Image Credit: Marcelino Diptych, photos by Claudio Pelaez Sordo and Ed Pien
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.
Enamoured by the first time he put colour to paper, Ed Pien is a Taiwanese-Canadian visual artist whose creative practice strays away from the normal – and instead replaces it with the familiar – as his work forces us to reconcile with what is and isn’t “normal”, and instead focuses on what is and isn’t familiar. Collaborating with BoucharDanse’s artistic director Sylvie Bouchard, Ed Pien created a visual installation for très loin that the dancers use to aid them in their exploration of trauma and resilience, the central themes of the dance piece. Ed was kind enough to get on a call with me to discuss his origins in visual art, as well as the process behind creating an interactive visual installation for a dance performance.
Can you introduce yourself? How did you get started in visual art?
My name is Ed Pien, I am Taiwanese-Canadian. I was born in Taiwan and I moved to Canada when I was 11 with my family – that was a long time ago so my Mandarin is really bad. I got started in visual arts ever since I was in kindergarten. I just fell in love the first time I put colour onto paper; I knew that was it. So I entered art contests, I took art all through high school and university, I did my master’s as well, and I just continued doing art. I’ve been an artist for forty-something years, and I see it as a long-term project, one that always keeps me interested in the world, and engaged. I’m really happy as a person to be able to do what I really want to do, and feel that I’m working on something that has a purpose.
Wow, that’s cool! You never once had any doubts in your mind about art?
That’s awesome, I feel like a lot of the times when I speak to artists, they have a little bit of doubts, and that they should go study something else. I feel like you’re one of the few people I’ve heard say that you just went at it completely.
Mine is the reverse in the sense that as a Chinese person, I thought, oh maybe my family wants me to do something that’s more practical. So I double-majored in high school in sciences and math, and I also took art. My high school had an art school as well, so I was able to come out with two degrees. I loved school, I went to summer school, night school, I had so many credits when I graduated. I think it’s important because I feel like I need to have options, so by having more options, then you have more opportunities. Even in university, I applied to do marine biology. Luck had it that my application to UBC (University of British Columbia) was not received. So I said, okay, I’ll go to Western (Western University) to do art. Faith had something to do with it as well I guess.
What would you say influences or inspires your creative process?
It began really early on, early on being that when you’re a kid you drew what you saw and you think that’s art, but to me it’s much more mimicking stuff. When I was in the eighth grade, I was exposed to Hiroshima and Nagasaki – the bombings that happened there – and how devastating that was, so I would say that really inspired me to make work that examines the human condition. A lot of my work addresses trauma and how to represent trauma. In my drawings for instance, I make these grotesque monster creatures that represent this otherness, so in their world, everything is familiar. I don’t use the word normal because I feel that when you say normalize, it feels like it’s not normal and to make it normal. I just say familiarize so that in this world populated by these three-legged creatures or five-eyed personages, if you were to say why do you have all of this, they’ll say why do you only have two eyes, and two ears, and one nose? They’ll say why are you symmetrical? The bodies that I present challenge the sense of what constitutes the idea of normal.
I really love that. With that, do you find that your art fluctuates each time you collaborate with another person, or does the integrity of your work remain throughout each piece that you create?
I would say that it fluctuates and something that is at the core stays as well. For instance, in my work that deals with trauma and dealing with monsters, I’m really interested in the idea of ghosts, not in terms of the scary, spooky, Hollywood style gore, but just in terms of what it is that collectively makes us have fears, doubts, and have this sense of vulnerabilities. It’s through looking at things that are on the verge of perceptible and palpable when viewers come into my installations especially. For instance, in the piece that I [created for très loin], I really wanted it to be present but completely absent at the same time. Some moments it feels like it’s invisible, but it’s always there on the side of your peripheral vision. The sense of, I would say, disquietude, something that you can’t take for granted because in this world, we take too many things for granted, and I want things to be subtle that doesn’t knock you over the head, but at the same time it does something to you emotionally.
I just feel in terms of ghosts and the idea of haunting, we are all haunted by a past. Like white people do something to people of colour, because there is a historical trauma that has been perpetuated, so they are haunted by a past to do what they do, and in a way when I see people do things automatically, they also become zombies. If they don’t think about what they’re doing, then they are going by the well of the masses, and what’s considered acceptable standards and I think that’s wrong. I think you always have to challenge what you’re doing and what people are doing, in a respectable, ethical, and loving way, and in a generous way.
Exactly. And on the flipside of that, with people of colour, just trying to break intergenerational traumas as well.
Yes, for sure. That’s much more important and when I say trauma to the white people, they can’t use [the past] as an excuse, they really have to think about what they’re doing; each person individually.
How did the connection between visual art and dance come into play?
When I was younger, I made a lot of drawings and paintings, and I wasn’t satisfied with just things on the wall where the entire space is left empty and not activated, so I thought of ways to create immersive installations where people have an experience, and it’s through this installation strategy where one can also address the idea of time, material, and the body that’s wandering through the space. It kind of made sense for me to say yes to Sylvie – and I’ve actually done another dance set for an artist in Montreal some years ago – so when Sylvie asked me to come up with something that deals with disconnection and trauma, I thought it was just perfect, and I was quite excited to be a part of it.
Yeah, because the installation for très loin was really beautiful – I really liked it – and the pieces that were used were really interesting and how the dancers were working around them and using them. It was a surreal experience, especially when they were sitting on the chairs because I didn’t know that they could, I thought they were just there.
And the felt. For me, I really wanted to introduce something else, and feeling the felt in the dark becomes this palpable void or shadow that you can actually manipulate, hiding, so I really like to have that exploration.
It was very cool and interesting to see.
When you were creating this visual installation for très loin, what was that process like?
The process started with a lot of conversations. Sylvie talked about her experience and her ideas of the work and she also asked the dancers to contribute, not to divulge anything personal but they kept in mind their own personal experiences to come up with ideas about some of the words that Sylvie was talking about, some of these emotions of what does it feel like when you’re dissociated or you’re in a traumatic situation, and to be helpful, to be vulnerable, to be strong. All of these words were used, and ideas were developed. Sylvie really worked with the dancers to mind their own movements and their own experience to come up with this work. and it’s through that that I was able to think about materials and how something – it’s challenging in the sense that I’ve made something but it can’t really be in the way, so how does it work when it’s there but it’s also out of the way, but at the same time it’s in the way so that [the dancers] can have their hands on it and manipulate, interact, and engage with it. It was quite a nice process to see how the body – the dancers’ bodies – how they go through space, how they move, how there is a sense of memory in the body, not just the movements but of space and of other people’s bodies. It was quite amazing. I have so much more respect for dancers now, having seen what Sylvie and the dancers do.
I think that also speaks to how creating this visual installation and working with the dancers is all completely collaborative. If you’re not necessarily on the same page then it’s just not going to work the way everyone might want it to.
Sylvie was really good at listening to people, responding to their needs and their sense of being in the space, and how they would move among the other dancers. Anne-Marie (the dramaturge), she was also really good, like another voice next to Sylvie that whispers in her ear almost, saying things, giving her suggestions. But [Sylvie] was able to say well no I’m going to tell the dancers how to really inhabit these words, some of these experiences and how they can really push themselves so that it becomes more emotive and amazing for the viewers watching.
Are there any other projects that you are currently working on?
Yes, there are several. In fact, I’ve been working on a project with Cuban elders since November 2014. I have an exhibition coming up at the AGO (Art Gallery of Ontario) in June of this year. I’ve been engaging with a small group of elders and together we explore the idea of time overtime; the project ends when they die, or when I die, or when they lose interest. I started with thirteen elders, one dropped out because her son is ill, and there are six remaining. It’s been challenging over the course of covid, because there’s isolation and lack of resources, and it’s been hard for them. I try to do video chat or send them some money, which I don’t really want to do because I don’t want money to be a part of this equation of them participating, but they have no money and no resources. Sometimes when you have money you can’t buy anything because there’s nothing there.
That project sounds very cool. How did you come up with that idea?
I was invited by independent curator, Catherine Sicot she’s also a producer for art projects, and initially she asked me to make drawings that respond to the Santeria religions where there are many deities, and I said no, I’m not religious but I respect people with their different belief systems. I also feel that culturally I could not appropriate or mess with someone else’s sacred imagery. But then I went to visit my ex – today he is probably 95 years old – I met him when I was in his mid-fifties. Out of the blue, he showed me a photograph of himself when he was 21-years-old. This was in the summer of 2014. At that time I was 56 or 57 and he was 80-something. I thought how beautiful those different moments were: when we were dating, I was already older than his younger, 21-year-old self, and I’m now older than him when he was dating me. All this play with time was compelling and I cried...so I went back to the curator and said, with your permission and the Cuban locals you would like me to engage with, I would like to work with a small group of elders and explore the idea of time. I also said I didn’t want to be a tourist artist, so this project has to continue, it can’t just be a one-off because it potentially could be disingenuous and exploitative.
I like that! I hope I can see it when it ends. I feel that most art pieces, art installations, or projects just have definitive end dates.
It’s [the AGO] a nice place to show this work. I feel that there is something about older people that as they get older, their voices are heard less, and this gives them a chance to voice their presence and to speak and to participate in the conversation that everyone should be interested in because – if we’re lucky enough – we all grow older and then we have to confront the realities that we face.
I think what you’re doing is really great as a lot of elderly people are pushed to the margins of society. This was a great conversation.
Thank you so much, thanks for the nice questions.
This interview was written and edited by Makeda Davis