsong Pu pursues the forbidden zone of the perceptual. In his recent solo exhibition, Tsong Pu presents a pronounced urban feel, even placing his installation work within grids. Most of Tsong Pu's work, whether it contains grids or stamping, is more perceptual than technical.


   Origin and Historicity


Only human beings think in accordance with time. While matter does not have memory, it is a human instinct to remember. In their own self interest, human beings established chronologies based on experiences to construct the definiteness of human memory. Schedules provide humanity with a way to process the experience of thinking. In the contemporary world, time is not merely a two dimensional construct, but rather has its own life, its own beginning and end. Things rely on human memory for existence, but because things already existed when the universe started, searching for the source of humanity had become a big problem for the moderns. Constructing a creation story based on a time sequence with no point of inception meant that the starting time has only ever existed in the mind. Therefore, this point of inception has always been indefinite. This indefiniteness was a source of anxiety for the moderns because human beings need to seek out identity through life, nature and history.

It could be said that Tsong Pu's professional career started in the 1980s. After returning from studying abroad in Spain, Tsong Pu founded the Studio of Contemporary Art (SOCA) with Jun Tsun Tsun Lai, Chang Yung-tsun and Hu Kun-jung. These artists brought western styles such as Abstraction and Minimalism back to Taiwan after their studies abroad, creating quite a sensation. At the time, expressionist and figurative painting styles were in fashion in Taiwan, and artists were commentating on society and embracing nativist sentiment. In this context, SOCA formed an alternative movement which influenced many artists of later generations. This group of artists attempted to eliminate their personal emotional thinking from their work using abstraction and minimalism. In addition to abstract painting, they along with their spiritual leader Richard Lin, introduced installation art to Taiwan. Later, they also established Taiwan's important contemporary art space, ITPark. After more than thirty years as a practicing artist, Tsong Pu has become one of the few active and representative artists of this group, still maintaining his commitment to abstraction and using stamps to compose his unique style of art.


Avant-Gardism and Cross Cultural Connections in Tsong Pu's Art


   The Aesthetics of Neo-Surrealism


In order to produce an organic aesthetic, artists must handle their medium as if it is a living thing, and must respect the medium's significance as if it has evolved out of actual conditions of life. Avant-garde art, however, regards materials as inert, and squelches whatever life may exist in a medium. That is to say, the significance of the medium is torn from its functional context. While a classicist believes a medium should be respected as a carrier of significance, the avant-garde artist just sees it as a potential symbol to be manipulated, and only the artist can attach significance to the medium. The intention of classical artists is to convey an image of integrated life, while the avant-garde artist assembles fragments to arrange significance. The work of the avant-garde artist no longer focuses on an organic whole, but rather is composed of fragments.

Tsong Pu's way of thinking more closely approximates a surrealist aesthetic. Regarding a surrealist attitude as avant-garde behavior reduces society to nature. The surrealist pursues primeval experience so that society can be arranged as nature. This does not imply reducing human history to natural history, but rather uses the petrification of history as an image of nature. Surrealists regard the city as a mystery, and travel within it like primeval beings in a genuine and primitive state. Surrealists do not indulge in the man-made, secondary mysteries of nature, but rather believe they grasp its significance through the phenomenon itself.

“I deeply believe that what is seen in the inner world is more real that what is seen by the naked eye. As long as painting fulfills the artist, then it will do,” Tsong Pu once revealed in one of his artist statements. In his artwork, Tsong Pu does not attempt to simulate what the naked eye perceives in the real world, nor does he present, or represent, images of objects in the world. He does not use symbols, and he does not use two-dimensional colors or lines to create the illusion of three-dimensional space. Naturally, Tsong Pu does not tell stories with his work or expound on concepts. The most praiseworthy aspect of Tsong Pu's statement that painting should fulfill the artist, is that it is a process and not a final state.


The most distinguishing features of Tsong Pu's work lie in his revolutionary use of materials. Dividing these uses into broad categories we have: different kinds of paper mounted on paper backing, sewn canvas, leather strips woven through cardboard, and his use of mixed media including pencil, pastels, ink, acrylic and oil paints, and printed matter which has been mounted. Tsong Pu's trademark forms are the grid, unselfconsciously drawn lines, numbers and symbols, and these together constitute Tsong Pu's quiet style. The media he uses occasionally retain their original material qualities, and some are colored, or marked with calligraphic lines, show traces of drips or splattered paint. The application and blending of these materials is often accomplished by the breaking through of surfaces; he uses a sewing needle or a razor blade to scratch, puncture, cut or rip, and sometimes he crumples the paper into a ball. Tsong Pu uses these techniques to ingeniously mix different materials and form work with pure material texture.

Tsong Pu's spirit meets material approach is not entirely a game, but rather an activity interposed between planning and play. Perhaps he will get an impulse to combine two materials randomly, but then immediately in his mind he will also develop a succession of compelling risks.


   An Art Pagan Who Straddles Modern and Post-Modern Worlds


After returning to Taiwan from Spain in the early 1980s, Tsong Pu's minimalist paintings and sculptures soon earned him the title ”king of materials.” Responding to this Tsong Pu said, “I chose a direction and stuck with it […] ideally, I wanted to only use the simplest colors and different materials to express myself.” His material-based aesthetic was primarily an exploration of the expressive potential of a single medium, or opposing and harmonious combinations of different media, using acute intuition and self-imposed limitations.

In his article From an Island to a Bridgehead, Kuo Shao-tsung wrote that the sculptural aspects of Tsong Pu's artwork were more pronounced than his connection to installation, and he had persevered in this direction all along. Kuo went on to write that Tsong Pu used metal clips to hold together two different materials which he felt would produce dialogue or meaning due to their different qualities. He used materials such as glass, wood, metal plates, metal brushes, florescent lights or rope, and questions of shape or structure were secondary to allowing these materials to portray their own significance, or allowing an object to perform a monologue. The terms which Tsong Pu derived from sculpture and was skilled at creating, actually involved installation, Minimalism and Conceptual Art. This was especially so for an artwork composed of a glass box filled with water perched on one of its corners at a forty-five degree angle. The transparency of the glass and inverted reflection caused by the water created countless associations of positive and negative space. In addition to his clever presentation of a visual effect, Tsong Pu also reflected eastern philosophy in this work, contrasting essence and object, thing and self, and space and time by showing us the instant the water solidified into a calm surface.

In 1990, the Taipei Fine Arts Museum held a solo exhibition of Tsong Pu's work entitled The Space Between Body and Soul. It could be said that the exhibition maked Tsong Pu's turn from abstraction to the symbolic world of materials. In the climate of post-marshal law Taiwan, Tsong Pu was already using materials to create a metaphorical language, and attempting to directly enter into concepts and poetic imagery with abstraction. Although Tsong Pu did not actively pursue this direction in his work, but rather seemed to be harboring a nomadic attitude between old and new ideas, after this exhibition his style gradually expanded and richened and he more freely chose from a wider variety of techniques.

Even today, Tsong Pu still prefers art with a minimalist flavor, but his use of materials and expressive techniques transcend any attempt to limit or label his work. What we see is that Tsong Pu, in addition to his continued use of paint to construct grids on canvas, has started exploring dialogues between painted grids, text and images. At times he makes photographs of the object of his material manipulations by directly cutting, digging and peeling them. This creates a mixed visual effect or a language mechanism of textual overlap between organic images, messages and inorganic carriers. Besides this, at various places and times, Tsong Pu creates elegant installations using ordinary materials that are extraordinary aesthetic experiments. Tsong Pu's work has evolved in this way as he simultaneously continued with his two-dimensional work and three-dimensional installations, which at times overlapped.


   Exploring Tsong Pu's Being and Variations through Phenomenology


Existentialists emphasized the experiential aspect of being, while phenomenologists stressed their essentialist method. While these two camps are in opposition, they acknowledge the primacy of description and consciousness in forming Existential Phenomenology. Wishing to challenge the philosophy establishment of their time, Friedrich Nietzsche and Søren Kierkegaard emphasized the individual's existential significance in relation to culture, history and others. When these concepts were combined with Phenomenology, Existential Phenomenology was born. If the connection between these two is not acknowledged, then Existentialism merely becomes a subjective reaction to systemic thinking and not a philosophy with a full complement of issues. Existential Phenomenology, formed from two schools of thought in the twentieth century, emphasized being in the world and expanded the range of Phenomenology to include the entire range of human thought.

In his article A Fragmented Survey of Tsong Pu, Chen Kai-huang wrote it was difficult to discuss Tsong Pu's creative concepts and aesthetics since all he had to go on was the statement “I didn't create anything.” He wrote that Tsong Pu's statement, with a kind of intellectual interlocking quality, casts light on Jean-Paul Sartre's statement that consciousness, as être-pour-soi, cannot be a thing, because its être-en-soi is precisely a kind of être-pour-soi, and existence is consciousness equipped with its existence. Chen concludes that Tsong Pu needs not dwell on subject matter for his artwork, but uses what is very nearly a kind of idealist subjective will to encounter art and formal considerations, in other words, handling subject matter is a subjective operation for Tsong Pu. Chen continues that Tsong Pu's artwork is not active signification, but rather what ultimately must persist after the creative process; the marks he makes extend equally among concepts of living and art. Chen also believes Tsong Pu's work possesses a metaphysical aesthetic intent, and it is these aspects, taken together, which synthesize a kind of mutual intricacy, making Tsong Pu an artist who has been active for three generations.

Looking back on Tsong Pu's work from around 1989, we can see perhaps an unintentional commentary on labor beginning to appear and reflecting revolutionary changes of the times. Examples include an installation juxtaposing a steel plate, garden hoe, cutouts, and a barrel shape made to look like a monument. This transformation to social issues in his artwork also rendered his discourse on artist labor transparent and dynamic, giving further evidence to the fact that the era was a turning point in the maturity of art and society. Furthermore, Tsong Pu did not rely on narrative intent, critique or appraisal, but rather retained an anti-ideological stance and stored up latent rational thinking and the essence of community life that was both pour-soi and en-soi, which could also be seen as a form release from ideologies. Naturally, this was the artist's way of expressing concern for the existing cultural environment, which is the yardstick we use to measure everything.

Currently, Tsong Pu is looking back on the struggles and contradictions over the course of his life to explain the individual (no beginning) and changes in existence (no end), which serves as affirmation of être-pour-soi in the life of a conscious being. Therefore, dynamic installation has been playing a more important role in his artwork, and is a dynamic projection of his own thinking onto static objects (être-en-soi).

   Cross Cultural Qualities in Tsong Pu's Artwork: Seeking The Zen Pill of Immortality

In the West, those seeking the secret of immortality studied the language of alchemy, at a time when there was no science, no atomic numbers and no periodic table of elements. Alchemists did not believe the world was comprised of particles, atoms and molecules, but rather was composed of different kinds of matter. Because this was a kind of thinking experiment, alchemists could apply their imagination to any object found in the vicinity, such as strangely colored dirt, suspicious looking triangular crystals, nodules on tree roots, rarely seen plants and flowers, different kinds of hair, unicorn horns or red coral. Any of these unusual things could become materials in the alchemist's laboratory. Things are different colors, have different flavors, smells and weights, and some of them make us confused or itchy, laugh or speechless. When entering this world, it is up to the observer to draw conclusions, reorganize the collection and reflect the sequence of rationality and mysteries.

Michel Foucault believed we should pay attention to the intersecting points between space and time. To deal with visual elements found in cultural constructs implies a new method for excavating visual and time-space phenomenon. From today's perspective, high culture and anthropological data all seem to approach modern visual culture from different directions, since visual culture is exchanged and hybridized. Transculturation is not a commonly held experience that has just happened once, but rather is a process every generation renews in their own way. In our postmodern world, those who once lived in a cultural center have also experienced transformations in culture. Transculturation doesn't just operate in antagonism to modernism, it also provides a way for us to analyze global diaspora in a crowded, hybridized, hyphenated and syncretic world.

Tsong Pu explained his work Snoring using the most ingenious transcultural thinking. He said a pillow is something we rely on for sleep. Actually it is better to say a pillow is already more than just a thing, it is something that has formed a connection with consciousness. Laying the head on a pillow, pressing it down, our consciousness is transferred into the pillow. When pressing down on the pillow, however, consciousness is transformed into something else and returned to the head, and that is a dream. Therefore, in this work, Tsong Pu put a pillow on the top of a column and pressed it against the ceiling to express his idea about a pillow. Snoring is like a secret code which reminds him of meditation. Each person's body is like a small universe, and some information that no one knows can be gotten from the changing rhythms of snoring. Different from symbolic systems of thought, snoring is an expressive behavior that can be explored to unearth something different from the normal logic of thinking.

We can discover something beyond thinking in snoring, and therefore it is like meditation. We can find a beginning, rhythm, pauses and ending in snoring. The inhaling and exhaling in this little universe transmits information about the body. Sometimes there is a big gust of air breaking through stagnant surroundings, rushing through a canyon and into some distant area of the universe. The analysis of pillows, snoring, pressing down, breathing in, releasing, meditation, secret codes, wandering shoes, and metal plates depicting scrolls in symbolic clouds all contribute to Tsong Pu's explanation of the mysteries of sleep. This also makes seemingly meaningless sleep meaning something close to meditation.


Tsai Hung-ming, "A Meeting of Mind and Material", 1983

Kuo Shao-tsung, "From an Island to a Bridgehead", 1986

J.J. Shih, "Materials that Speaks Semiotics: Tsong Pu's Solo Exhibition", 1990

Chen Kai-huang, "A Fragmentary Survey of Tsong Pu", 1991

Liu Yung-jen, "Tsong Pu: A Poetic Nomad in a Field of Grids"

Ju Wern-Haai, "From a Minimalist to a Nomad : Open a Horizon" 

Huang Chien-hung, "Tsong Pu: Drifting between a Gambler, an Artist and a Poet" 

Chen Guo-chiang, Square Rules

Wu Yin-hui, "I Hate Takashi Murakami,  2008"