How do you measure an immense effort that seems invisible? Effort such as discovering ways to understand and express the human spirit aka the force of the universe, encapsulated in one Chinese Character known as Qi?
It started with this inexplicable yet warm fuzzy energy I feel in my body when I drum. I would express it with colors on canvas, visualize it in my dreams or tame it during a meditation. Later, I tried to depict it through the movement of my body and paint brush…Gradually, my efforts to depict Qi have transitioned into a quest to embody Qi in the many creative expressions I freely roam between.
My most recent pursuit in this quest of Qi is Taichi. The joy I felt when Taichi was revealed to me is so immense that not even a laughter or a smile could do justice. Allow me to tell you the story:
A few months ago, when I was pursuing an art residency in Malaysia, Shea Kang, my dear friend and art collector whom for years had told me about Taichi took me to his teacher. It was my first taste to Taichi, a martial art with series of movement accompanied with cryptic teachings. Before I could learn the whole sequence, I completed my residency and had to return to the states. With the little I knew, I practiced at the gardens repeatedly.
Somehow, the stars aligned for me. Prof. Wu showed up when I needed a Taichi teacher. He is 80 and I’m turning 30. We met shortly after I returned to the states during a Chinese New Year celebration. I was doing a calligraphy demonstration at a community event that I almost backed out of. Prof. Wu was pleasantly surprised by my eagerness to learn Taichi, noting that not many young people, his daughter included, are too keen on learning this ancient art form.
Many of Prof. Wu’s family members knew Taichi. His father was one of the early intellects to return from England in the 30s. He practiced Taichi until he was forbidden to do so during China’s cultural revolution. Prof. Wu’s own teacher stopped teaching when he was 70, citing the challenge to teach when one is no longer at his prime age because he might not be able to demonstrate Taichi sequences properly. But even that does not stop Prof. Wu’s determination at 80 to teach and my determination to learn.
We can all be fooled by this subtle force embedded in the art of Taichi. At first, I could not grasp what I learned – Where is the philosophy? Wisdom of the past? Martial art? Secrets to longevity? Nonetheless, I made time to learn from Prof. Wu, slowly but surely. I learned a total of 75 movements + 13 abbreviated sequence, via multiple two-hour sessions in two months. I could barely memorize 3 movements when I started, but Prof. Wu was “all-in” in his teaching and I was moved by his patience.
Prof. Wu would record the Taichi sequence from his tablet and send it to me, but accidentally hurt his neck while doing it. He insisted on correcting my movements despite feeling nauseous due to his hurting neck. Unlike his grandfather, Prof. Wu can practice all the Taichi he wants and has garnered immense inner power thanks to it. However, since he was forbidden by his family from biking due to his advanced age, I would bike against the wind only to show up at his doorsteps for classes.
The day we finished the last sequence coincides with Prof. Wu’s daughter’s course planning for the spring quarter. She was about to teach a new course at UCSB College of Creative Studies, on music making using inspiration from nature. She invited her father to demonstrate Taichi in one of her sections and I was asked to help translate and assist in his presentation. She also recognized how Taichi coincides with my artistic process and asked me to include some of my artwork in the presentation.
For some reason, Prof.Wu’s daughter’s invitation sums up my ‘extracurricular’ learning these last months that is so pertinent to my art journey. There is no certificate to quantify my fulfilled dream of conceptualizing the force of life that was unraveled in the form of Taichi. But it is everything I need to take my art, my life, my discipline to the next level. It is the perfect gift to my soon-to-be 30-year-old self.
They say follow your bliss and doors will open. I have been following my calling to the open doors and am still dumbfounded by the amazing opportunities that have been coming my way. I am going to stick to this path, as unlikely as it seems at first for a descendant of Chinese laborers who had migrated to the ‘new’ world merely less than a century ago. I will strive to thrive as an excellent Chinese female artist who knows her history, acts on her passion and is fearless about pursuing a professional life of literature and art!
Press, Events, and Readings
Gallery-going is just like Tinder, you can move on to the next piece if what you see in front of you doesn’t turn you on.
First, be on the inside – get to know an artist/ collector and/or find out about local art events, for example art openings
- Mingle at art openings – ask your contacts to introduce you to their friends; Consider striking a conversation with a fellow art enthusiast.
- Introduce yourself to the artist(s) and inquire about their art-making motivation and process; Avoid questions such as “How long did it take for you to finish this piece? “
- 9 out of 10 times in an exhibition, the artwork is for sale; ask the gallerist or artist for a price-list
- All works are unique; any duplicates/ copies will be specified on the labels
- Discuss your interpretation of an abstract artwork with others
- Follow your favorite artists’ work online or elsewhere after the gallery visit
Artist Si Jie Loo pens down her tips to first-time gallery goers on what to do at galleries/ art openings in conjunction with her group exhibition DISCOVERY in Jeth Art Gallery, Kuala Lumpur. DISCOVERY runs till 18th of December 2016.
Being born in a middle class Chinese family in Kuala Lumpur, my relationship with Malaysia changed drastically throughout the years starting from my years abroad. I discovered my predominantly Chinese experience in Malaysia was not as important when I am abroad. To others, I am first a Malaysian, then a Buddhist, perhaps then an Asian woman of Chinese descent.
Furthering my studies in United States meant mastering the command of English, a powerful tool towards scholarship and a professional career even in Malaysia, and I understand the access and privilege it has since granted me. When I was interviewed by Bernama Today last November for my solo exhibition Inknovations at JETH art gallery, a commonly raised question by fellow Malaysians was, “Why is your English this good when your medium is Chinese ink?”
As Malaysians, we often take our ability to speak multiple languages for granted, not realizing that at one point in history, our elders only spoke their dialects and perhaps Malay. The wisdom of Chinese Ink Painting that shaped a huge part of Nanyang Art that I learned from Dr. Cheah Thien Soong was all conducted in Mandarin; had I not also speak English, I would not been able to communicate its ancient philosophy and knowledge to an international audience who were already fascinated by Asian arts since the late 19th century.
Today we still see a social divide within Malaysia when it comes to learning traditional art forms: The 24 season drums that was made popular by Hands Percussions toured the world and corporate Malaysia, but master drummers in the group still recruit students from Chinese Independent High Schools; Prolific Chinese Ink Painters in Malaysia were not given MFA degrees that would allow them to teach in universities but were only limited to exhibit and giving workshops at Chinese Schools and Chinese oriented spaces.
Yet Nanyang Art predecessors such as Cheong Soo Pieng whose work are now highly regarded from auction houses to Singapore’s National Gallery started out by teaching both Chinese Ink Paintings and Oil Painting at the same time at Nanyang School of Arts (now NAFA) in the 1950s. Dr. Cheah who studied directly from these masters is one of the few Chinese artists left in Malaysia that has received and taught formal traditional Chinese Ink Painting in a university setting.
I hope to use this residency to ask the questions: What’s the future of Chinese Ink Painting? If it were an important Nanyang (Southeast Asian) heritage and legacy, how do we promote it in the Malaysian Chinese art circle and beyond? How do we innovate within a tradition that has once inspired the likes of Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin? How can I expand the medium’s limitations by collaborating with other artists of dance, music and theater background?
Southeast Asia is an exciting hub of trades and inter-cultural exchange. Its tropical colors and wide array of craft and folk arts were subjects of studies for many foreign scholars and local artists. I wish to immerse myself into the art scene starting with a residency at Rimbun Dahan, to share my understanding of the new and the old based on my own cultural roots that I re-discovered upon returning from abroad, but also expand it’s repertoire to a contemporary Malaysia we as artists are aspired to shape.
Rimbun Dahan is a private arts centre in Malaysia, also the home of architect Hijjas Kasturi and his wife Angela. Set on fourteen acres outside Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, the compound of Rimbun Dahan is a centre for developing traditional and contemporary art forms. I will be a resident artist at Rimbun Dahan from October to December 2016.