An interview with Tsung Chien (Alex) Wu

By M. Liam Otten - (Washington University Public Affairs)

Hemingway went to France; Beckman came to the United States. And While telecommunications optimists may envision the world as one ever-shrinking " global village," for the expatriate artist there is still nothing like being physically present in another land, surround by another people, immersed in another culture.

For Tsung Chien Wu (Alex to his friends), a native Taiwan and painter in the School of Art's Graduate Program, study abroad also offers - and perhaps demands - an examination of one's own national identity.

"Taiwan has a very minimal history of painting,' explained the 33- year- old Wu. " You don't have a tradition to compare yourself to. Which means that artist who study abroad often kind of brings back a piece of contemporary art, which most of its essences are not constructed by a similar social structure from the east. I have a problem with that. As an artist from Taiwan with incorrigible eastern background, I have to find what kinds of images are suitable to me, things that I understand and believing "

It is an old problem for Taiwanese artists: earlier this century, as a Japanese colony only recently opened to the West, Taiwan sent its young painters to the West for a traditional western education. Even today, art-training in Taiwan still bears that historic imprint - as a student at the Fu Shein Art school in Taipei, Wu received a strong grounding in western-style life-studied and figure drawing. 

It was a very strict, tight kind of program where you work from plaster casts of anatomy, " Wu recalled. " it was more about craftsmanship or skill than creativity."

After Fu Shien, Wu spent three years in the Taiwanese Marine Corp., in fulfillment of his national military service requirement, serving in a sniper unit. He next went to works as a scuba instructor for the International Red Cross and a freelancer artist for newspaper and magazine but left Taiwan in 1991 to the west.

"It is not easy to travel abroad before you've finished your military service," Wu explained. He visited New York and other major cities in the United States and then settled in Toronto.

In Toronto, Wu applied to the Ontario College of Art and Design - "just to see how it would go," he said, admitting that he was a little surprised to be accepted. "I didn't speak much English then. I took the summer to learn a few words."

In Ontario (and later, during a year spent in Florence, Italy) Wu continued to focus on figurative art but, after a time, began to feel in somewhat constricted by his own expertise. To help him "think more creatively" about art making, with the tuition-scholarship offered by the School of Art, Wu came to St, Louis and entered the Graduate Program, where he began to confront the often mind- boggling density of contemporary art theory. He quickly found himself drawn to writers such as Roland Barthes, Jean Baudrillard, D. H. Lawrence and Spanish philosopher Jose Oldega, who helped him identify what would become his primary artistic subject - the sense of distance or psychological detachment that can be both the expatriate's blessing and curse.

"I came to the west when I was 24," Wu explained. " After 10 years of study here I could not go back to who I was, but even 10 years of study here I still don't feel really belong here either. Like a cultural hybridity, as western art critic described contemporary artists who originated from Taiwan:

"Modern art of the 20th century is historically defined as a progression of European and North American styles that developed without any essential or significant input from other regions. Furthermore, and again probably unfairly virtually all artists from other regions (Taiwan) who adopt modernism, or adapt to their regional styles, will have their art viewed, respectively, as derivative and historically too late to matter, or as a historically uncategorizable hybrid."

But for Wu, creating your own way not only involves exercising personal artistic demons, but doing so while remaining true to one's history, background and culture. And perhaps most importantly, it means doing all of that while communicating with an audience.

"I still think that art has to function for people," Wu said. " If you graduate with a degree in piano, you should be able to play piano. You don't tell people, well, we don't play piano anymore, we smell piano now, we taste piano."

Wu is now preparing his solo exhibition. He also hopes to find a venue for his first literary effort, a play that has occupied him, off and on, for as long as he's been in the United States. "I'd like to find a place to have both open," he said. "Some of the paintings will interact with the play. I am trying to create a multi-dimensional surface - images on stage, actors on stage."

Tellingly, one of the play's central characters is a painter who seems to express his author's thoughts on both the nature and the role of an artist. In a pivotal scene, the painter accompanies a journalist friend to the sickbed of a dying celebrity, where they encounter the man's wife and doctor.

"The wife is overcome with the grief; the doctor is more detach but also very involved professionally," Wu explained. " The journalist is even more detached but also has a job to do. But the painter, who doesn't’t know the patient at all, is free to see the beauty of the scene, the light coming through the window, an old man come to the end of his journey."

"You need a lot of guts to be an artist," Wu concluded. " An artist is like a monk - you go to the temple and take that oath and then everything is gone, you have no expectations of fame or success. That's the time you can really be yourself."

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