Now it’s an age of sensation: Conversation with Artist Chunghan Yao

“Let there be light, and there was light.” Genesis

Taiwan-born new media artist, Chung-Han Yao, aka Lou K, has charmed the world with his outstanding artworks and performances in the past few years. I first got to know him in 2007 when I was curating an exhibition called “Sounds Off”. Through the introduction of a mutual acquaintance, I invited Yao to do a live performance for the show, it was also then that his LLSP piece began to take shape. I can still recall that evening when he came with his laptop and miniature wood block devices, he used a holed sheet of paper to interfere with the sensor and hence control the lighting. Three years later I invited him again to perform LLSP in London, this piece has evolved miraculously, he himself became that sheet of paper, using his own body to directly control and manipulate the laser light beams. This piece was much like a tamed dragon under the control of his master, stunning and amusing all the spectators on site. Art and technology are now completely inseparable, they have taken a different path from their predecessors and developed into an even more innovative and contemporary landscape. In order to further understand the dragon master, I had a ninety-minute long chat with Chung-Han Yao on Skype one cloudy afternoon, listening to him talking about himself and his art.

W: What are you working on these days?

Y: I’m busy preparing for the Lexus Hybrid Art show in Moscow, and after that I will head off to New York at the end of May, I am invited to restage the LLSP performance there.

W: Let’s start with your adolescent years. You grew up in Taipei, right?

Y: Yeah. I went to an ordinary high school, I didn’t really have any contact with the art scene before going to university and I had no interests in academic studies whatsoever. I don’t understand the purpose of it and find it rather meaningless, so I ended up spending four years in junior high school and four years in senior high school.

W: Why did you choose to study architecture at Shih-Chien University?

Y: We had this “Recommendation System” for university application when I was in high school. I was rubbish at school and was at the bottom of the rank, so it turned out that there were only two options left for me: one is to study the Chinese Literature course at Shih-Hsin University and the other is the Interior Design course at Shih-Chien University. I happened to be visiting Shih-Chien University when all the students were attending their classes, the tutor was asking them to fly a kite and I find it quite intriguing, therefore I decided to stick to the creative courses. I applied for the course with my grades from high school, designs I did for clubs and societies, some photographs of classroom decorations I did and swimming awards.  

W: What happened while you were at university, did you enjoy your time there?

Y: Absolutely. Every single class was fascinating for me. We were encouraged to experiment with different methods. It was then that I learn about different materials, and I often come up with new ideas and concepts as well.

W: And how is that compared with your graduate programme at Taipei National University of the Arts?

Y: At university we were expected of absolute precisions in many respects. Take model-making for instance, assignment would be rejected and returned by the tutors if it is considered ‘imperfect’. Besides, we always had to have something ready for discussion in design classes every Tuesday and Friday, which meant that there is always pressure on progression. This aspect in particular is very different from the graduate school. At the graduate school the tutors would always ask you when they see you whether you have done anything new, your answer can be quite open and honest, which I was not really used to. Most people I studied with on the graduate programme came from an art-related background, but I was a total rookie in this field, I had no idea what I want to accomplish. So I forced myself to come up with something new every week, even if they were boring ideas.

W: So could we say that you were full of potential?

Y: Yes, sort of. The piece I made for my degree show was an interactive installation piece. The piece consists of three spots on the wall, every time when someone pass by it would generate projections of sound and images. My tutors and fellow classmates were quite amazed by the work. Later at the graduate school Prof. Allen Tao said he has seen way too many works of this kind, there’s nothing special about it. He was more interested in how I did it. So I told him exactly what I did in full details, it was basically starting everything from scratch, I even bought a Flash-training book specially for this. Do you want to hear about my stories in the army?

W: Was i/o founded while you were on the graduate course, are all the i/o members your classmates?

Y: I happened to have this bunch of friends who are all interested in sound. It was my idea that maybe we could all get together and exchange thoughts, pull some performances together and so on. I think it is crucial to have discussion and criticism while you are in the process of making work, and this concept hasn’t really been explored further in Taiwan.

W: OK, the army. So you went to do your military service right after you finished your graduate course?

Y: I was actually planning to postpone my military service because a choreographer called Yi Huang wanted to collaborate with me, but my parents were against the idea, and I also wanted to get the military service out of the way sooner. So I reported to the township office as soon as I received my diploma, I told the lady behind the desk that I drew my straw while I was in the final year in high school, I am joining the Marine Corps.

W: The marine corps!

Y: Yep. I went for a training session in south Taiwan for two months, it involved all kinds of physical trainings, exhausting but fulfilling. It was also since then that I started to become more aware of my own body. At Christmas I was assigned to decorate the camp because I have an art background. I engraved “Safe and Sound” on a piece of foam board, and attached some light bulbs at the back. I also bought an automatic adjuster for this device so that the four characters would slowly light up and fade out every night as if it was breathing, which I find very comforting. After I’d finished the training, I was sent down to Wuciou Island. At this point I still had my last hope that there may be gates and high walls that divide the camp and the outside world, then I soon realized as soon as I got there that there are no gates at all, the whole island is a military camp, and we all had to go back to Taiwan whenever we have our days off because loitering around the island is prohibited. The quality of life on the island was very poor compare to Taiwan. Every night I had to be fully armed to stand guard, staring blankly at mainland China in distant sight of the sea level. Although during this period of time I still went back to Taipei from time to time to take part in some exhibitions, I was completely numbed, I didn’t hold any opinion about any kind of art. Towards the end of the service I received an exhibition invitation from the Fukuoka Asian Art Triennial in Japan. In theory I should be allowed to go abroad because I was representing the country but because the camp base where I was is a very important frontline, the commander said that he couldn’t let me go, so I had to ask my friends to go and install the work for me.  

W: Now moving away from the main subject, do you think being in a relationship have anything to do with your work, does it influence your work in any way?

Y: Having a stable relationship is very important to me.

W: After hearing your story from the army I am quite curious to find out what you usually have in mind when you perform?

Y: Essentially there is only one thing - how do I express what I am thinking in a given space.  How can I use body, light and sound to gradually open up senses that were initially closed? A professor from college once told me that fundamentally every movie is a porno. If ecstatic passion was the ending point, the ultimate destination then what defines it a love or a horror movie is how the director writes his scenario and how he works with it. A performance is a process of this kind, this is my conclusion after a couple of discussions with friends after live performances and the re-examination of my own body after leaving the army.

W: What is the difference between your installation works and your live performances? To me the installations seem more passive while the live performances are more active and penetrating.

Y: Not for me. I don’t categorize my work simply as “active” or “passive.” My installation works are probably more like a scenery so far as I’m concerned, and there already exists a huge difference say between looking at a scenery and watching a film. Also, the relationship between light and space can only exist with the participation of spectators, and every individual is a unique entity, that is to say that when different people correspond to different situations the result is always distinct. To me people is the most important element in this respect, they are the one that connects everything together.

W: I remember that you once told me, if granted an opportunity, you would hope to collaborate with an athlete rather than a dancer, why?

Y: Yes, I would prefer to work with an athlete. To me the body condition of an athlete differs greatly from that of a dancer. All dance seems to be choreographed, the body of a dancer is somehow aesthetic whereas an athlete seems to have a more intuitional control over his body. The ways their bodies are designed serve a more functional purpose. Have you ever seen a film called “Yamakasi?”

W: The one where everyone runs and climbs like traceurs?

Y: Yes, that kind of situation. I think it must be the experience of being in the marines corps, I started to become familiar with my own body while I was going through all the heavy-loaded physical trainings. As a result I became more sensitive to my body conditions.

W: And that is why in the later stage of LLSP you use your body directly to interact,

Y: Yes, exactly. Oh, and this suddenly occurred to me - I think art-making is a product of something that is quite spiritual, for example before I would always have some inspiration and thoughts after going to movies or reading books, and now I seem to have changed from the role of a receiver to that of a giver. Giving others spiritual or visual stimulations in the hope that they would do some thinking after going to exhibitions or performances. However, I find the role rather exhausting and my energy would continue to be consumed in the process, so all I can do now is to stick to the regular routines and restore my energy so that I can continue to make work.

W: I read in an interview where you mentioned the light and sound effects in clubs. Are you yourself a clubber?

Y: Not really. In fact, I only ever went clubbing this one time when I was at university, it was a British chain club called M.O.S. in Neihu. But probably because I am an artist who works with light and sound as a medium, I find it hard to agree with the way the DJs manipulate the language of sound at such occasions. Then again when I was an artist in residence in Tokyo, a friend took me to see a show featuring a Japanese DJ called Ishino Takkyu and I was very very impressed. He was just a middle-aged man, didn’t have any fancy tricks or anything but the musical energy that he created was phenomenal.

W: Has your family seen any of your live performances?

Y: No, not live performances. Because of the body and mental condition it require when I perform I need to be completely independent, in other words I need to get rid of my own identity temporarily, and I find it embarrassing to invite my family over to see that, but they have seen some of the videos. When I first got into graduate school my family was quite pleased with that because I was not doing so great in school when I was younger. Later on after having participated in some major exhibitions I feel like I have achieved something, so I started to invite my family to see the exhibitions, at least they would get a better idea of what I am doing. My father is very pleased with the fact that there are now more and more international organizations inviting me over to perform. He said to me once that now we are at a time of your generation, when he was young there wasn’t any opportunity like this, so I must make the most of it. Now he would always drive me to the airport when he has time. He has got to know CKS International Airport inside out by now.

W: Have you ever thought about making a work without fluorescent lights?

Y: Yes. In fact I did plan to develop a completely new piece this year but after a couple of performances abroad my thoughts have changed. The world is so big, when I was in Taiwan I was often asked if I had done enough with the fluorescent lights but after all these trips abroad I kept asking myself: Is that really enough? I have always been developing works which are closely linked to each other. For me this is a way of accumulating strengths and depths, even when I developed works in different subjects and contexts they still follow the same thread and sare the same core concept. So now I will continue to work with fluorescent lights but I will go further and deeper.


Original dated: May 2011.
Adapted online version: Feb 2013

Text: Shauba Chang
Translation: ChienNi Hung
Photo by Chun P. Lin
For more content please refering to Waterfall#4: The Spectacle of Now


姚仲涵,認識他是在2007年初,那時策劃了Sounds Off這個展,透過另一個藝術家朋友的介紹,邀請他來做現場演出,剛好正是他的作品LLSP開始發展的時候。猶記得那天晚上,他帶著電腦和像是迷你積木的裝置,利用挖洞的紙片干涉感應器來控制現場的燈。三年後,再度邀請他來倫敦演出LLSP,這件作品已經進化到一種不可思譯的地步,自己成為了那張紙片,用身體直接控制雷射光束。在當下已是如此密不可分,衍生出不同於前的嶄新樣貌。為了更了解更多,在一個陰天的下午,在Skype上和姚仲涵聊了近一個小時半,聽他說說關於自己和創作。

在趕工,流竄座標要去莫斯科的Lexus Hybrid Art展覽。下下禮拜應該會去紐約,有表演的邀請,要演出LLSP。


那 時候念高中有推甄制度,但是因為我功課不好、排名在很後面,最後只有兩個選擇給我挑,一個是世新國文系、另一個就是實踐,當初是叫室內空間設計系。後來跑 去實踐參觀,剛好遇到他們在上課,老師要他們放風箏,覺得好有趣,覺得還是想要和藝術創作保持關係,於是就拿著成績單、設計的社團徽章、教室佈置的照片還 有游泳比賽的獎狀去申請實踐。


大 學的時候,很多方面會要求精準,像是做模型,不完美就被R(退回)。那時每週二跟週五都有設計課,都要必須拿出點東西來讓大家討論,有進度的壓力。這點跟 研究所很不一樣,在北藝的時候,只有老師遇見你的時候會問,有沒有做什麼新的東西?你可以回答有,也可以說沒有。這讓我有點不習慣,而且其他同學都是先前 念藝術相關的,我對這個領域是菜鳥,根本沒什麼概念究竟是要做什麼,所以我還是讓自己保持每週都有一點新東西的進度,即使是很爛的主意.....

嗯, 我大學時候的畢業計畫,作品就是在做互動裝置。一面牆上有三個點,人如果經過,點會被觸發,投射出聲音和影像。在評圖現場老師和同學看了都覺得很驚奇,但 是在北藝的陶亞倫老師說這種他看過很多,還滿一般的。他對於我怎麼去做比較感興趣,我就一五一十都說出來,總地來講是土法煉鋼,我還特別為了這個去買 Flash的書學。你想聽我當兵的事情嗎?



對, 下南部受訓兩個月,各項體能都要訓練,很操勞,紮實,我想這是讓我開始對於身體有比較強烈意識的原因。還因為是藝術大學研究所畢業的關係,聖誕節的時候被 派去做佈置 。我用珍珠版刻了四個大字「永保平安」,在後面放了燈泡,還跑去買自動調燈器,那四個字就每天晚上就會緩緩變亮變暗,很像呼吸,看起來可以讓人安心。受訓 完下部隊,到了烏坵。我原本對於軍營還有個憧憬,就是有大門跟高牆分出營區的內外,結果幻想破滅,到了島上發現根本沒有門,整座島就是軍營,所以 只要有放假都得回台灣,不能逗留。這個地方環境條件很惡劣、物質條件比不上本島,駐守在這邊,每晚就是拿著上膛的步槍瞪著海平線邊上的中國大陸。這段期間 雖然回台北還是會參展,但是其實我的感知已經暫時痲痹了,對於藝術沒有任何想法。快退伍的時候,接到日本福岡三年展的邀展,理論上是可以出國的,因為是代 表國家出席,可是由於我的駐地是很重要的前線,長官就說無法放我走,只好先請朋友去幫我佈展。


嗯... 其實就是一件事情,就是我要怎麼在一個空間裡去說我想表達的東西。用身體,用光,用聲音,要怎麼從一開始是關著的,到後來把感官逐漸打開來。大學時有個老 師說過,其實每一部電影都是A片,如果激情是終點,就看導演是怎麼安排劇情和處理的手法,可能就會變成愛情片或者驚悚片。表演類似這樣的一個過程,這也是 在退伍之後對於自己身體的思考、以及做過幾場演出之後和朋友討論中得到的感想。

沒 有欸,我覺得我不是用被動、主動去思考的。對我來說裝置作品可能像是一個風景,譬如看風景與看電影,兩者之間差異就很大 。另外一點是,光和空間之間的關係都必須要有人的參與才能成立,每個人都是獨一無二的個體,所以事物對應在人身上所得到的結果都會是不同的。對我來說,人 是最重要的元素,把一切的東西都連結起來。



嗯, 對啊。哦,我突然想到一件事。關於創作,我覺得是很精神性的產物,像是以前看電影或者看書,都會得到一些靈感、或者感觸,現在好像自己從接收變成給予的角 色了。給予旁人在心靈上或者視覺上的刺激,讓他們在看完展覽或者看完表演之後,有去做思考,多想一想。但是我發現這個角色其實很累人,在過程中我自己會不 斷地被耗損,目前能做的就是盡量維持規律的正常作息,才能將能量存留起來,繼續創作。

沒 有欸。唯一去過一次是大學的時候,那時候有間英國連鎖的club叫做M.O.S,在內湖。可能是因為我自己是處理聲光媒介的創作者,所以在那樣場域 裡,DJ處理聲音這個語言的表現方式讓我無法認同。但是在我去東京駐村的時候,有人帶我去看一個日本資深DJ的表演,讓我印象超級深刻。他叫石野卓球 (Ishino Takkyu),是個大叔,沒有什麼花俏的招式,但是呈現出來的音樂能量很驚人。

現 場演出沒有,因為在演出時需要的身體狀態和精神我希望可以完全獨立,需要跳脫出自己的身分,所以不好意思請家人來看...但是他們有看過影片。因為以前一 直被留級,所以在考到研究所的時候家人反而還滿欣慰的,後來在參與過幾個大型展覽之後,我覺得我好像有做些成績出來,可以讓家人看看,所以我會邀請他們去 看展出的作品,讓他們知道我究竟在做什麼。後來陸續有國外的單位邀請我去表演,爸爸還滿開心的,他跟我說現在是你們的時代了,他年輕的時候是沒有這種機會 的,要我好好努力 。他只要有空就會載我去機場,我爸現在對桃園國際機場近況是暸若指掌。

有, 其實原本計畫今年要發展全新的作品,但是在經過幾次國外的表演之後,想法被改變了。世界好大,待在台灣的時候,常會被問日光燈做夠了沒?出國後,問自己的 問題反而是,這樣就夠了嗎?我從以前到現在做創作,作品都是一個扣著一個的,對我來說這樣才能累積作品背後意含的厚度,即使在不同的子題下發展出不同的作 品,但依舊是依循在同一條脈絡上。所以現在的我還是會持續做日光燈的創作,想要挖得更深。


Original dated: May 2011.
Adapted online version: Feb 2013

Text: Shauba Chang
Translation: ChienNi Hung
Photo by Chun P. Lin
For more content please refering to Waterfall#4: The Spectacle of Now