An Interview with Hui-Ying Tsai

Interview by Claire Milbrath
Images by Clare Gatto. Courtesy of the artist and Red Bull Arts

Mother, Mixed Media & Custom Electronics

A giant shell hangs upside-down from the ceiling, when touched it emanates sounds of war, collision, and violence. Another shell quietly sings fragments of Taiwanese lullabies, increasing in volume as the viewer approaches. These are a few of the ambitious new works from artist Hui-Ying Tsai currently on view at Red Bull Arts Detroit Resident Artist Exhibition. For the past three months, Hui-Ying has been in residence, building these sculptures activated by touch and movement. Her practice reflects the bustling mind of someone in a state of wonder, seeking to answer questions of existence, spirituality, and history. Working with non-profit sustainability organizations, and initiating her own site-specific project that focuses on eco-activism and community, Hui-Ying’s work is very much a response to her environmental surroundings. I talked to Hui-Ying about the influence of Detroit on her work, and the possibility of art to carry us beyond the material world. 

Can you tell me about the work you made for this exhibition?

I made five new interactive sound pieces in the form of ceramic pots and shells. Both of these forms are created by mother nature, and are simple and poetic symbols for human wonder. My recent study of ancient religions shows that humans rooted in different geographies share a similar respect and usage of natural elements. Both ceramic pots and shells are widely used in ancient ritual and ceremony across cultures. Many ancient tribes believe that their ancestors came from a clay pot, and inside the pot is where the soul dwells after the flesh is withered  away.

My piece, “Medium,” is an installation of 10 ceramic pots that contain saltwater, sitting on a sloping wall in a spiral shape, covered with black lava rocks. I use salt water as the conductor to trigger sounds when the viewers touch the water. The piece composes a collection of 10 digitally-generated 60 Hz humming sound, several whispers and chantings fragments of Heart Sutra. This work creates a peaceful and relaxing realm of sound and vibration that is almost unnoticeable. I am very happy that I was able to make it work with the expertise of the artist Jonathan Grover. Jonathan helps me building electronics, programming, and mixing the sounds.

The other 4 pieces, taking the form of shells, represent Mother, Twins, Time, and Metamorphosis. When the viewer approaches “Mother,” they will hear a quiet fragment of two Taiwanese lullabies that my grandmother used to sing to me. The volume gets louder as the viewer reaches the head of shell, like a siren. “Twins” explores the duality of all concepts. Touching the tips of both shells can trigger unidentifiable sounds. One plays “brighter” sounds, the other plays “darker” sounds; One is predictable, the other is unpredictable. “Time” is a piece that turns 360-degrees. It plays sounds when being turned clockwise and counter-clockwise. It composes a collection of interval sounds, such as water dripping, machines operating, heartbeats, bell-ringing. When the speed and direction change, the sound will adjust accordingly. The audience experiences the presence of time that is not absolute, it has no beginning and end. “Metamorphosis” symbolizes destruction, transformation, and a new beginning. Touch the tips of the copper area and it will trigger aggressive sounds. It is hanging upside-down like a cocoon going through an internal drastic change. 

Installation view

Time, Mixed Media & Custom Electronics

I love that you say your sculptures reinforce the connection between material and spirit. Do you feel like that’s the “purpose” of art, if there is one?

I think art is a medium to inspire philosophical thoughts and emotions. It is a reminder of humanity. I often wonder if anything has a purpose. I am not sure if my work has “purpose,” but I like the viewer to feel something, or at least to make people wonder. I think people have different philosophical experiences, and art can be one way to approach it. All objects and images have projected meanings, and as an artist, I am interested in using the collective meanings for my creative language.  

What does the shell symbolize to you?

It is the universe. It is part of a living being’s body and its molecules, circulated between life and death and different living or inanimate forms beyond my time. It is used across many ancient cultures as a ritual instrument to communicate with the unknown. The symbolism of the shell is so instinctive and pure, that the first person who picked one up must have been astounded by such a thing, emerging from the mysterious mass of water. 

On a personal level, growing up on the island of Taiwan, I have a lot of memories associated with shells, and the elements from the ocean have been part of the local culture since prehistoric times. I have many “treasures” collected from the ocean, some are picked up by myself, some are from family and friends. It is like a token of adoration that we gift to each other. The gesture of gifting conveys the subtext: It is something special I handpicked for you. 

What stands out to you most in your research of ancient religions?

How similar human beings are as a whole. I am convinced that in the distant past, our ancestors are from the same origin. All the deities have different names and are associated with different elements and principles, but I can almost always cross-reference them from different belief systems. It is the same in mythologies, rituals, and ceremonies.  

How has working in Detroit changed or inspired your practice?

I came to Detroit with a general direction based on my previous study. I have been interested in the “coming back” of Detroit because I believe in the cycle of life and death. “Metamorphosis” was created under the influence of the city. Sometimes destruction is an opportunity for new creations, and I am seeing how local people are living that.

I am shocked that the city doesn’t have a recycling system and people have to volunteer to do it themselves. I am very aware of the environment-related issues, and I made my best effort in my art practice to always use non-toxic, recycled, biodegradable, and local materials. I notice that there is  a lot of recycled and repurposed local art, and I think it is the result of the depopulation, economic downfall, and the lack of recycling plan. For my next community project, I plan to have locally repurposed and found objects, and this direction is inspired by Detroit.  

Can you tell me about your experience at Detroit’s Belle Isle Aquarium? 

I love the Belle Isle Aquarium. If the Aquarium in Atlanta is a department store, Belle Island is the long-living boutique shop that has its irreplaceable charm. It is sad to see the living beings kept in captivity, but I also feel thankful for the opportunity for education and research it provides. Especially when I was a kid, before I could swim and dive, the aquarium is the first place I got to see living aquatic life from around the world up close. On top of the special collections of Belle Isle Aquarium, the architecture is impressive. I visit the aquarium in every city when I travel, this one in Detroit is very unique. I love the green tile-covered interior that responds to the colour of the water. Walking through the archway is like going through a tunnel of time.

Medium, Mixed Media, Water, & Custom Electronics

Medium (Detail), Mixed Media, Water, & Custom Electronics

What do you mean when you say your art is a “carrier”?

When the first-hand experiences wither away with the death of the flesh, in time, the person or object becomes a principle and that abstraction needs a physical carrier to function in reality. I see my art as that carrier. History and mythology underlie the foundation of spirituality. It is a continuously evolving relationship which reflects on both a physical and spiritual level in everyday life. 

Do you feel that there’s a movement toward spirituality in recent years? As a potential response to our environmental issues?

Absolutely. It reminds me of the hippie movement and the anti-war movement in the 60s. During that time, there were many cults, meditation and yoga groups raising in every corner of the country. It is the collective response to the on-going global conflicts between regions and countries, and the shared environmental issues. I think it’s a cry for help. We want to find a way to ease the unsettling feeling toward the future, and be prepared for the apocalypse of the Anthropocene, if there is any way to prepare for it. We are living in a fascinating and scary time—technology can connect us easily to people we have never met and take us far beyond the places we can imagine, even create new space and reality. The extension and modification of body and soul are possible, and that challenge our perceptions of the world and understanding of selves. Regardless of technological breakthrough, we can not survive without all the essentials: water, air, light…etc. A balanced ecosystem is in danger and that reminds us that we are just as fragile as other living beings.  


See Hui-Ying Tsai’s work alongside Holly Bass and Michael Polakowski at Red Bull Arts Detroit Resident Artist Exhibition
until January 19th.