Growing up in Chonburi, Thailand, artist Xiuching Tsay initially focussed on science-based academic study while treating her natural inclinations towards drawing and creating art as secondary amusements. It was her frequent visits to the capital city of Bangkok that spurred her interest in pursuing visual art seriously, an interest that became cemented by her move to London for a Fashion Illustration degree, and her immersion in the city’s art scene through museums and exhibitions. Xiuching’s training in Fashion Illustration, particularly in representations of the human figure, remains evident in her practice – the fluid lines with which she would sculpt the body during her life-drawing classes appear now, grotesque and exaggerated, in the bulbous forms that feature in her paintings.
The fluidity of Xiuching’s strokes is the touchstone of her work, which consistently interrogates and warps states of matter. In her vivid, almost psychedelic compositions, objects that would appear solid in life become pliable and verge on liquidity. Landscapes seem to churn and swell like oceans. Figures melt together, their flesh yielding, squeezed thin, sagging with gravity or contorting into impossible shapes. When it comes to the artistic representation of her subjects, whether those be conceptual or objective, imaginative or observed, Xiuching’s is a process of, in her words, ‘melting their absolute forms’. In this way, she depicts a dynamic visual flow between the states of memory and present consciousness. In the passage from real-world perception to remembered vision, that which is seen and familiar becomes hallucinatory and strange. It is this flux that Xiuching’s images attend to, represented by the transition of her forms from solid to liquid.
Alongside and in conversation with her painting practice, Xiuching uses writing as an expressive medium to build psychological landscapes, her diction fragmentary and free of formal constraints. At the intersection of her verbal and visual works lies her central preoccupation with the alienness of memories when they enter the consciousness of the present self. She speaks to us here about her conception of shifting psychological landscapes, how her sensory observances of the world around her inform her paintings, and her experience of creating works for exhibitions and residencies.
AMM: Hi Xiuching, could you tell us a bit about your background and how you came to pursue a career as an artist?
XT: I was born and raised in Chonburi; the city is located on the eastern Gulf of Thailand. In my childhood, I rarely traveled to other cities because back then, the transportation was inconvenient, and up until now it’s still not convenient. In Chonburi, the art scene was invisible. We don’t have art museums, and the stationary stores here only sell limited crafting materials. In school, there were art classes but the classes weren’t treated seriously; we didn’t have an art major, so I chose the science major in high school. However, I naturally loved drawing, doodling in the study books just like other teenagers. I think because of the setting of Chonburi, to many kids, the word ‘artist’ sounds dreamy.
Around the age of 16, I traveled to Bangkok every weekend, visited national exhibitions and bookshops. I think my trips to Bangkok had built my desire to create something artistic. Later on, I moved to London and I explored the bigger art scenes. I loved the feeling when I could stare at the paintings in museums for hours, and for no reason; I cannot escape from the arts. It was like I found my right place and I want to keep making art.
AMM: You started in Fashion Illustration before doing your MA in Painting – in what ways did your practice evolve over the course of your studies?
XT: In BA Fashion Illustration, I had several life drawing classes. So, during those times, I explored my own ways of depicting human figures and I noticed that I was more into curve lines than the straight lines. I think it still shows in my current practice; I mean the curve lines that built grotesque senses in the paintings. The curvy strokes have evolved a lot over the MA Painting course. The level of flow has been improved as I employ the pictorial representations of winds and water movements. Besides, the images are now giving more vernaculars and depths to the narratives than before.
AMM: What value have residencies and group shows had in shaping the way you work?
XT: Residency programs gave me whole new experiences; new artist communities, new food, new cultures, new currencies, new studio situations, and studio environments. All these experiences gave me different insights on the philosophy of art-making and they helped me to broaden my practice. Each program gave different perceptions. For example, a residency with Ne’-Na in Chiangmai was located in the quiet mountain area, with a local artist community; I was able to challenge the subject of my practice by experimenting with the earthly materials. The residencies in London and Tokyo were very different, offering urban scenarios. So, when I came back to my usual studio, I have applied the balances between rurality and urbanity for the studio setup and the way I work.
These couple of years, my works were featured in group shows in different cities. And I think it helped me to notice the position of my work’s contexts in the contemporary world. I read the references, the press releases, and the reviews of the group shows, and I realized that my works naturally become part of this textual community. And that I am getting to know the direction of my practice, and in what way it can speak for humans.
AMM: What kind of realm do your paintings inhabit? Is it a psychological landscape? An imagined or hallucinated one? Does it have a bearing on the real world?
XT: Although my paintings look like they came out from the imaginative world, before the creations, I start by picking something to focus on from my memories, memorable conversations with different people, my observations of human/animal behaviors and their livings including myself. All these proved my attachment to the real world.
However, the imageries belong to the past, at least to me and maybe to others too. When I am in the present and thinking back about them, I feel like these memories become alien and they speak in a different language to the present self. So, in painting, I want to reconnect with them but not by going back to their realm. Rather I want to re-approach them with the present consciousness. So, during the painting process, I need to find linking points where the memories and the present can meet, and I find that I need to blur the boundaries between them, by melting their absolute forms. Often, I give a spiral movement of water, it is an accessible entrance between the two parallels; I am not sure but this maybe creates a hallucinated space?
But the paintings surely provide a psychological landscape; they speak in narratives that came from different layers of consciousness. And my consciousness cannot escape the pictures of reality; mountains, seas, the sun, or the moon are depicted because they are the best simulation that the consciousness can come up with, they are elements that exist at all times.
AMM: What roles do the mystical and spiritual play in your work?
XT: There are animals, human bodies and many hybrid forms of animals and humans appearing in the paintings. When the narratives are placed, the mystical forms itself to the humans’ visions. I think it may be because we rarely visualize our doings and our natural habits without having humans in the pictures. When an unfamiliar creature becomes replaced in a painting and imitates our behaviors, it brings questions and confusions to the work. But the questions cannot be answered with the collective language that we are familiar with, it is connectable on a spiritual level instead. I think it rather tries to respond to the aliens inside us as an individual being.
AMM: The fluid, molten nature of your images registers the solid as liquid, so that everything in the scene appears aqueous and shifting. Tell us about your artistic approach to the elements and their fluctuating states of matter?
XT: As I aim to re-connect the images of memories with the present state of consciousness. Personally, this usually works when a visual object acts flexibly. Imagine if there was an angry person in front of me and the person was not accessible, I would wait or do something to get the person to be relaxed first, then it is time to talk.
Similar to my practice, the objects in paintings are illustrated in their natural forms at first, then they slightly begin to perform in gentler manners. The figures are picturized in a flexible form with a sense of lightness, they flow following the ocean waves or the wind waves. And with the adoption of water movements and patterns, I think it gives freshness to an object to become vital and it makes itself to be adaptable with the painter’s instinct. Through many layers of sloppy shapes on the canvas, I can see different possible interpretations of the image. There is no strict rule to interpret, when the solid matter has melted to become a more erratic one, without an absolute definition.
AMM: How does your use of materials and mediums serve your subject matter and composition?
XT: The mediums I used usually have an easy flow, slippery and slow drying quality because these mediums allow a depiction to be able to constantly transform during the painting process. The waves that appear in many paintings were not finished in an instant. The waves in a painting actually changed every day, until I got the right feeling of the wave’s movement, and wetness on brushes is useful for this. The ongoing transformations of fluid movements and the characters are important to build the contexts and the narratives for the paintings. A composition was also transformed several times during painting. It is influenced by the surface that came from the previous brush movements. It is like a pareidolia effect, the flowing patterns give me a direction to compose the picture.
AMM: Your palette is largely a surreal one – tell us about your use of colour.
XT: I don’t try to give an object a right color or a wrong color. In painting, I give myself a free decision in picking colors because Impossibilities can be possibilities in the here and now. Before starting a painting, I squeeze all the colors I can think of on the palette first. Then I usually start off with a depiction of the sun and/or the moon in a bright color as a guide for the painting journey. The next brushstroke is the most challenging part because it is a decision to choose the first color to form something on a blank canvas. After that, the other colors will come in more naturally. The diversity of colors and the contrasts between them are important to my work. When a number of colors affect each other, it then creates dynamics and depths to the characters in the painting, on both visual and spiritual levels.
AMM: Your titles are fantastically compelling – we particularly like ‘Voice sack’, ‘Compensation for the lost senses’ and ‘selves won’t tell me the right direction’. Do the titles or the works come first; do they inform one another?
XT: The titles always come after the works. Sometimes, a title comes up right after finishing the body of work, sometimes it takes longer; it could take months. There were also times when I changed the titles when the works still remained in the studio. The way I give a title also has to align with the present moment when I look at that particular work.
And definitely, between the titles and the works, they inform one another. The names came from the collections of perceptions during the painting process; like what I have received during the moment when the original form is transforming into something else. From the beginning to the end, the subject has been explored and there are dramatic transformations during the process. Those transformations create narratives and it is perceivable with the present moment. For ‘selves won’t tell me the right direction’, it started with the concept of ‘Ego’, throughout the painting journey, there were a lot of changes, repeated characters, and many layers of confusions were involved until the end. Looking back with the present insights, the title appeared.
AMM: What were the unifying themes of your solo exhibition, A Haze in their Gaze, at Daniel Benjamin Gallery? How has your work progressed since the exhibition?
XT: The exhibition showed my early works after graduation at RCA. That time I came to notice the way I depicted eyes in the paintings, I was obsessed with those gazes from the objects that were depicted with my own hands. Those portrayed objects were the objects of memories; the flowers in the vase that were long lost or the candle that was finished. The objects existed in our life when attached to them with the eyes, they invite us to their world where they are still existing, and they can exist anywhere, not just in our memories. When looking into their eyes, for me, I was more drawn into the impulsive imagery rather than trying to seek certain pictures of the past.
Now I am still working with the interrelation between memories and the present, and transformations in the gap between these two. However, the technique has been progressed. I have become more natural to paint, focus on the moments in each layer and try not to jump to the perfect outcome. Obviously, the new works are presented in more colors, more layers, and the depths of expressions are developed.
AMM: Can you tell us about the crossover and interaction between your visual art and your writing?
XT: Both my visual art and writing express in a similar language. The characters in the paintings are represented in a simple form, the vocabularies in the writings are also simple and the order of words isn’t formalized. However, when fragments of words are placed together; each is placed in different positions and different intensity levels, it creates complexity and builds imagined landscapes in both visual works and writing works. And the limit of language depends on the viewers including myself, who use that limit to create a mental image.
For me, writings have a deeper personal meaning. I always carry a small book with me when I go out and quickly write if I found things that speak to me. Some writings give me an open-imagination and make me want to explore them further, in paintings.
AMM: What kinds of things inspire the images you create?
XT: For the visual ideas, I often get inspiration from the lives in my surroundings such as animals, animals’ eggs, flowers, seeds, trees, etc. These are things I see every day but I think it is worth observing them closely. By looking at them carefully and slowly, my everyday visions are differing. They are living their lives and constantly growing. I often get fascinated with their physical changes and their body language that instinctively react to outside things such as weather, times, foods and predators. They somewhat influence what appears in my images; help to build up the characters. Moreover, these visual inspirations generally incorporate the subjects that I pick up from the notes in my diaries or the openness of conversations between me and people.
AMM: Are there any other artists currently practising whose work resonates with your own artistic sensibilities?
XT: Recently, I came to rediscover Kiki Smith from a documentary. I find that there are areas in her works that connect to my artistic intuitions. In her works, I see many fluidities of human and animal bodies. She presents earthly elements that naturally form some sorts of occults; those occults I could experience on a spiritual level. There are also works of my friends and the artists in my communities I found myself connecting with, such as Alvin Ong, whose recent paintings reveal the inner minds on the molten bodily figurations, they well reflected these days’ emotional isolations. Mary Herbert’s works also amazed me with the limitless dreams that founded in the landscapes in her soft pastel works.
AMM: What is your studio setup like?
XT: I don’t put many tables in my studio because my studio is not big. And I try to not have too many pictures in my studio too because I also want a bit of silence for the eyes as a painting in front of me is already vibrant with many colors. If I need to do research on something, I would look at them before I started working and put them back in hidden places. However, I like to hang the used color palette sheets on the walls because I feel like I receive some sort of abstract energy from having them around. So, I collect the mixing palettes.
AMM: What other things do you do when you are away from your work?
XT: Eating. After studio works, I usually grant myself delicious meals. For me, eating is not just to digest food in a body; it also means that I can spend quality time with my family, my friends while we are eating. There are so many interesting conversations that happen at a dining table and foods are a great medium for socializing.
Also, I like to observe the gardens, and often get a surprise when I meet the guests (animals). Actually, there are so many things to do outside my studio times like watching films, reading books, writing, dancing in the room with music and crayon drawings; literally enjoy life.
AMM: How do you see your practice developing?
XT: Since the pandemic has happened, I came back to Thailand for a year now. Here, I was able to re-connect with the people and the cultures of my childhood. Old beliefs have never been changed in the society, and that now partly creates the political problems in Thailand. We sometimes still see things as one flat picture, whereas everyone has a different life. This has motivated me to explore this subject in my new works.
And now I feel like I am getting to know my works better, and the purpose of my creations. So, when I get a wide range of inspirations, I would naturally know what I can take from them and synthesize the interests I have gathered into a physical form. Being more confident in the direction, made me become braver to express my sensibilities, and step up the game, but that means it takes much more hard work and time.
Find out more about the artist: www.xiuchingtsay.com
Interview by Rebecca Irvin for ArtMaze Magazine.