Tsai Shih Hung: Exercises in the Digital World

"The cloud of doughnut and black submarine," 2012, acrylic on canvas, 162 x 97 cm.

In partnership with 18th Street Arts Center 18th Street Arts Center is an artists' residency program that provokes public dialogue through contemporary art-making.


During the daytime, Tsai Shih Hung is a strict art teacher in an elementary school in Taiwan. At night, he transitions into a creative artist expressing what he feels and sees in society through his paintings. His artworks are full of the contradictions and complexities of life. "My works are my conscience responding to different incidents that happen in society," Tsai says. "They never tell lies."

Tsai is currently a visiting artist in residence at 18th Street Arts Center, with a solo exhibition opening on September 6 alongside two other solos by resident artists Miljohn Ruperto and Yukako Ando. His residency and exhibition are supported by the Ministry of Culture, Taiwan, and Taiwan Academy Los Angeles. Tsai earned an MFA from Taipei National University of the Arts in 2006. He has won several awards including ART TAIPEI MIT and Art Tainan in 2013, and the Kaohsiung Award in 2012. The Ministry of Culture has supported Taiwanese artists in residence at 18th Street annually since 1999, providing artists with opportunities for dialogue and cultural exchange in Los Angeles.

"Ruins" and "abundant" are the vibrant words Tsai uses to describe his works. In his eyes, human life is destroyed by the use of technology and absorption into a digital world apart from real life. "As smart phones are becoming popular, people can access the Internet or other entertainments easily at any time. But our sense of feeling is actually vanishing at the same time," he says. "Although people sit next to each other, they do not communicate. The distance between individuals grows larger and longer." Though he admits he is also guilty of indulging in social media, he would like to use his artistic canvas as a way to show the world his observations about the ironies of technology. He paints in such a way that the painting becomes a screen reminiscent of smart phones and computers.

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In the past few series of his works, Tsai's working process has begun with a Google search. "I enter keywords such as 'war.' Once I find a suitable image, I will draw and copy it into my work. Usually each of my works consists of three or four different groups of images found in the Internet. Sometimes there are even more," he explains. Tsai would like to depict the lives of human beings as being caught in a perpetual state of war; yet without overt violence, in a more contingent state of constant military exercise. Although the images he draws in the paintings look similar, even repetitive, they are not. The subtle differences between images in the artworks, and the loss of distinction between what is real and what is virtual, raise questions for his audience to consider.

"The cloud of doughnut and black submarine" is one of the works in Tsai's recent series of paintings, completed prior to his arrival at 18th Street. A dark color palette, which the artist loves to use, characterizes every painting in this series. In "The cloud of doughnut and black submarine," the two submarines are taken from images Tsai found online and incorporated into his work. The weapons depicted are a metaphor for the digital world. They are extremely high-tech, creating a doughnut cloud that has never been seen in reality.

"Parachute," 2012, Acrylic on canvas, 162 x 97 cm
"Parachute," 2012, Acrylic on canvas, 162 x 97 cm.

"Parachute" is another artwork in this series, in which the scenario of military exercise moves from the ocean to the sky. There are numerous parachutes and aircraft to be found in this image. They represent the information shown by digital media such as 24-hour TV news channels and the Internet. We are being bombarded by information.

Ground exercises appear in "Mind-attack station." As Tsai says, it is just pageantry; war never happens in his work. Although there are missiles to be found, they never hurt anyone. Tsai also invents imagery, such as the "mind-changing machine" which he describes as a metaphor for the effects of technology on the psyche. He says, "There is no such machine in the real world. But the large amount of information and easy access of the digital world are actually changing our minds." All of the imagery here is again inspired by Tsai's online findings.

"Mind-attack station," 2012, acrylic on canvas, 162 x 97 cm
"Mind-attack station," 2012, acrylic on canvas, 162 x 97 cm.

Dispersed throughout these scenes of war and ruin, colorful shooting stars can be found in most of Tsai's paintings. "People will usually make a wish when they see shooting stars pass through the sky. However, when you look closely into my works, the stars are relatively close to the ground and the people. What I want to express is how the digital world brings hope to our life. But at the same time, it brings disasters." There are many people in Tsai's artworks, but their faces are always hidden. According to Tsai, this is because "This is not the particular story of a person." The artist adds, laughing, "This can in turn be a story of you or me."

Tsai cares about social issues, one of which has been the exportation of U.S. beef to Taiwan. This commodity exchange has provoked controversy centered on cases of "mad cow disease" and the use of ractopamine as an additive in animal feed. In 2012, the Taiwanese government chose to import a large amount of its beef from the United States. Because of the contentious nature of the health standards applied to American beef, many Taiwanese felt provoked by this decision, Tsai included. The discontent was exacerbated by media coverage claiming that the beef was safe. He explains, "I am concerned for the development of my society. This is reflected in my paintings."Tsai created the work "Lab.9" to commemorate this incident in Taiwan.

During the first half of his three-month residency at 18th Street Arts Center, Tsai has begun a new series of works centered around the theme of departure. However, the artist would like to keep other details a secret until the work is finished. "Art is always changing, just like my mind," he explains. "Let's wait and see how things play out at the end."

"Lab.9," 2012, acrylic paint on canvas, 80x160 cm
"Lab.9," 2012, acrylic paint on canvas, 80x160 cm.

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