In the early spring of 2007, I was busy helping “VT Artsalon” change operational focus and consumed with work-related worries, when I received an unexpected telephone call from Chen Hui-chiao at IT Park Gallery, letting me know that I had been selected to take a place at the Glenfiddich Artist’s Village program in Scotland. After completing a stint at the ISCP Artists’ Village in New York in 2006 I had not planned to spend any length of time overseas, choosing instead to settle down and live my life in Taipei. But the complexity of the VT project had me constantly on edge and was making it increasingly difficult to focus on my art. I quickly decided that I needed to leave the hustle and bustle of Taipei for a short time to get my head straight and what better place than the Scottish Highlands. Having handed over the “VT Artsalon” project I packed my suitcase and set off for the Glenfiddich plant in Scotland just before Dragon Boat Festival, where I spent the next three months resident in the local artists’ village.
I set off from Taipei, flew to Hong Kong and then London where I caught a flight to Aberdeen. From the airport it was roughly 100km west to Dufftown, population approximately 2,000. Once there I took up residence in a recently renovated two-story, century old building that belonged to the distillery. As I opened the window, the fragrance of fermenting whiskey filled the air and in the distance I could see a building with a distinctive black tapering roof reflected in beautiful duck pond. To one side of this breathtaking natural landscape I could also make out the famous Balvenie Castle. Compared very roughly to geography of Taiwan, an equivalent location would perhaps be Chingching Farm, surrounded by lush green mountains, highland cattle and sheep. Even the weather was similar, the area being a frigid coniferous forest region. Although it was the middle of summer, the temperature was much closer to winter in Taiwan and often even colder.
This summer, the weather in the Scottish Highlands was very erratic, with few days of clear blue skies. In addition, Dufftown was quite remote which made it quite difficult to buy materials and created certain problems in the execution of my pre-arranged filming project. Despite these, the natural landscape awoke in me memories of the past. Perhaps it is normal for segments of memory to rise to the surface of the hippocampus when traveling in a foreign country. In the past when I was up to my eyeballs in work in Taipei, I slept badly, but in Scotland I slept like a baby. But unfortunately I had strange dreams every night, so that in the morning I was often still tired and unable to get out of bed. There was a distillation tank right in front of my room, so the fragrance of whiskey permeated everything, but rather than the intoxicating power of whiskey, it was like a depth-charge, exploding all my long-suppressed unconscious thoughts from over work and mental exhaustion. I even came to wonder whether this beautiful place was inhabited by spirits and if they were somehow helping me heal unresolved issues of the past through my dreams.
On the whole, the artists lived in an atmosphere of harmony and the work they produced was of the highest quality. Glenfiddich CEO Peter Gordon visited the workshops to pay his respects to the participants in person, which highlighted for the artists the passion and respect the company has for art. In fact, the Glenfiddich Artists’ Village might well be the best-funded program of a similar scale anywhere. Over the last two programs each individual has been provided with around ₤7,000, or if we add in plane tickets and material costs comes to more like ₤11,000 and even more with three months rent and utility fees. In short, the artists are treated very well indeed. The organizers made arrangements to visit parts of the distillery that are usually closed to the public, thereby giving us a more comprehensive understanding of the whiskey making process. Vrand ambassador Ludovic Ducrocq also organized a wine tasting event, allowing us to experience the different spirits produced by the Glenfiddich family. I was very much impressed with the attitude of the organizers. They did not interfere in the creative process and even too care of representative of overseas media organizations, so that the artists themselves had just one responsibility – to create pieces of art that reference local natural resources and cultural history. At the end of the three month period, each artist was required to donate one piece to the Glenfiddich Art Foundation collection. I would have to say that Glenfiddich promotes contemporary art with the same determination and drive that it brings to the cultivation of its own brand whiskey and that dedication has already attracted the attention of art circles not only in the UK but across the world.
Although easily mistaken for something of a punk rocker, Andy Fairgrieve was not only in charge of the Artists’ Village he was also the heart and soul of the program. Officially, general organizer of the Glenfiddich Artists’ Village, Fairgrieve was also the leader of a renowned Scottish heavy metal group. Indeed, his responsibilities were so varied that he dealt with artists from around the world and the global media but still had time to drive us from place to place. Despite all the work this involved, Andy never once complained and was very professional. As our designated babysitter he arranged a number of events for the artists; examples include a visit to the traditional Highland Games, listening to the wonderful sound of bagpipe players marching through the streets and a visit to Loch Ness famed home of the Loch Ness Monster. There were also unforgettable outdoor barbeques, where a group of us sat around a camp fire and gazed at the stars and a picture of me jumping into the air when we visited the ancient circle of stones. Andy was busy explaining the story behind the stones to the other artists and was convinced that I had imbibed some kind of magical power from the ancient stones themselves. These events introduced me to the great determination and fortitude of the Picts and also left me with numerous impressions of the natural landscape, local mythology and legends and an idea of how these disparate elements are woven together into the fabric of national culture. As a result, when I started work I found myself unconsciously painting a number of pieces that combined “the Chinese world of painting” and “Scottish patterns” - even I was surprised by how those works turned out.
On reflection, I hadn’t really focused on painting as much since I did my military service, a dozen years or so ago. In the intervening period, I had produced art but at the same time also had to focus on the small necessities of day life. The environment in Taiwan often means there is no guaranteed return for a lot of hard work, forcing people to divide their time and even themselves. Only by physically removing myself did I discover that I had been thus distorted and that exhausted as I clearly was, Scotland offered the perfect place for ample rest and recuperation. It was this that truly made me appreciate the chance for quiet reflection away from the hustle and bustle of my real life. Indeed, only in Scotland did I come to understand the ancient saying; watch the mountains and one’s goals become clear, watch water and feel serenity, only then can one be as free as a floating cloud or wild crane though living in a busy world. Every time I strolled to the ancient castle nearby and pondered the past or walked to town to buy food, I breathed in the lush green hills that surrounded me, sheep, cows, wild rabbits. If not for the sound of passing cars I really could have imagined myself a character in an old pastoral painting.
Because the nights were so peaceful, I often painted until the sun came up. At the same time, the fresh air also helped clear my head so I had a lot of time to just relax and listen to my own inner voice. I used simple brush strokes to depict the details of my life over the last two years; hot springs, brand name tea, mountain climbing, appreciating flowers, playing chess, listening to the waves - all of the things I like doing and the way they make me feel. In producing these works I referred to several distortionist painters (Style Transformed) from the late Ming dynasty that I hold in particularly high esteem and the structure of traditional Chinese landscapes through the ages, combined with my experience of life in that place at that time. The characters in these paintings are largely a combination of cynics and devils, an allusion to the fact that faced with the chaotic social environment in Taiwan today, anything that can be imagined – a made up story about a literati of yore banished to the edges of the known world, rough Indian handmade paper combined with silkworm” strokes, Scottish thistle patterns and blank spaces filled with gold foil, all ultimately depict my own yearning for a secluded place in nature. In this sense, they are a personal diary-type reflection on the times and a reflection of my desire to withdraw from the world of art for many years now.
Although the “Wonderful” series is based on structural diagrams by the ancients, I made decisions about content and color as I painted and the brush strokes changed according to my state of mind and emotions. Between each stroke and only as the gold foil was slowly being added, did I come to truly understand the silent power of a calm mind. In fact I painted a strange landscape the like of which I had never previously imagined. Having once favored the “avant-garde” and considered traditional motifs inadequate, I was surprised to find myself reexamining classical art and finding new possibilities in ancient paintings, just before I turn 40 years of age. Perhaps this reflects some kind of pre-middle age crisis or the desire to escape and be free. I will never forget the first time I climbed to the top of Tapachien Mountain at the age of 18. The stunning sight from the peak has stayed with me for over 20 years and I remember that one of my climbing friends once said to me sooner or later the “mountain” always pays back those who love climbing - perhaps for me it was that indescribable sense of being moved by the mountains of Taiwan. It is in that context that the seclusion of the Scottish mountains indirectly enabled me to produce the “Wonderful” series, pieces that broadly reflect a beautiful utopia that never once disappeared from my heart. Despite the fact that it was drizzling outside, I painted until my fingers were sore and rough, but being able to just pour all of myself into the work was one of those experiences that made it all worthwhile. This is a feeling perhaps best described in the words of a thought provoking Glenfiddich maxim:
A day is a step; a year is a tango.
A day is a tourist; a year is a traveller.
A day is a chance encounter; a year is a love.
A day is a frustration; a year is a melody.
A day is long buff clay; a year is whatever you want to be.
A day is a thought; a year is a philosophy.
A day says crazy; a year says genius.
A day is a dream; a year is an adventure.
Glenfiddich, Every year counts
Some things have to be done constantly for one to gain anything from them. By working every day I came to a profound understanding of these words, namely that in life we encounter things that make us uncomfortable and only self cultivation provides clarity. The paintings I produced during my three months at the Artist’s Village in Scotland perhaps represent just the first few signs of a change in my artistic direction. In contrast, I firmly believe that as long as I maintain an open heart, continue to observe the world around me and work for the realization of certain ideas, then every day I spend on this earth marks a new beginning.