Alexis Williams in conversation with Angela Lyn
Alexis Williams is Head of Life & Arts at the Financial Times in London. He has been following Angela Lyn’s work for a number of years. He is a young collector whose choice of artists to follow and collect, demonstrate a fresh and autonomous approach, marking him as an unpretentious figure in the contemporary art world. William’s affinity to a globalizing world and how it impacts art and culture, are central to his enquiry, both in his professional and private life.
AW Angela, you invited me to have a conversation with you in conjunction with your Taipei exhibition the long journey home – the reason being that racial and cultural diversity is something we share in common. My own journey is a tale as old as time, highlighting that one’s path is often the result of both choice and fate. My ancestors covered much of the world, starting in Africa, moving on through the Caribbean and ending in the UK. Listening to the family tales, one could believe their history included kings and queens, once ruling the lands of Africa, all the way to servants and slaves, tending the sugar cane plantations in the British Caribbean. The truth is I just don’t know the exact history of who I am. Therefore I focus on the now. Ultimately I am the sum of my experiences, and art plays a large part in this.
AL I can relate to this: art has the intrinsic potential to connect, unveil truths and give us insight into who we are.
AW Angela, as an artist you have touched my life in many ways. I am thankful that over the years you have allowed me to explore your work without judgment, and this in a world where contemporary art is often less about free thought, and more about a specific vernacular influenced by a narrow elite.
AL I am glad that my work gives you this sense of openness. The contemporary art world is difficult, shaped by the demands of a fierce market in which there is little space for reflection. I believe as an artist, one has freedom and also responsibility. An artist has to give something genuine, in order to create something genuine. A lot of what goes on today seems to be a sort of short-lived entertainment, However, I find there is awakened interest in substance. In particular, amongst younger people, who I find respond, if you give them time and energy with which to engage. Today giving time is extremely precious and certainly not self- evident.
AW Your language as an artist is traditional, yet new, hard to categorize and certainly its own. Despite this, it is universal. One of the things that impress me is that other people’s reactions to your work are often very similar to my own. Why do you think this is?
AL My life is comprised of a broad spectrum of influences. My father was born into a prestigious family in Gulangyu, in the south of China, also having a family home in Banciao, Taiwan. My mother was born into a humble family in Derby, in the north of England. Both had a significant impact on me: the cultivated intellect of my father and the intuitive survival-strong awareness of my mother. Growing up with eastern and western culture and an autistic brother who never spoke, language in my family had many facets. Painting was and still is, my way of cohesion. I look for the common denominator: that which can touch people on a human level, regardless of who they are or where they are from.
AW Angela why have you chosen painting as your predominant media?
AL Painting is an ancient response to our existence, as old as mankind; everything has been done and yet it still works. As with spoken language, one does not invent new words in order to speak; one rather focuses on what it is that one is trying to communicate. For painting to have impact today, it has to go beyond the new: I find this a good beginning. There are no short cuts and more important, it is difficult to cheat. Painting is slow. The way has to be journeyed.
In a time where we have no time, this slowness is what I love about painting. Reflecting on our relationship to time in the digital age is central to my work.
AW I am drawn to your title the long journey home. It offers a hint of insight into where you derive your artistic language, which you so excellently communicate. It poses the ultimate question, what is home?
AL Home is a big word. Simply put, I think of home as a place that lets one in: a place where one can be, in the full sense of the word. Finding this is not easy, particularly in a complex world full of distraction. One needs time to create a sense of home. Time to establish a relationship and a sense of belonging.
AW Angela, where is home for you?
AL I used to think home can be anywhere because I am adaptable, but it is not entirely true. These days, I am at home in my studio and in the garden where I live. In both these places I find I can listen: through listening I find inspiration. Whilst travelling, home is anywhere where I can hear my thoughts. Such places are gifts.
AW I like your idea that home isn’t necessarily where you live, and one can have multiple homes regardless of personal circumstances. This is a very liberating thought.
AL In a transient society finding out where home is, is by no means self-evident. I have lived in numerous places. Presently I live in Ticino, Switzerland. From the very beginning when I moved there, the suggestive mountains, the landscape, the light, and the vegetation drew me in. I later discovered, during my first visits to Gulangyu and Taiwan, that the Ticino landscape has something oddly similar. I find it interesting in today’s globalizing world, how people are intuitively drawn to certain types of terrain and culture; the connections often being quite uncanny.
AW In that case there is much more discovery for me to do, as I also feel very much at home in Ticino and, in a strange way, in your paintings. How does the notion of home connect to and inspire your work?
AL I would say it connects on various levels. Painting is a continual journey into the unknown. The paintings have to be found. In order to work, I need to feel connected to the space I am working in. The dialogue with a painting as it evolves, is something deeply intuitive. It requires concentration. Trusting the space I work in means being free from distraction. In regard to the idea of home within the work itself, I see a painting as a sort of dwelling place; a place to be that continues to exist in the present. A place that can accommodate change to which one can return over time.
AW You mention that you are aware of a tension between the part of you that is east and the part of you that is west. Who and what make you aware of this tension?
AL I don’t know if it is tension as such. It is rather the ambiguity between the both that has impacted my life. The Chinese perceive me as western, and the westerners as Chinese. I am neither and I am both. It is through my art that I try to create a language to express this. The complexity of shifting identities in a globalizing world is a reality. My work tries to explore what connects rather than what divides.
AW It appears to me that your paintings have a strong identity. They quietly but definitely assert themselves and give the viewer permission to drop the usual barriers and explore for themselves. Are you as confident?
AL Interesting question. I would say my paintings are more confident than I am, as they allow space for others. But I have a strong will and I am in for the long haul, in art and life.
AW Where does the boldness in your paintings come from?
AL My survival instincts. Painting has been my way of journeying, since ever.
AW Do you ever think a painting is saying the wrong thing and therefore start again?
AL I try not to think in terms of wrong or right. A clear vision hopefully materializes, but there is a lot of waiting and uncertainty within that process. It takes time to find the way and to know what will hold up and what not. I do little correcting: it is more like building. It is a delicate thing: when to move forward and when to keep still. Often I think the paintings know what they want to be. It is as if they already exist before me. But yes, if I fail to materialize a painting, the first question is to ask what was missing in the first place.
AW What do you want your paintings to say?
AL My paintings are as such, not messages. I rather see them as islands, quiet places that might offer refuge. A sort of punctuation of the pace of daily life.
AW How do you know when a work is finished?
AL I listen. When a work is finished it resonates and becomes autonomous; on the one hand inviting you in, on the other, being what it is, even if no one is present.
AW What does it mean to you to be exhibiting your work in Taiwan for the first time?
AL It means a lot. The first time I set foot in the Lin Family Garden in Banciao, I was deeply moved. I felt very connected. It seemed to explain many things about why I am the way I am. Why I paint the way I paint. The beautiful monkey painting I grew up with, the Chinese slippers that relatives gave me, which were always too small for my feet; the silk boxes, the embroidered cloths, the Chinese carpet my father spent his Saturday mornings lying on whilst listening to Wagner: the labyrinth of stories, all suddenly connected and gained context. That year, in 2008, I had an explosion of inspiration and did 68 works under the title my china. This time, knowing the work would be exhibited in Taipei presented new questions and challenges: a mixture of profound excitement and also uncertainty as to how people would read the work.
AW What was the inspiration behind the works for the long journey home?
AL Perhaps the idea of completion. Whilst painting this series for Taiwan, I have become clearly aware that my work is neither Chinese nor western, but both. The series is composed of three parts: landscape, vegetation and interior still life paintings. A small journey in itself. Beginning with the earth, seen from a distance, then moving, step by step, closer to the small details that constitute a life story. The landscapes recall both the mountains of Taiwan and Lugano. The trees and plants mark space and direction where things join and separate. I have an affinity to the pearl as an image: a grain of sand, evolving over time in a specific environment. The pearls suggest the human element in my work; they mark time, not only as an image, but in the act of painting itself – strung between oceans, between east and west, past and future, containment and release.
I am sorry my father is no longer alive to be present for my Taipei exhibition. Despite his being well adapted in the west, on the two occasions I was with him at his parent’s grave, he was overcome with grief and a sense of guilt for having left his homeland. He was deeply Chinese. Perhaps the long journey home is also a reflection of his longing to return home; one of the many strains of Chinese culture that I grew up with in the West.
AW Angela, it is always a pleasure conversing with you whether it is in person or through your paintings. Whenever I embark on a long journey, the adventure along the way is often as thrilling as the destination. My hope for your work is that it continues to touch those who are brave enough to look into themselves.