Painter and VJ
Interview on October 21, 2015, on Wechat waves somewhere nondescript between Beijing and France
JF: You're in France at the moment.
Chai Mi: I'm participating in a month-long residency project in a monastery in southern France in the Loire Valley region, and is a new art piece of mine. I'm using black and white ink and paper to draw circles that morph into squares while painting and back into circles, and in between there's a multitude of possibilities that could take place.
JF: I like the idea, it could be an infinite (∞) process, sort of a meditation, where did the inspiration come from?
ChM: Last year, while making an animation about creativity for children, using wooden blocks, I discovered the fact that, for instance, squares, rectangles, and triangles can be endlessly joined together to form new shapes. It made me think of an old, maybe even 1000-year-old Chinese proverb: 方圆之道 (fang yuan zhi dao), which means that we should be "squared" inside, trying to be a good human being or a citizen, sticking to moral rules etc. and we should be "round" or “smooth” on the outside, while interacting with other people, because this way the "damage" is smaller. But then it made me think again, that it's actually quite the opposite, a circle is more of an "independent" kind of shape, and a square links more easily with another square. Since many of us want to be independent but at the same time interact with other people, then maybe we should change the order of the words in the saying. Later, it turned into a thing I was thinking of all the time, and I immersed myself into drawing or painting these circles and squares constantly.
JF: Are you often influenced by things like literature, proverbs or common phrases etc.?
ChM: I think the things that influence me are multi-layered, it could be literature or the environment, some things I am currently interested in, things that come up while reflecting. These days, I am more into designing and finding logic in projects I do. The two ways of thinking, either square/circle on the inside/outside or the other way round, could both be correct and both make sense, so I designed or planned this painting and drawing process, from square to circle and forth and so on, so it's as if I was making an experiment, testing these ideas through painting every day the same thing.
JF: It reminds a lot of meditation, do you think it's the monastery?
ChM: The monastery is indeed a very tranquil a place, very good for creating, all of the residency participants stay in one place to work on their pieces, we can all see what the other is doing and talk about it or discuss more complex ideas that come up, I like that. Some artists, who prefer more intimate space they just go to work in the room where we sleep.
JF: Are there any rules, or a timetable you have to respect? Do people in the monastery prepare any activities for you?
ChM: No rules, it's all up to you. There are some seminars and conferences, which people from outside of the project participate in, there are workshops for children, master classes on animation, talks about art works that is being created here etc.
JF: Any monks there?
ChM: There are no monks here anymore, it's a cultural organization now. It's a huge place, including the buildings and the terrain surrounding it. There's many small exhibitions and big art installations within the premises, there are workshops for children organized here every now and then. There's a river nearby, it's the Loire river area, where there's many old castles and other pieces of architecture around, so at the same time it's a very popular tourist destination.
JF: How many times have you participated in a residency program so far?
ChM: It must be my fourth residency program. The one before it was in Vienna, before that in China and yet before in Quebec city.
JF: Which one did you like most?
ChM: Can't compare, really. Each time it's a short period of living and experiencing a different environment and every place has its special, particular character, and in every place I encountered/did different things, too.
JF: Do you think residency programs influence you in a good way or in any way?
ChM: I am not sure how participating in residency projects influences me, it's probably not about any direct change in the way I draw or paint, it's more about the opportunity to travel and show my works in different parts of the world, about interacting with people with different cultural backgrounds. It's also an affirmation of an artist by culture and art institutions.
JF: When did you start being interested into art?
ChM: Maybe since I was 2 or 3 I started messing around on the paper, drawing just like kids do, and since then I always sketched and drew. There was a period of time, just before enrolling into a fine art academy, I went through many prep courses and this made me stop painting for a while. I started painting again in 2011.
JF: What do your parents do? Did they encourage you to follow the art path?
ChM: My mum is an accountant, my dad works in a trade company. They did actually support me and encourage me to paint.
JF: After graduating from CAFA (Central Academy of Fine Art), you did go to work in a corporation though?
ChM: Yes, it was the time when I got to dislike art somehow, and I lost interest in pure art, so I just followed my heart and learned some design. I spent three years in a big computer-selling company. While at work, I realized I can't really control my need for drawing and painting, so slowly I decided to try to become a freelancer and continue with my own art ideas.
JF: The time you spent at work was actually good to boost your creativity.
ChM: When you graduate, you're faced with many choices, you can continue learning, you can look for work or work part time etc. At the time I felt like I needed to go and find a job, to become independent financially, and become real part of society. But then after a while these motivations slowly diminished. I think it's a part of life experience and actually it did stimulate me to create art pieces connected to it, namely Outside World and Bird. It was a computer-selling corporation, where I was exposed to electronic equipment and software, things more virtual or fictional in a sense, and now I want to distance myself from this kind of work, I want something more tangible, creating things with my hands, which feels more natural.
JF: How long has it been since you've resigned?
ChM: It's been almost five years.
JF: Is it easy to make a living?
ChM: To make a living, it's okay [laugh]. Some income comes from commissioned work I get from people and friends, but there is more of creative work that comes from within myself, the ideas I realize myself or with others, for instance some live acts.
JF: What do you think about art sales?
ChM: It's rational, it makes sense - an artist has to live somehow.
JF: Is there any art medium you prefer?
ChM: Not really, I will chose it according to my liking and in link to my idea of whatever project I am working on, which will make me as close to answering some questions I am digesting through the artwork as possible. Sometimes it's animation, sometimes it's live performance, sometimes the clash of different media will result in bringing a new idea. I think I experiment constantly.
JF: Are there any particular questions you ask yourself?
ChM: It's all different, sometimes it's long-term issues, sometimes it's just something that affected me just a minute ago, it might be quite incoherent. Lately, I've been reflecting on 'contemporary' versus 'traditional' art and other ideas. Since I have had more opportunities to travel abroad these days, I noticed that there's a clear difference of art state or practice in China and abroad. In China we tend to prefer traditional art techniques. This difference ,or call it juxtaposition, gave me a lot to think about. For instance, last year I participated in a three-month project in Suzhou (NAME) where I learned a lot of traditional techniques of art making. In China we really love ideas coming from the West, but when I have the opportunity to leave China I realize more strongly I am Chinese, I come from this traditional background, and there's a huge difference between the two places. I think this has been influencing me a lot in the last two years, and even this project now, I think I use more eastern, traditional techniques or modes of thinking. At the same time I employ contemporary methods or ways of producing and designing. From this, you can obtain a new, different result.
JF: We discover our roots and identity the better the further we are from home, it seems.
ChM: Maybe. At least it is for me. Although I was obviously a Chinese person before going abroad and I knew it, but travelling or leaving the country makes you accept the fact of who you are even more. It also made me more curious about Chinese history and art but as well - I'm becoming more aware of what's happening around me now. I'm pulled by the two forces at the same time. And in this, I am looking for my own artwork and my identity, some place or relation between these two possibilities.
Chai Mi (柴觅) is a young female artist, experimenting with various types of media, such as painting, drawing, paper craft and visual performances incorporating the first three, and more. She’s fought the urge to continue the stable financial independence of 3 years experience selling computers and software, and switched to the free-lance mode instead (which served her well). She’s been engaged in VJ live acts with thruoutin, a sound artist from USA, as well as other artists of all sorts. Chai Mi currently lives in Beijing (at least most of the year).