Accomplishing a Forest

Written by Chen Horng-Yi

Associate Professor in the Doctoral Program in Art Creation and Theory,

Tainan National University of the Arts


Featuring a rich, multi-layered artistic vocabulary, the landscape series Accomplishing a Forest makes us feel that the artist Una Ursprung has already walked into another “forest.” In fact, her earlier landscapes are more or less influenced by Neo-expressionism and Transavantgarde, while its representational shapes, imaginary scenery, and symbolic images all reflect the pleasure of painting. However, as a Taiwanese artist growing up in the early 2000s, Ursprung never limits herself with the convention of German Expressionism or the Italian social and art history, and such an artistic expression thus allows her a greater freedom, especially the technique of automatism which makes her works even more unrestrained.

We often believe that art, to avoid the risk of being self-referential, should either point at the history or criticize the society. However, Ursprung’s artworks create a robust and extensive resonance among us. Even though it adopts the Neo-expressionist vocabulary, it represents Neo-expressionism without referring to the related social movements. In other words, we could say that the artist has intentionally chosen the form of Neo-expressionism as a way to return to the essence of painting. Like a performance embodying the shared language and collective emotions of a whole generation, her artistic vocabulary, and visual style seem to point at the heart of the subject. The 1970s in Taiwan was known for its economic boom as well as the political turbulence. The conflicts during that period thus encouraged the Taiwanese localization movement and led to the popularity of the campus folk songs. The protests and the consequential lifting of Martial Law in the 1980s shattered the social stratification, thus bringing hope to the public. When the party of the 1990s, where Wild Lilly Student Movement and other transitional justice campaigns became the spotlight of the show, came to an end, Taiwan in the twentieth-century had nothing to celebrate but the nostalgia for economic growth in the past. The labor-contracted employment greatly applied in the Neo-liberalist industries transferred the last bit of financial gain, if there was any, to the workers employed by oversea factories. Consequently, Taiwan’s economic growth was stalling and the whole society gradually lost the dynamics. The entire generation seemed to live an abundant life, but it was a life without a future to hope for. A brave one like Ursprung who dared to dream thus decided to depart and to search for her party.


The Feast

Her first stop was Paris. Paris at that time was no longer a feast as it used to be in the time of Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961) and Henry Miller (1891-1980). Here, the stage setting had not been removed yet, but the party was over. The splendid glory of yesterday seemed to fade away, as it became an intersection where the dancers lingered without the heart to say goodbye, joined by the late comers attracted by the fame in the past. They stood aside, forming a circle like flâneurs who temporarily stopped by. Without fireworks, champagne or a sound of music, except for the reverberations which had not died out yet. What remained here was the self-satisfying fantasy attached to space itself through an illusionary nostalgia and the intentionality to connect the misconnected time and space – and it was in Paris where she nourished. Later, she went to Brittany, from Quimper and Finistère, and returned to Taiwan before she made another trip to Switzerland. Her frequent travel not merely enriched her artistic expressions but also revealed the unique essence of an artist. After leaving Paris, she decided to move to Finistère and started to name herself “La flâneuse du Finistère.” The name Finistère, a department in Brittany, means “the end of the earth.” By naming herself “the flâneur at the end of the earth,” the artist subconsciously reveals her desire to travel to the end of the world. It brings us to a discussion that, according to many scholars of cultural studies, the real Nature has no longer existed in a world of enlightenment if we take this world as a text, just like the fact that idea of “the faraway land” no longer exists in this globalized world. The artist, driven by a complex described by Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) as “das Unheimliche” (the uncanny), has always been looking for “the faraway land” which is unfortunately forever absent. More interestingly, the subject when we talk about “das Unheimliche” is not merely the subject of “alienation” in Sigmund Freud’s Modernism since, in this world we live in, the whole world is alienated, including every system or operation it has. Therefore, no matter it is from Taipei to Paris, from Paris to Quimper, or even again to Finistère, the departure will not be completed unless we arrive at the end of somewhere – a symbol of “the faraway land.”

Ursprung visualizes the journey into a poetic ethnography. Her reason for departure is not to make a checklist of tourist attractions, but personally observe and experience the life of the faraway land until she becomes one of the locals. Meanwhile, she maintains the motivation, like how Charles Baudelaire’s (1821-1867) voyage is to escape from the boredom of the city or Arthur Rimbaud’s (1854-1891) hallucinatory and anesthetic Le Bateau Ivre, an expression blending the forms of Romanticism and Symbolism, with a bit of Paul Gauguin’s (1848-1903) and Paul Verlaine’s (1844-1896) metaphors, and the layback rhythm in Claude Debussy’s (1862-1918) music. Ursprung transforms the Neo-expressionist foundation into intuition, while the bouquet is intentionally flavored with a rich Symbolist vocabulary, accentuated by a poetic language as seen in Rimbaud’s immersive colors and syncopations.


Forest

The forest has been a recurring theme throughout Ursprung’s artistic practice. We can speculate that for her the forest is probably a metaphor of the feast. “Since the beginning of my artistic career, I have focused on depicting landscapes, especially forests and trees. Throughout every stage of my creative development, the forests reflected my life experiences at the time,” says Ursprung. However, we can divide her exploration of the forest into different stages: from Taipei to Paris, Brittany, and her return to Taiwan after graduation. Her forest in both Brittany and Taiwan is more like an object, or “the Other” as of how we understand it. According to Ursprung, “during these two periods, I expressed my ideas through fantasies.” When she came to Switzerland, she seemed to walk into a forest and in some way shared the subject’s position with the forest. She explains that “I wish the landscape from this particular period would appear neutral, with fewer symbols, references, or metaphors.” Unlike the artist overwhelmed by emotions when she departed from Taiwan with beginner’s honesty and courage in search for her dream, she in this stage became mature, she returned to the origin, to life, to painting, and to the real forest.

The artist further tells us that “the life in Switzerland is serene, free from the overwhelming emotions. I have some spare feelings to blend in with the life surrounding me by following the laws of Nature and returning to the innocence. I believe that Nature defines our interpersonal relationship, and the philosophy of ‘doing nothing’ (translator’s note: an important Taoist teaching also known as ‘non-action’ or ‘non-doing,’ which promotes that we should behave in a completely natural way without forcing things to happen) is my ideal lifestyle, and it is also why I choose to paint landscapes.” Under such a condition, she enjoys a greater freedom to deal with her media and techniques to study the spatial and visual experiences in her painting. Meanwhile, she adopts abstract lines in a more direct way to represent the sense of air produced by the dual spaces. The vocabulary of her paintings thus becomes more authentic and closer to the essence of Nature.


Spray Paint

Her artistic style is full of experimental vocabulary. When she is walking into the forest, she “sees what people believe they saw” (et j'ai vu quelquefois ce que l'homme a cru voir) , and such a feeling is expressed with her spray paint. “Spray-painted abstract lines and color blocks resemble secretive texts hovering over the surface of the oil painting, freezing a fleeting moment of floating bugs, leaves, light, and dust in a forest,” says Ursprung. The use of spray paint creates multiple meanings. In addition to its aesthetic conflict, the text-like symbols in the image visualize the spiritual depths of the landscape, especially the subtle delicacy and intriguing evocation that the artist has experienced. Meanwhile, to spray paint a finalized landscape painting allows us to identify the artist’s gestures and body movements. A simple action of spray painting, free and fast, immediately transforms the spirit of the landscape, which is completed in a slow, time-consuming, stroke-by-stroke process. The artist creates the schizophrenia-like scenery intervening between the two completely different images, while the hidden message is thus unburied. According to Ursprung, to spray paint is not to destroy, but to complete, since it spotlights the brushwork and juxtaposes the artists’ multiple selves to complete the landscape.

Either covered or revealed, the spray-painted image unfurls the internalized automatist techniques. The visual message of the landscape has never collapsed during the spray-paint process. Instead, from outward to inward, it allows the brushwork which embodies the physical and subconscious message hidden deeply inside the surface as it also transforms and reconstructs a new visual message. The forest in the previous landscape paintings used to be quiet, but the artist has a restless heart. The presumably serene forest is the forest in the faraway land. The artist is perhaps traveling on a train, or in a visually faraway land which only exists at this particular moment, and then she catches a glimpse of a forest. The presumably serene forest thus provides an exit for the restless viewers. She needs the faraway land, the idea of the Other, to be her comfort. From the image, we see the artist’s uncanniness, as well as the various syndromes of Malaise derived from it, or we can say, a sense of melancholic helplessness resulted from civilization as how Freud puts it. It is because what she sees and what she paints is nothing more than the fragments of the forest.

However, in this case, the landscape in the oil painting and the spray-painted forest intensify and translate the visual tension of the images. We seem to follow the artist to walk into the real forest, a forest invisible to the others. The artist enters the forest, blends in with it, and sees the real forest which is energetic, active, and dynamic. The forest is no longer the reverse of civilization or the escape from one’s anxiety, but a natural essence. The spontaneity that the artist has been repressing is thus energized. The artworks return to the essence, to the origin, and to the self. “Forms” can no longer prison them nor cover the essence. There will be no paradoxical analysis to presume the inner layers of the works, except for the honesty to render the Nature and the self through the forest.

The brushwork elaborates. It begins with the oil-paint strokes, followed by the spray paint, while the both form a duet. To narrate and to describe, the spray paint uncovers the invisible message of the forest. The once fragmented forest is ultimately completed here. It is a journey which begins with the techniques, through the knowledge of the concepts, the search for an ideal place for the self, to the completion of a whole forest. As a viewer, no matter it is spiritual or about the image itself, you need to read and to listen. Following the artist, you will find yourself in that luxurious forest.


1 Arthur Rimbaud, “Le Bateau Ivre,” 1871.




Forest, Where the Poetry Resonates (and a Short Letter to U)

Written by Chang Li-Hao

Art critic, independent curator


Nature is a temple where living pillars Let escape sometimes confused words; Man traverses it through forests of symbols That observe him with familiar glances.

Like long echoes that intermingle from afar In a dark and profound unity, Vast like the night and like the light, The perfumes, the colors, and the sounds respond.

─ Correspondences by Charles Baudelaire

Walking out of the residence and crossing the usually traffic-less street, a while later you arrive at a trail, where you continue walking uphill to enjoy the panorama. The view is asymmetrically divided into two sections. The left is a sweep of grassland, flat and wide, scattered with herds of sheep or buffalos grazing. As they move around, the neck bells clink at various pitches to play a pleasant melody. The right half, slightly higher than the rest, is occupied by lines of beautiful low-rise houses which perfectly blend in with the landscape. You may hear the joyful sounds coming from inside the houses of happy children playing around. It is a metaphor of the happiness all of us are longing for.

The Poetic Extension of Maison

If we stand in the middle of the road to look into the distance, we will see the end of the wandering path, where a forest rises at the border of the field as if it did not exist here but in another universe. The forest is very deep, almost a confusing and terrifying darkness (even under the sunny sky) for those standing outside and gesturing to figure out the directions. Here, the only thing we can do is to follow our hearts and to explore it with comfort and ease as we examine the self-sufficient microcosm. Or, perhaps it is only when we try to touch and listen to the inner softness of life can we realize that the view inside is so different from what we have seen outside. As one walks in alone, before the eyes get used to the surroundings, the wind has already brought the whole forest to life. At some particular moment, the rustling of the dancing branches, the light penetrating the canopy of the forest, and the shadows of a flock of birds flying across the sky unexpectedly structure a picture of enigmatic signs, waiting for you to pick it up and bring it home together with the dried leaves and pine needles on the ground.

It began some time ago when you settled down at one place, and you often walked to the nearest forest alone. It was like a mysterious but yet necessary ritual. From the northern part of the tropical island where you came from, to Paris, a city known for its art and romance, and again to a small mountain town in Switzerland at an altitude of 1000 meters above sea level with a population of merely thousands of people, the ritual was always the same. It was nothing like the adventure of Tadao Kano (1906-1945) who came all the way from Japan, crossed the sea, and spent his whole life taking field trips from one forest to another all over Taiwan. Here, he fearlessly climbed the impossible mountain cliffs to collect samples and data of various trees, plants, butterflies, insects, birds, and even the native livings in the mountains for future identification and documentation. His field research thus became a valuable academic database in the area of biology, anthropology, and ethnography. It was not the flâneur in Charles Baudelaire's (1821-1867) poems who was imaginative but always lonely that he could only walk into the crowd to search for the infinite pleasure. For you, a forest is an odd place in time and space that is between a city and wild mountains, one’s home and the faraway land, and the enclosed world and an open space. Sometimes, she is messier than a city, but at the same time, she has her own rules to follow, like the laws of Nature. Although it is impossible to identify everything we see in a forest, our presence in it embodies the conflicting but yet instinctive behaviors of exploring the unknown land and returning to one’s home. The repetitive journey from a strange place to a mysterious but also familiar one allows us to open up imagination and to dig into the essence of our existence, while it has ultimately become the most fascinating theme for you.

A New Home for Art-making

Therefore, the forest is no longer the labyrinth to prison of Minotaur but a poetic extension of maison, a new home where you can take a break from the journey to rest your artistic soul. Even the inside is still occupied by furnishings you are not familiar with, and every time you walk around, you feel like you are about to hit against a hidden surprise floating in the air as it waits for you. Indeed, you know that visualizing its image by narrating, outlining, or depicting will trap you with the convention to imitate nature or to reproduce the external appearance. It is not the intention of your art-making. Honestly speaking, nowadays an artistic practice like painting with such a long history is even more valuable than ever because it encourages an intellectual, and even philosophical, thinking about what art is. To summarize, the progress of painting is to explore its essence. Therefore, you create a daring expression in your works through the use of graffiti – a typical urban scene on buildings which unfortunately does not have a good reputation. The random spray-paint on the multi-layered images immediately expands the scope of the works, creating two contradictory dimensions in time and space. By alienating yourself from your artistic training, you balance the violent conflict between the two media and pacify the spiritual transition from the outside world to the personal feelings inside. No matter it is intentional or not, you have found a home the implicit personality belongs to, and the ambiguous and distorted significance (perhaps more like a myth) thus emerges. Meanwhile, it is also like a tribute to the manifesto by Gutai, a post-war artistic group in Japan, that “Gutai art neither alters the material nor distorts it; instead, it allows the artist and the materials to reach the height of the spirit.”

For viewers, it may be too difficult to spot the subtle references in your new works. In these paintings, you seem to imply the diverse vegetation in different seasons or at different altitudes, but you do not connect them with the familiar visual images. Instead, you allow us to identify the mysterious fragrance and the shivering light which subtly embraces everything, creating an immersive feeling as it tries to evoke the particular moment that we have once physically experienced. In the end, we linger in the trance of the call-and-response resonance, pulling and rejecting until we pick up the key of the image belonging to ourselves. In the structured universe of the image, we return to the dream-like hallucination to thoroughly enjoy the nuanced and perfectly paced retentissement where a splendid butterfly flies away from right in front of the eyes, or the shooting star penetrates the quiet night as it falls in the distance. The forest will be completed until we walk out of the embraces of the trees and stand firm again under the pure sunshine.