Art a Social Responsibility, Taiwanese Mountain Trash Artist Says

Art a Social Responsibility, Taiwanese Mountain Trash Artist Says
Photo Credit: Chen Sheng-wen (陳聖文)

What you need to know

'I keep telling myself my art isn’t just about being different on the outside. I want people to know the art I create is to make a difference in society.'

A series of embroidery featuring endangered animals from Taiwan have awed audiences at Art Osaka 2016 this month. However, besides the exquisite craftsmanship, what stands out is the fact that all 15 pieces are made from trash left in Taiwan's mountains.

Chen Sheng-wen (陳聖文), 23, was one of the two artists who represented YIRI ARTS, an art gallery based in Taiwan, at Art Osaka 2016. This was Chen’s first time showing his work in the contemporary art fair and the third time for YIRI ARTS.

“The art market in Japan is very small and isolated compared to the global market,” Chen told The News Lens International. “Though many people come to the art fair, very few of them leave with making a purchase.”

The young artist says the past two years have taught the gallery how to grasp the Japanese taste for art. The craftsmanship of his smaller sized pieces was the reason YIRI ARTS decided to showcase Chen’s work in the art fair this year, and most of the series has sold.

But Chen’s pieces tell a story beyond art and skill.

“This series wasn’t made specifically for the art fair, but it was the story I wanted to tell through the pieces that gave me the chance to meet, and eventually work with, the owner of YIRI ARTS,” says Chen.

Photo Credit: Chen Sheng-wen (陳聖文)

Turning trash into art

During his senior year as a student in visual communication design at National Yunlin University of Science and Technology, Chen was required to exhibit at the annual Young Designers' Exhibition (YODEX) for his graduation project. It was at the exhibition where Chen came across a group of Ling Tung University students incorporating mountain clean-ups in their work.

“When all the other hundreds of students were displaying projects on the creative industry and simple pleasures, the issue brought up in this group’s exhibition caught my attention,” says Chen. “I was moved by how a group of students my age was willing to do something about the environmental issues in Taiwan in their own way.”

Chen got to know more about the students and eventually decided to create a series of embroidery — a hobby he took up as a senior in college — to raise awareness of the environmental issues on the island. He chose to use trash as his working material and climbed his first mountain in Taiwan, Beidawu mountain (北大武山), in a three-day mountain clean-up.

“The mountain is around 3,100 meters high and I was worried that my physical condition wouldn’t allow me to handle the climb, but it's only when you go up into the mountains that you can fully understand their beauty,” says Chen. “You feel especially sad when you see the trash hidden underneath the soil on the mountains.”

Chen started working on the series in June, right after graduation, and the owner of YIRI ARTS contacted him after coming across photos of his work posted on Facebook.

The artist says that while many people are aware of the garbage issue on beaches, very few know that the same problem exists in mountains. Chen chose to feature endangered animals in Taiwan because he believed they were something Taiwanese of all ages were more familiar with and would attract their attention to the issue more easily.

So far the series has included the leopard cat, Formosan black bear, Mikado pheasant, Formosan macaque, whited-faced flying squirrel among ten other endangered species.

“Garbage doesn’t belong on the mountains, so I don’t just take the trash I want with me, but rather I take as much as I can and then choose what I want to work with from what I have collected,” says Chen.

The artist plans on continuing to work on the series because “the environment issue won’t disappear with just these few pieces of art.” Chen says it will be an on-going problem and he hopes to keep raising awareness of the issue through the series.

“I hope more and more people will get to know not me, but this series and the story behind it,” says Chen. “Because to me the story a piece is telling is more important than artistic skill.”

Photo Credit: Chen Sheng-wen (陳聖文)
Chen and a group of 22 to 23-year-olds during a mountain cleanup on Hehuan Mountain this past weekend.
Photo Credit: Chen Sheng-wen (陳聖文)
"Garbage can be found hidden everywhere in the mountains," says Chen.

'Artists can’t ignore the social responsibility they hold'

Chen says he has plans for a few future projects at the moment, which all involve putting together different materials that convey a certain social issue and hold social responsibility.

He says artists today need critical thinking abilities and should not work to meet the expectations of art institutions or competitions.

“I think artists can’t ignore the social responsibility they hold,” says Chen. “Aside from cultivating their thinking abilities, artists need to learn how to present what they are thinking in an art form.”

“I keep telling myself my art isn’t just about being different on the outside. I want people to know the art I create is to make a difference in society,” says Chen. “This is the most important lesson I’m giving myself at this point and what I expect of my work.”

Photo Credit: Chen Sheng-wen (陳聖文)
Leopard cat.
Photo Credit: Chen Sheng-wen (陳聖文)
Mikado pheasant.
Photo Credit: Chen Sheng-wen (陳聖文)
Taiwan bulbul.
Photo Credit: Chen Sheng-wen (陳聖文)
Formosan black bear.
Photo Credit: Chen Sheng-wen (陳聖文)
Collared Scops Owl.

First Editor: Edward White
Second Editor: J. Michael Cole