Layers: An Interview with Taiwanese Artist Wang Yu-Son
There is something about the ocean that makes you think. It isn’t by chance that the ocean has been a muse for artists for centuries. The salt air, the waves, the way time seems to feel different as you gaze into its deep blue depths—everything about it inspires thought, emotions, and whatever it is art is made from. For Taiwanese artist Wang Yu-Song, the ocean has always been a familiar view.
“I grew up near the ocean and I could see it from outside my classroom window. Aesthetically, it was very familiar,” Wang said, “I could look at the ocean but I could never go in it. I lived on the northeast coast of Taiwan and the water there is too dangerous to swim in. Every year someone gets washed away.”
Wang Yu-Song grew up in Hualien, Taiwan. At school, he read works by Yang Mu, a fellow alumnus. In Yang Mu’s writing, he often mentions a white lighthouse he used to look at from his classroom window. This white lighthouse has since been blown up due to harbor expansion plans. Wang, sitting in the same classrooms Yang Mu once sat in, couldn’t help but wonder what that lighthouse was like. So, one day in 2017, he went to find it. Wang dove into the ocean, where the lighthouse once stood, with a large steel plate strapped on his back, attempting to find its vestiges.
“I planned to carry the steel board down with me and carve whatever I saw on the board. But once I was in the water, my mind was completely blank,” Wang recalled, “The water current was so strong I had to use my entire body to prevent myself from being washed away.” In the end, he failed to find any remnants of the white lighthouse and did not end up carving anything that resembled the lighthouse. Instead, he left indiscriminate marks on the steel plate. “All that was left were my body movements. I had so many thoughts before coming into the water and they all left. But my body kept moving like it had a goal to accomplish,” Wang said, “In the moment, you just strive towards that goal without thinking about it. Really, the lines are just a picture of my struggle.” Although he failed to accomplish his original goal, the final piece was nothing short of a success. “Hualien White Lighthouse,” won Wang first place at the 2017 Taipei Art Awards, making him the youngest artist to achieve such a feat.
Since “Hualien White Lighthouse,” Wang has completed a variety of art projects, the most recent of which was exhibited at Keelung Ciao 2020. The work, Layer upon Layer—hills, distribution centers, fishing nets, fish cargo, birds, ports (一層層 -丘陵，集散地，漁網，漁貨，鳥，港口), was exhibited on a loading dock by a fish market. From afar, it looks like a shipment of fresh fish—Styrofoam boxes piled and grouped together, with fish labels on the side, and shriveled leaves crammed between. But upon closer inspection, it is clear that there are no fish in the containers. Apart from the natural saltiness of being near the sea and the slight fishiness from the nearby market, the boxes don’t smell like fish. Inside the boxes where slithering tails of fish should be, the viewer is met with hard cement. And suddenly, these Styrofoam boxes are no longer fish containers but buildings, and as their arrangement is reconsidered, a city skyline is revealed.
“It is a contradictory idea—the temporality of the boxes with the stability of the architecture,” Wang said, “What appears to be a shipment of fish waiting to be loaded and shipped off is actually a collection of cement structures. The juxtaposition is really interesting to me.”
Temporality was one of the first things Wang noticed when he came to Keelung. He lived by the harbor for 2 months in preparation for the exhibit. “It is a temporary place where boats come in and out, and where fishnets get strewn, waiting to be picked up again. Nothing stays, everything is just waiting to be moved somewhere else, much like Keelung itself,” Wang elaborated. Keelung is a city of great historical significance. It played an important role during the Opium War and also during the Japanese colonial era in Taiwan as one of the island’s major commercial harbors. Marks of its past can still be seen today. “You can see it in its architecture. The pillars, the bricks, all might’ve been here since the colonial era,” Wang muses. Although Layer upon Layer was completed in months, rather than decades, Wang’s creative use of natural forces mimics this passage of time.
“I fed pigeons a lot so they would get used to my presence,” Wang explained, “I wanted them to be around the art after it was done.” However, he never expected the pigeons to step on the wet cement he had poured in his Styrofoam boxes. “I didn’t plan it!” he admits, “they just stepped all over.” Unplanned or not, the effect is impressive. Pigeon footprints stacked on top of one another, like the occasional paw print on a cement path, make the cement boxes look like they’ve been on the loading dock this entire time.
Wang also experimented with fallen leaves. He placed leaves on the boxes and found that after the rain has soaked them through, their brown juice would stain the Styrofoam, leaving marks reminiscent of the rust that seems to color every wall in the humid and rainy city. “Sometimes the wind would blow the leaves away, leaving only the stain,” Wang said. Taking advantage of natural forces, Wang successfully created a weathered appearance that blends Layer upon Layer perfectly with its backdrop, Keelung.
Working outdoors also had its challenges. “I was working during July and the heat was unbearable in the morning. So, I had to wait until 4 to 5 pm every day to work,” Wang explained, “Sometimes I worked until midnight.” But for Wang, Layer upon Layer was one of the most fulfilling projects he’s done. “Practically, it was probably the most physically challenging project I’ve undertaken. But emotionally, it was the most relaxed and the happiest I’ve been creating a piece,” Wang said, “It felt like I was on vacation. I get to play in the mornings and then work in the afternoon. I ended up swimming in the ocean a lot.”
Wang’s creative process is about constant evolution. “I never know what the end result will be like and I’m curious myself. This makes me motivated to finish,” Wang said, “I always give myself a lot of time but somehow, I always work until the last minute. And the work changes until the last minute.” These “last-minute decisions” have proven to elevate his work. The leaves, for example, were only placed between the boxes on the second to last day before Layer upon Layer was exhibited. “I don’t think there is a definite “finished” work.” Wang explained, “There might be a “finished” phase when the work has reached a certain level of completeness and is exhibited, but I find that they continue to evolve after.” For Wang, this extension does not necessarily mean a literal altercation of the work but rather, a continuation of its themes. A layering, if you will, of new ideas on top of old ones. Whether this means reading up more on the history behind a city or living in a lighthouse for a summer, Wang’s work never stops progressing and often exceeds its material confines. “I often find the responses I get about my work a lot more fulfilling than the actual work itself,” Wang said. His constant evolution is not stopping anytime soon and there is no one more excited to see where these layers take him than Wang himself.
Judy Chiu is a rising junior at Columbia University studying East Asian Language and Cultures. She was a contributing journalist for Naive Magazine, which is based in Barcelona. Her articles focus on fashion and culture, with a focus on East Asia. She is currently based in Taipei.
Photo credits: Courtesy of 林科呈、陳姵慈 (Lin Ke-Chen, Cheng Pei-Ci)