Conversation With Hsin-Hsi Chen

On the occasion of her immersive installation at doris-mae (May 16 to June 21, 2014), Hsin-Hsi Chen took some time to answer some questions about art, evolution, and experimentation.

You have done “flat” works on paper, sculptural work on paper and wood, and now Ulterior, a full-room installation. It is an immersive experience – like stepping inside one of your sculptural pieces. Seeing Revealment next to the installation seems like a natural progression of your practice. Was the shift to installation difficult? What were some of the challenges you faced?

It’s yes and no… I’ve done a smaller installation, Transition, in VisArts’ solo 2012. Transition was also a site-specific installation but only showing the 3D structures without images. The difficult part of my installation is always be finding the right material. Since my work is based on pencil with gradation, it’s very time-consuming to do a large installation. The challenge that I gave myself years ago was to use only one very basic tool – pencil — to develop my ideas from 2D to 3D and more. We’ll talk about this later. But at this stage of my progress, pencil seems no longer to hold its own role, other material must be involved.

My work has been related to architectural forms, and I always want to find a way to combine my work with actual architecture. My previous small 3D works are indeed the natural progression of my practice to the large-scale installation. I constantly like to play 3D virtual sketches in my head…whenever I’m walking or driving. So I guess it’s not that difficult to shift the idea of my smaller pencil work to large-scale installation. It’s like the natural growth in all creatures, it always has a certain mysterious path transforming into the final form. It’s just the matter of time.

“[…] like the natural growth in all creatures, it always has a certain

mysterious path transforming into the final form.”

 

The challenges in Ulterior were how to execute my idea/design and some technical issues, such as the measurements of the room, accuracy of the grayscale tone in printing my work into large panels, and how to install them in the room. This is my very first full-room installation. I thought about it many years ago, but didn’t know how to do it at the time and didn’t have the opportunity to have an actual room until now.

This is quite a big project, although I planned it ahead, there are many unexpected issues that came up in the end. For example, we measured the room, from ceiling, walls to the floor many times and still got different measurements before I started designing my small-scale 3D model drawing. Finally we got all the correct measurements we thought, but the printed panels in the stair-wall section turned out to not match. It’s because the whole room, walls and floor are kind of not straight/flat, a bit curved and tilted… somehow from one point to another one seemed to never be the exact size. So I had to cut the panels in order to match and mount them on the stairs/walls. Because this is a full-room design with all images connected to each other, it became more difficult after discovering they couldn’t be matched in a very short installation time. But we did overcome the challenges and completed the installation. This is a very challenging and valuable experience and certainly a great lesson for my future projects.

On your website, you have documented your recent work with these meditative, long take videos. They allow the viewer to experience the work’s surface and I wonder what encouraged you to start creating these videos?

I was taking photos for my work two years ago and felt something was missing in those photos. Although still-images could show very detailed parts of the drawings, they couldn’t really represent the actual 3D drawings as I walked through them from far to close-up distances. I wanted to have the real-time experience for the audience, especially my 3D structures which should be viewed from different angles. I wanted to show the close-up details and textures of the pencil marks, gradation of graphite, paper, and wood surfaces as I was examining them through the lens in motion. Besides, not many people can actually come to the exhibitions these days from their busy schedules and see the artwork in person. So, I had the urge to video my artwork because it seemed to be the best solution to present my 3D artwork after each exhibition. Plus, I have always had a very strong interest in movie/film-making and love the transitions in cinematography.

I read that you use the most basic tools “to see how far one medium can take me to different scales, formats and other possibilities.” How do you see those basic tools as relevant today? Are there other artists working in the same medium or method that inspire you?

Yes, it’s the challenge that I gave myself to see “how far” by using just one basic medium to develop it into different scales, formats and other possibilities. I love to use pencil to create the gradation in my illusionary style and want to show only black/white because certain color will present a certain meaning, but in the tone of grayscale, there is no limitation in imagination.

In the very beginning, it’s about drawing and one medium. I didn’t know what my work will become to the end, and I didn’t actually want to know either. It’s a long journey and reflects my interest in the unknown.

I’ve always been interested in the subjects of certainty and uncertainty, real and unreal, known and unknown, expected and unexpected in this universe. Those elements are invisible, puzzling, and fascinating. The progress of connecting every bit in our lives builds our characters and forms the way we are today. But through the process of my work, from 2D to 3D and large installation, this task that I challenged myself seems to have come to a turning point.

“The progress of connecting every bit in our lives builds

our characters and forms the way we are today.”

 

While working on Ulterior, suddenly I realized that my pursuit in pencil drawing all these years has actually just a very small tool and practice in order to develop something larger. It’s beyond drawing. It’s the “space” that I am actually concerned with. And it’s interesting to see how people interact with my work when they step into the room, they became the small elements in my artwork. After seeing the human scale versus my room-sized illusionary images, I’m definitely giving myself another new challenge now.

Although I work with one medium, I get inspiration from all, not only limited to people or artists, but more from man-made structures, nature, universe in different dimensions and unknown forms. Concept is the core in each artwork; media and technique can only serve as the tools.

You are based in Rockville, MD, right outside DC. Are you involved in the Washington area art scene? Do you find the DC area informs your work? Are there local artists that you look at?

Yes, I’m interested and involved in DC and other area art scenes by participating in many solo and group exhibitions through the years. I appreciate the benefits that we can get in our art community here. I do look at the amazing creativity from all local artists and other areas as well.

What are you working on now? Can we look forward to more large-scale installations from you in the future?

I’m continuing my development in 2D/3D architectural drawings with pencil and other media, but will create more large-scale installations and structures at the same time for sure. I would be very interested in collaborating with architects or the field in public art, because my ultimate goal is to present my 3D formats and the idea of light and shadow which reflects the human soul in the illusionary space into the reality – combining the illogical spacial puzzles with actual buildings, surroundings, and cityscapes.

Notes

Here are links to Hsin-Hsi Chen’s website, YouTube, VimeoEtsy, and Facebook profile.