Nien-Ting Chen: Beauty in the Mundane and the Asian Art Scene

Taiwanese visual artist Nien-Ting Chen presented “Collecting a Little Shimmer in Life” at Goodman Arts Centre from 10 to 16 January 2019, featuring
a series of works inspired by the intriguing discoveries she made from day-to-day proceedings. The materials used to create her works were all taken from stunningly ordinary items.

During the closing reception on 16 January, we got to sit down with the artist herself to gain insight into the meanings behind her experimental art works. In the process, Nien-Ting Chen also opened up about her observations of the art scene in Asia as compared to that in Europe, explaining her unique place as an Asian contemporary artist in the world.

When asked about how her works reflect the surprises among day-to-day proceedings, Chen explained, “I use my works to showcase myself and my emotions. I use very simple, easy materials and try to make them look different.”

Nien Ting Chen - Haze Series Installation
Haze Series Installation

Chen used grape stalks in Haze Series Installation. The wooden scaffolding of her installation was made of an abandoned furniture she found in the hallway. The tree branch was found on the ground floor of the Goodman Arts Centre itself. “I want to make art related to ordinary people and ordinary days, and to show people that even though there’s routine in daily life, today is enough,” she disclosed.

Nien Ting Chen - Haze Series Installation front view
Haze Series Installation (front view)

Besides plants and used furniture, Chen also utilized the most mundane of household items- a pot cover in her installation video Auroral of Kitchen. The reflections seen from the pot cover became a source of fascination for the viewers, showing the magic or ‘shimmer’ in everyday existence. As Chen put it, “Aurora (the natural wonder) is not just found in Iceland. Wonders can be found in small things in life. I want to inspire us to feel satisfied in our daily life.” Indeed, caught in the hustle and bustle, it is often easy to miss out on the sources of fascination in mundanity. Chen wanted to remind us with her works that there is always magic if you want to find them.

Experimentation with simple materials is also a key facet of her art. As a contemporary visual artist, she is willing to try every material and create different types of art. She is also willing to take time to understand the materials. “I create from the basics from daily life and experiment with them to make new images. I get inspired from everything I touch and use. Using imagination is my job (as an artist).”

The art work at the window, entitled Grid Computing Series 5, illustrates her innovative use of basic everyday materials. Made of ink layered with correction tape, the artwork is inconspicuous at night, looking like a blank piece of paper from a distance. The pattern can vaguely be made out upon closer look. However, with daylight filtering in, the ink is clearly visible through the paper. With just a pen and correction tape, Chen managed to surprise the visitors with this two-in-one image that presents itself in different forms at nighttime, and in the day. Besides its intriguing visual qualities, the artwork bears a special message directed to all of us. As one can see from the image below, there are lots of dots that are not very distinct from each other, and appear to be merely part of the painting. “It is like one human being in the world, within a large population, but I want to use my art to show that no matter how small, one person is still important, just like how every dot makes the art whole,” Chen mused.

Nien Ting Chen - Grid Computing Series 5
Grid Computing Series 5 with patterns clearly visible during the day.

When asked about which personal work meant the most to her, Chen immediately pointed to the Haze Series Installation. “The installation has two parts to it. The front and back (of the installation) are connected. The haze painting points to the haziness of our memories, as represented by the photographs at the back. The photographs were layered with transparent sheets to look 3D. I want the series to showcase the subjectivity of our memories, as what happened can be changed by ourselves in our minds.” As the photographs were taken in Glasgow, where Chen spent her undergraduate years, the installation held great personal significance for her.

Haze Series Installation, back view
Haze Series Installation (back view)

Like most artists, Chen was inspired by the works of others in the field. However, she emphasised that the artists who served as her source of inspiration differed from time to time. While she was in Singapore, the works of Mona Hatoum in the Minimalism exhibit caught her attention. “I can’t recall the exact names of her works, but I am very impressed by them. She also creates simple patterns like lines and knots…Similar to my works, her works are also handmade and experimental.”

As an artist who grew up in Taiwan, travelled in Europe and went to university in Glasgow, Chen was in a position to observe the differences between the art scene in Europe and Asia. “Three, four months ago I came back to Taiwan. The contrast in the Taiwanese and UK art scene is huge. In UK, you can find small art openings every week, whether it’s an art exhibit in someone’s home, or new ones popping up on the streets. In Asia however, all these are just beginning. Not so many people are interested in art, and among those who do visit art exhibits, most of them are already art students or practitioners themselves. Not many of the general public are interested in art other than for Instagram.”

Chen’s acute observations were congruent with my own in regards to the burgeoning Singapore art scene. Indeed, many cities in Asia have a long way to go in appreciating art and incorporating it into our everyday lives.

Chen also revealed that more Europeans seemed to have genuine interest in art, as they had more patience to focus on one work. “Even with very long 40 to 50 minute art videos that I myself found problems focusing on, I saw, on many occasions, European art-goers sit through the entire video. This was rare in Asia.”

Despite the relative lack of enthusiasm in the Asian art scene, Chen chose to remain optimistic: “It is important to start. I don’t want to just stay in Taiwan. I want to do my part by connecting with Asian artists based in Asia. Contemporary art is already (part of) European people’s daily life. In Asia, we need to continue to encourage people to go to art exhibits. Among Asian artists we can also have different artistic thinking, and can switch or exchange our ideas.”

Nearing the end of our conversation, Chen shared that she went to Chiang Mai right before her trip to Singapore, where local artists spoke great English and were able to communicate with her. “They invited me to their gallery, so I will invite them to mine. I am young, I have lots of energy to connect to other (Asian) artists. I believe the Asian art scene will get better.” With such drive and enthusiasm, I too believe that Chen will succeed in whatever she set her heart out to do.

Huang Yimin

Aiming to live passionately and not settle for a mundane life. Firm believer in the Oscar Wilde quote "You can never be overdressed or overeducated". I wish to publish a novel someday in the unknown future.

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