Interview with artist Wu Chi-Tsung: Art is never a blank sheet of paper by Vogue Taiwan

Wu Chi-Tsung in Tamsui studio
Photo: Hedy Chan Credit: Vogue Taiwan 

Bustling back and forth over cities across the world, Wu Chi-Tsung dexterously shuttled through the art world,  as if it was a natural practice.  This day we came to Wu Chi-Tsung’s new studio in Tamsui, Taipei. Apart from here, he also has studios in Yuanshan in Taipei, Berlin, and  Ho Chi Minh City. These studios scattered around the world are not only for practical needs but also for Wu Chi-Tsung’s strategy of observing the world. 

A studio space that can accommodate museum level presentation 

“This is the most well-equipped space I have ever had. It’s like working in an art museum.” Wu Chi-Tsung sat in a corner of his new studio, and the sunlight fell through the large glass windows and landed on his shoulders.

This new studio is located in the residential area of Danhai New Town. Facing a wide, neat street, it locates on the first floor with high ceilings. Here, Wu Chi-Tsung drives a scissor lift,  ascending and descending in the spacious space, busy making two huge  “Cyano-Collage Series” to be exhibited at Sean Kelly Gallery in  New York. This will be his first solo exhibition in New York– his new studio coming out of a need for this work. 

The main exhibition hall of Sean Kelly Gallery in New York is the size of a  basketball court. Two large works are required, which are difficult to be accommodated in his old Yuanshan studio. “In Yuanshan, when you want to see the complete composition of  the work, you have to open the iron rolling door on the first floor and retreat  across the road.” One of the new “Cyano-Collage Series” scales three meters by nine meters in size. “It is unlikely that I would create works larger than this anymore. We have already challenged the limits of the new space by creating it” While standing in front of the large “Cyano-Collage Series” work, people would feel as if they are in a real mountain, and would almost lose control to dive in. 

A studio is different from an art gallery. It is a place where the artist lowers his head and sweats to work. However, Wu Chi-Tsung planned his new studio according to the specifications of an exhibition hall, aligning the working environment with the exhibition conditions. Therefore, “Before I arrive in New York, I can already accurately foresee what the work looks like on-site.” He said that the most difficult aspect of space planning is to master good scale and proportions. For example, some exhibition spaces have very high ceilings, but the proportion between the work and the space as well as between viewers and the space may be weird. Having spacious space and high ceilings do not necessarily bring enjoyable visiting experiences. 

During his creating process, Wu Chi-Tsung skillfully uses scaffolding and scissor lifts to move across the work, like playing with a toy.  “Compared to see the completed work at the exhibition site, where everything is neatly presented, sometimes the creative process is more interesting.” Wu says, looking up at the “Cyano-Collage Series”, the upper part of which has not yet been completed. Xuan papers are selected to be mounted on the aluminum plate, blowing under the fanlike ocean waves. ” Normally audiences won’t have the chance to see this kind of scene of the Cyano-Collage Series.  The nature of this work is actually a collage of randomnesses formed by wrinkled pieces of Xuan paper.” 

Wu Chi-Tsung said that interacting with materials and technology is what he finds the most interesting. With a large high-ceilinged studio and the help of scaffolding and scissor lifts, he is able to change the way of interacting with his works. “When people see what is behind-the-scene, they can understand how the work is created step by step and will have a completely different understanding to the work.” Chi-Tsung and his team have moved to the new studio for less than a month, and there is already a thin layer of paper scraps and glue on the ground underneath the work. “This is a habit of mine in the studio. Basically,  everyone is not allowed to clean up the ground.” 

Everything that happened in the studio left traces. When the artist picks his brush, the glue drips along the way and leaves marks. When piles of Xuan paper soaked in photosensitive solution generally turn into different shades of blue, they would dye the floor on the ground.” In contrast,  I will feel a  lot of pressure if the space is too neat and tidy, so I will have to be constantly aware of not to mess the space up,  and my  attention will be distracted.” In the artist’s studio, randomness can also be a precious inspiration. ‘

Physical and spiritual polished by trainings of rock-climbing 

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Wu Chi-Tsung exposes cyanotype-treated xuan paper on the rooftop of Yuanshan Studio 

“I also plan to install a climbing wall here.” Until now, Wu Chi-Tsung still always recalls the training time when he was in the rock climbing team back in high school. He shared with us the three-day round of intensive training routine at that time. Back then, he only wanted to be stronger and freer. Rock climbing is all about the present. Wu  Chi-Tsung said “Sometimes you will find yourself in a tricky stage seven or eight stories above the ground. You may fall at any time.  And this is time you have to think about nothing but to concentrate on every action at the moment.” Rock climbing and art creation are similar things, both require your spirituality and physicality to be present. When you challenge the limitations of your body, you may find the essence of your existence. “It’s a kind of freedom.” 

“Freedom” has always been a keyword to Wu Chi-Tsung: the freedom to exceed the limits of the body when exercising, the freedom to imagine when creating.  “However, freedom does not mean to do anything without rules, but something that I, the materials and tools in my hand conform to each other and develop  together in the most natural and comfortable state of each other.” 

Looking at the half-completed “Cyano-Collage Series” on one side of the studio and the wall with only aluminum panels on the other side, Wu introduces, “These two huge works are like marathons. They are very tiring and require strong organizational skills and concentration, but I enjoy this unprecedented  challenge a lot.” After this, he jumped on the scissor lift again, taking the time to finish the ‘clouds’ on the aluminum plate. 

Awakening the Study on Materials of Traditional Media

Wu Chi-Tsung has received art training from both Eastern and Western sources, which is a common upbringing in Taiwan. “We actually grew up bilingual, and it is unlikely that a Western artist would have practiced calligraphy and ink painting since childhood, but Asian artists are generally trained in Western art, and this is obviously our best characteristic and competitive advantage.” This has prompted him to reexamine the classic as well as learn from the West, to explore personal, regional, and contemporary particularities, and to try to mend the gap between East and West, tradition and modernity.

Wu Chi-Tsung believes that it will be a hard act to follow what has been achieved by the ancient people, so he has taken a different path by replacing ink and brush with other media and using experimental photography to continue the landscape tradition. He said, “After all, the ancients could not be possible to climb onto the rock wall and observe them as I do. “

For the “Cyano-Collage” series, Wu Chi-Tsung conducted research on Xuan paper, learning about the material.  

Cyano-Collage series
In the creation of the “Cyano-Collage” series, it is necessary to apply a layer of acrylic gel for the collage of xuan paper  (Photo: Hedy Chan Credit: Vogue Taiwan)

In 2018, he established a studio in a residential building with a rooftop in Yuanshan. The daily  routine of this studio was almost revolving around “paper” and the four floors of the building each has their own function:the rooftop for exposing cyanotype-treated xuan paper, the fourth floor for “washing” the paper and other machinery works, the third floor for the creation and presentation of the works, and the paper scraps and traces of glue on the floor of the second floor have reached the thickness of snow…“In order to find the most suitable type of xuan paper for the cyanotype process, we have experimented on dozens of types of them. By countless research and experiments, we get to understand the material better”. This is also what he differs from painters and calligraphers from the past.  To Wu, xuan paper is the paper with the most complicated and sensitive quality among all. With different manufacturing methods, they are capable to carry out broad color variations of ink that are extremely delicate. 

The cultivation of the two cultures of the East and the West gave Wu Chi-Tsung a broader mind and vision, and his works that combined Western contemporary media and the spirit of Eastern aesthetics translated the world they were not familiar with to Western audiences. “Through my work, xuan paper is able to be noticed by more people. For example, when I was exhibiting in Europe when the audience learned about the production process of the “Cyano-Collage Series”, they were all amazed by the outstanding resilience of the xuan paper after being crumpled, flattened, soaked, and dried. If in this way, more artists from other countries will also start to become interested in this material and begin to use it in their creations, can this traditional eastern media breathe a new life in the contemporary art world? “If 20% of the artists working with paper in Europe adapt xuan paper, the  whole industry will be resurrected.” 

Wu Chi-Tsung believes that the overall consideration and management of art from the stage of the production of materials is a practical matter. “I spend so much time researching materials, of course, I hope that it will continue to be produced.  People tend to think that art is something remote and abstract. In fact, it IS such a practical thing. Interacting with materials and technology is part of the creation.”

Wire II
“Wire II”, metal, glass, acrylic, 2003 ZENARI 

Be natural, be harmonic

Behind the huge Cyano-Collage landscape, the research and application of materials also embody Eastern philosophies and fundamentally establish the aesthetic tone and value orientation of the works.  “Western paper was developed for a high degree of control, while Eastern paper  has a high degree of variability in aesthetic values.” This is the so-called  “naturally.” When creating, Wu Chi-Tsung thought about how to make the material develop. For example, rice paper is thin and tough. When crumpled, its characteristics can be expressed naturally. But if you make origami, expect it to  have a specific shape, “I will do it very painfully, and the paper will probably be  very uncomfortable.” The idea of control arises, and the characteristics of paper cannot be unfolded, so the more you create, the more limited it becomes. 

It is necessary to minimize control and allow the integration of materials and technologies to occur naturally. Only then can the underlying “own being” unfold. He showed us the pottery he made in his spare time during the Covid-19 pandemic. He said that while making pottery,  you also need to learn to interact with the clay, not attempting to control them. “Every material  has its own character, just like people, we can only follow it to dig out its unique texture, or the unique chemical reaction between me  and the material.” 

International studio across Europe and Asia 

Speaking of his life as an international artist, Wu Chi-Tsung introduces, “If it weren’t for the Covid-19, I would be spending maybe only one-third of the  year in Taiwan, and other times I would be living, creating, finding inspiration, or conducting research on materials and technology in my studios around the world.”  

The two huge “Cyano-Collage Series” on the wall of the Tamsui studio will be sent to the United States immediately after completion. While being asked why not consider establishing a studio in New York? Wu Chi-Tsung replied, “New York is too charming for anyone to dislike. But it may not be suitable as a base for  artists to create.” In 2013, Wu Chi-Tsung was granted by the Asian Cultural Council  (ACC) for a half-year residency program. It is when he realized that the high cost of goods and intense competition made it a difficult place to live and work in as a young artist. “It’s not a place where people can calm down and be focused.” 

“I like Vietnam very much. Compared with New York, it is a jungle where everything is in a very initial and chaotic state.” It is an art world that is growing and forming its shape, and the experience here is unprecedented. “For example”, Wu Chi-Tsung said,  “if you hold an open studio in Saigon, half of the Saigon art circle will show up, and the art ecology here is a close community. ” Berlin is an intermediate value for Wu  Chi-Tsung. The historical background and economic structure of the city have brought artists from all over the world into the city, forming another spectacle full of life. “Berlin has changed a lot. My studio is the place where the secret police  gathered in the old East Germany.” The history of political prisoners and the political atmosphere of the East German era are still there, but at the same time, it is an inclusive city “Why there can there be so many interesting things happening in Berlin? The relatively low price is absolutely the key.” Because the space cost is low, you can try as much as you want without the pressure to succeed. 

2018 at Bali Studio
2018 at Bali Studio, now relocated 

Free artistic spirit 

He added that as an artist, he is very lucky. He travels around the world and communicates with different people. Through traveling and working in various cities, he accumulates the experience of interacting with different people. He sees that people have very different imaginations towards what it means to work with art.  

“Most people consider that artists are people who make works, which is incorrect. The creation of works is only part of the work. What we do is ‘the whole thing about  art’.” Wu Chi-Tsung said. “Including academic research, art market operation,  international relations, and even thinking about the production of materials. The international studio layout allows him to integrate information and resources most efficiently, and to re-recognize himself from the perspective of others so that he can really know himself and understand his uniqueness compared to others.  “When I was in Taiwan, I didn’t think there were any problems; after I left Taiwan, I  could see its characteristics and limitations.” 

He chose to transcend limitations. He is exploring to make use of his studios in Berlin, Ho Chi Minh City,  Yuanshan, and Tamsui. In each of them, an aspect of Wu Chi-Tsung’s personality dwells. Shuttling between the past and now, east and west, his personality and creativity never stop growing. 

 cyanotype-treated xuan paper
The cyanotype-treated xuan paper  in the sun, the color is gradually  developing under the light due to the impact of photosensitive solutions

The settings of these studios seem to be rational and full of logic, but they actually more of a natural result of Chi-Tsung’s career development to fit his need than a deliberate arrangement. . And the fundamental reason that drives him to bravely cross the border may be just the kind of spirit he has experienced in many years of rock climbing training, that is, beyond the limits, the spirit of freedom.

Editor Nicole Lee
Text by Jing

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Photo: Hedy Chan Credit: Vogue Taiwan 




這個新的工作室座落在淡海新市鎮住宅區,街道寬闊,一樓挑高氣派。吳季璁駕駛著高空作業車,在偌大的方正空間中上升下降,忙著製作即將前往紐約 Sean Kelly Gallery展覽的巨幅《氰山集》系列新作。這將是他首次在紐約的個人展覽,而這個新工作室基本上也是為此誕生。

紐約 Sean Kelly Gallery的主展場有籃球場這麼大,需要兩件大型作品,原有的圓山工作室空間受限。「在圓山,要看作品完整構圖時,得把一樓的鐵捲門打開退到馬路對街,才能看到整體。」新工作室挑高五米七,主牆寬度十米,牆面上一幅創作中的《氰山集》,尺寸是三米乘九米。「應該很少會有比這個尺幅更大的作品了,已經用到這個空間的極限。」巨幅的《氰山集》像一座巨山真的矗立於眼前,稍一走神就想往作品裡面奔去。




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Photo: Hedy Chan Credit: Vogue Taiwan 



「我還打算在這裡弄一塊攀岩牆。」到現在,吳季璁還很懷念高中時作為攀岩選手的訓練,他分享當時三天一輪的訓練菜單,當時一心只想讓自己變強, 心無雜塵。攀岩是一件徹底當下的事,吳季璁說:「有時在一個離地面七、八層樓高的難關,去挑戰自己能力極限的動作,隨時可能墜落,只能心無旁騖專注在當下的每個動作。「攀岩和創作都是,你的精神性和身體性是一致的。超越你身體、物質各方面的侷限,那個東西是人存在的重點,那是一種自由。」



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Photo: Hedy Chan Credit: Vogue Taiwan 












淡水工作室牆面上那兩幅巨大《氰山集》,完成後就要立刻飛往美國,被問到為何不考慮在紐約也設立工作室?吳季璁回答:「紐約是一個太有魅力的城市了,沒有人會不喜歡它。但未必適合作為一個藝術家創作的base。」2013年吳季璁到Asian Cultural Council (ACC)駐村半年,發現其發展階段並不合適紐約這個城市,高物價成本,機會和競爭抗衡抵銷,對起步的藝術家來說難以消化。「它不是一個可以讓人安靜、專注的地方。」

「我很喜歡越南,和紐約比起來它就是一個叢林,在叢林一切東西都是很初始、混亂的狀態。」它是正在成形的藝術世界,這裡的體驗是前所未有的。吳季璁舉例,在西貢舉辦一個open studio,半個西貢藝術圈都來了,這裡的藝術生態是一個緊密的社群。柏林對吳季璁來說則是一個中間值,城市的歷史背景和經濟結構,使世界各地的藝術家傾城湧入,構成另一種充滿生命力的奇觀。「柏林的變化很大,我的工作室是舊東德聚集秘密警察的地方。」關政治犯的歷史以及東德時期的政治氛圍都還殘留,卻同時無奇不有。「為什麼柏林可以有這麼多有趣的東西,便宜——絕對是關鍵。」因為空間成本低,可盡情嘗試,沒有非成功不可的壓力。


“Dust”, video camera, projector, tripod, 2006, taken by the artist at the Kunstfest Weimar 2019 in Germany 



文/ Jing
編輯/ Nicole Lee