On a rainy September morning eleven years ago, I woke up alone. I’d been in Taiwan for two weeks, and it was my birthday. My roommates had all gone out. No matter; we weren’t close. I hadn’t made any other friends yet.
A beetle stepped gingerly over the textured floral wallpaper in my room. Outside the sliding door that took up another wall was the balcony where my roommates smoked. The rain filled an old Coke can outside, causing the bloated cigarette butts stuffed in it to overflow onto the plastic table. Beyond, gray buildings formed a barricade in the distance. A sticker had been plastered across part of the door. It said “SUPER” In an odd font.
“Super,” I said to myself.
I flicked the beetle but did not kill it, and lolled about in the foreigner flophouse for awhile. It had seen a succession of young men who’d stayed temporarily and who, in successive waves, had left detritus in odd corners. I did not clean it: I was no Snow White.
When it all became too depressing, I decided to take myself out for a birthday dinner at the only Indian restaurant I knew. The samosas were deflated, the lamb rogan josh gummy. The main decorations were old Christmas ornaments taped to the ceiling. Super.
I took the Brown Line MRT partway home, looking down through the rain-mottled window at the streets below. They were beautiful in the way Taiwanese streets could be at night, glistening with headlights, taillights, streetlights and neon lights. People huddled under umbrellas on the sidewalks. The lanes were darker, flanked by dusky buildings, barred windows topped with plastic or tin awnings.
Everyone else has somewhere to go, I sniffed to myself. They all have friends or family or somewhere to be.
I had largely forgotten about this one-act melodrama until last month. I had decided to go to “城市雨言”, an exhibit by an artist by the name of Lin Ching-Che (林經哲), whose work I’d come to admire. The exhibit’s name is something of a pun, mixing yu (雨, or rain) with 語言 (yu yan, or language) and means something like “Urban Rain Language”.
Lin paints impressionistic yet realistic depictions of street scenes, mostly in Taipei, in the rain, at night. The gentility of the watercolors contrasts with the faded grit of Taipei’s streetscapes, and precision of Lin’s brushwork lends depth to the abstract glistening of rainy streets and hazy lights. He depicts Taipei both as a city that is not conventionally attractive and also as a city people can, and do, love.
As my friends wandered around the small gallery, my eyes rested on one painting in particular: 穿梭光雨間 (chuansuo guang yu jian), which translates more or less to Moving in the Space Between Light and Rain.
A dimly-lit lane on a rainy night, flanked by dusky tile-covered buildings, painted from above. Barred windows covered in plastic or tile awnings. A few cars, a lone pedestrian or two. It wasn’t the same lane, but that exact moment on the MRT peering through a tear-stained window was before me again.
It was this emotional sucker-punch that prompted me to seek an interview with Lin and find out more about the concepts behind his work.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Some sections have been translated from Mandarin.)
The places that you paint – are they based on real street scenes?
Well, they’re half real, half imagination. It’s a mix. In my imagination, [I might change] the structure – where to put the building, where to put the cars and trees. And the lights, where to paint the lights, and I change the lights’ colors.
What informed your choice to work in watercolors?
There are a lot of reasons. In the past I’d done oil painting, ink painting. But in the end I found watercolors the easiest and fastest to work with, and [the medium that] works best when painting a rainy city. Because I think, what’s key to my work is that first I decide what I’m going to paint, and then I choose the material that suits what I want to create.
How do you choose which scenes [to paint]? For example, the ones that are crosswalks – how do you decide you’re going to do this one?
I start with the environment I’m familiar with, around my house or studio….the places that evoke the most emotion for me. As for what emotion, I think, regarding Taipei city, the things that influence the environment the most are the rain – it’s raining every day. And there’s a lot of traffic. It’s very bustling. But at night, after the rain, it becomes more relaxed and peaceful….my guiding principle is that to create art, you should start with something you’re familiar with. I’ve never drawn something I’ve never seen.
When I saw the exhibit, I thought one of them really looked like a crosswalk on Dunhua South Road, near where I live now. And one looked like Anju Street, where I used to live.
Yes, one is Dunhua South Road, near Taipei Arena. My studio used to be near there. And I’ve painted Anju Street, but it didn’t make it into the exhibit. And this one [Moving in the Space Between Light and Rain] was the view from my home.
You don’t put the places in the painting’s title? Like ‘Anju Street’ or ‘Dunhua South Road’. It’s based on a real place, but you don’t say [what place it is].
Because I don’t want to tell people where it is. I want to use the places I know and what’s in my head to create a new place. These places, to any person, are not clearly any specific place. Anyone can imagine for themselves where it is, or it could indicate different places to different people. It’s not certain that it’s Dunhua South Road or Anju Street. In fact, it’s not important. It’s only important that I know where it is in my mind. These places are important to me for specific reasons, but they won’t have the same importance to other people. Any person can look at these scenes, and project their own feelings or sentiments onto them. The only thing I hope they will feel when they look at them is that they feel this is in Taiwan. Taipei’s rainy weather, Taiwan’s nightscape, Taiwan’s appearance.
So, some of them have very simple titles, like “Leaves in the Rain” or “The Loner”.
Yes, it’s very simple, but it’s special, because this one – “Leaves in the Rain” (雨葉, yu ye) is a homophone for “Rainy Night” (雨夜, yu ye). So it has two meanings in Chinese. In fact, I think about the titles for a long time. I might take more time to think about the name than I take to paint the painting. For The Loner, that reflects my feelings at the time. I always painted alone in my studio, I was a little lonely, and it rained every day.
So the rain brings out that lonely feeling?
Sometimes. Or sometimes it’s lively. Sometimes it cleans the mind, so it cleans inside and outside.
This one – 城市之泉 – Spring of the City [as in a spring of water]…
This one is a little complicated. I think springs are where energy comes from and this tree is like that kind of spring. Most people don’t notice its existence, but it’s very important to the city. It makes the city beautiful and cleans the air.
That’s a difference between what Taiwanese seem to think of their own city and what foreigners might think. So I think of Taipei as being pretty green – not totally green, but [a lot of areas] have trees, but locals might think their city isn’t green at all.
Yes, it is a little green, but not green enough. We need more trees. In fact I paint a lot of trees, to emphasize their importance….I want to stress how important trees are to a city – they can’t be replaced. So I have another painting titled “Coexist” (共存), because it’s important that the city and trees coexist.
You tend to paint nightscapes – is there a reason why?
There are two reasons. The first is, when I go out, it’s almost always at night. So night, to me, night is the most familiar. The second is, I think Taipei at night evokes more sentiment. I think Taipei during the day, the way it looks, there’s nothing to feel. It’s just hot, dirty, messy but at night, it’s not like that. When you go out, there’s a different feeling. It’s more like poetry. It’s got a more abstract feeling. It’s really different from the day. The night is a stage [as in, a stage for a performance] – there’s more elaboration, more detail. During the day, everything is too clear and flat.
I always find it interesting that many my Taiwanese friends say Taipei is “dirty”, because as a New Yorker, I think Taipei – most of Taipei – is actually quite clean.
Oh, really? Well, I’ve painted a few pieces that show the ground in Taipei. I think they show the unique way the pavement looks here and…well, I think this kind of mistake is only found in Taiwan.
We call that “cha bu duo” (差不多). Close enough.
Yes! But also it’s very interesting. So I wanted to paint it – some special phenomenon that represents Taipei. So everyone who looks at this can think, ‘This is truly Taiwan.’ But where it is isn’t important. This is near my home but it doesn’t matter. Just that it’s Taiwan. That’s why I don’t paint shop signs or give titles, so it’s not too clear. Because it’s not important. That it’s Taiwan is enough.
So what’s your feeling about Taiwan?
Everywhere you go, it’s crowded and small, but it has everything. It’s complete. And every day it changes, Taiwan and Taipei. So it has a lot of feeling, but it’s always changing. Sometimes, the places I paint change later. Some scenes I’ve painted aren’t there anymore. For example, maybe five years ago I painted one building. Now, another building is there. So I think this is interesting. So I record these scenes, that’s what it’s about.
Do you think Taiwan’s changed a lot since you were young?
Yes, it’s changed a lot, from the bottom up. Every year the government’s policies change. The presidents change, the mayors change. And it shows in our buildings, our lives, our shop signs. For example, one painting is from 2012 – but now all of the shop signs have changed. It’s related to how our political landscape changes. So every day you look at Taiwan, it’s different. Some places have gotten dirtier, some have gotten cleaner.
Do you think it’s for the better or for the worse?
Half and half. It balances out.
So, this one – a lot of people would look at this (The Exit of Thought – 思緒的出口) and think [it’s ugly], but you painted it. Why?
It seems like an abandoned place, neglected by everyone. However, it’s very important. It has all these essential elements – air conditioners, drying clothes. It looks very Taiwanese, but also has these things we need – even though people look at it and don’t think it’s very important. So I try to record these important corners of Taiwan. Others might think they’re ugly or dirty, but I try to paint these because these places are a part of my life, and I’ve discovered how important they are as elements of our lives.
[As for the title], this light, and this exit, it reflects my thoughts. The place is very ugly and complicated, but I found a way out, just like my thoughts. Some hope – it’s that kind of meaning.
I noticed in one of your paintings there’s a 7-11, which is the most Taiwanese thing…
It’s very Taiwanese! Of every logo, the only one I paint is 7-11. Because I think 7-11 is a shared global symbol. Everyone can recognize the logo. So it’s the only one. I think it also represents the city. Because to me, 7-11 is always in the city, so 7-11 is what I’ll paint.
Speaking of 7-11 as a symbol of the city, one of the things Taiwanese seem proud of in their cities is that they’re so convenient. Some Westerners like that, for example, I don’t think I can live in another city now. Other Westerners think it’s almost too convenient. What’s your view about the convenience of Taipei – is it a good thing or bad thing?
It’s a good thing. I also can’t imagine living in another place. I’m too used to it – in every studio I’ve had, down below there’s been a 7-11. And there’s always an MRT station. I really can’t live too far away….I think it really is just convenient, there’s no other meaning. It gives me more time to focus on my painting.
It’s very popular to say that Taiwan is ‘The Beautiful Isle’, but most people are talking about the countryside, not the city. Most people think the cities are not that beautiful. I wonder what you think about that.
I think that’s one kind of ‘beautiful’, but the city’s ‘beautiful’ is, to me, more important. I have more of a connection with it, so I am more sentimental about it. The beauty of nature is something any artist can paint, it’s not that unique. Another thing is, I feel a bit distant from the countryside because I’ve never lived there, so I don’t know what it feels like. But the city – I see its beauty every day so it’s more meaningful for me.
So, this – [穿梭光雨間 (chuansuo guang yu jian) – Moving in the Space Between Light and Rain] – is the painting that drew me into your work. We talked about it before, but I’m always interested in the difference between the artist’s intentions and what the viewer sees when they look at the painting. So I thought I’d ask you what you see in this work, then I’ll share what I see.
This one is from my home. I first saw this scene maybe twenty-something years ago. Looking out every day, this is everything I’d see. But it changes every day. This is from a photograph I took five years ago, and it’s already changed. It represents me – it’s where I began, because it’s my home. So it’s the most important to me. It also represents Taipei – within it are all of the things you see in Taipei and Taiwan. I don’t know what other people see when they look at it, but when for me, this is the most important.
“Well, when I first arrived in Taiwan,” I replied, “I had a really lonely birthday. I took the MRT home, the brown line where you can see in the streets, just like this. And I looked into a street like this – it had all the same things, very Taiwanese – and I felt very lonely. I thought, every person in those cars is going somewhere to people they know, their friends or their family and I was…not. But now, eleven years later, I discover this painting and I think now, I’m like that pedestrian and…”
“…you’re going to see a friend.”
“Yes. Before that scene would have symbolized how alone I was. Now it symbolizes Taiwan, that I live here now. So it’s interesting that you painted it to represent…”
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