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In the Studio with Salomé Wu

Chinese artist Salomé Wu examines themes of otherworldliness through translations of mythology, time and fragility. We met with Salomé to tell us more about her artistic practice, inspirations, and how she began her journey.

When did you first begin to see yourself as an artist?

My definition of artist is someone who tries to find truest response to the irrationality of the world. In my case, I respond to the world in writing, painting, and singing to find answers that would make sense for me. I first asked questions about why things are the way they were when I was a child. Innocent questions like what happen to leaves when they fall from the tree. Inevitably, I found all the answers are either cruel or suspicious. I began to think deeply about the world around me; it taught me about time, beauty, and gratitude.

Where are you from, and what was your upbringing like? How has this impacted your work?

I spent my first 14 years in a small town located in the Northeastern part of China. I spent my time growing up with my grandparents; my grandfather was a physics teacher at the University of Science and Technology, Liao Ning. My grandmother was a researcher at the same institute, and she made significant discoveries in chemistry while she was there. My grandmother loved traditional Chinese painting and crafts, and she encouraged me to learn writing, drawing, and calligraphy. 

I spent a lot of time in art studios and calligraphy workshops in my youth, surrounded by tutors I admire. In my recent works, I have noticed how years of calligraphy practice influenced the fluidity of my brushwork in my Oil Painting practice. 

I moved to Singapore on my own to study at an international school at the age of 14. It was a wonderful opportunity for me; for the first time, I was able to immerse myself in another culture. Though I had difficulty dealing with moving to a new country and dealing with mental health issues on my own, I quickly became reliant on alcohol at the age of 15. I lived a bit of nomadic life for a year until being asked to go to Japan to live with my mother (she moved there when I was a young kid). I dealt with difficult emotions and alcohol for a long while throughout my teenage years. On the positive side, it was a very progressive and inspiring experience as an artist. As soon as I recovered, I found sources of expressions in my memories. I remembered a lot of my support was taken away from me at the time: friendships, stability, and the ability to maintain a functional life. It was fuelled with sadness and loneliness. Since I had been drinking alcohol, with its chaotic nature, I found myself through many traumatic experiences, which affected me a lot and my works. 

In my work, I tend to explore elements of human conditions and narratives in response to trauma and loss. I gave my experiences an identity. I write about them in the form of metaphors, transform an emotion into something physical. It is a way to separate myself from those memories about trauma and loss. As the years go by, I still find my past lingers around in the works that I create. From time to time, I remind myself that what Nietzsche said once, You must have chaos within you to give birth to a dancing star.” I became more resilient and in control of my inner world. I gained an interest in learning psychology, philosophy. It offered me new ways of looking at the world.

Paint us a picture of your artistic journey. Have you gone through the traditional route of art school, and what was your experience? 

When I turned eighteen, I decided to start doing things that always wanted to do. At the time, I became much more collected and had significantly recovered. I moved to Beijing on my own and took on an internship at a fashion studio. I thought I wanted to become a fashion designer at the time, so I was preparing a body of work to apply for universities. I was so preoccupied with making Oil paintings, but at that time, the idea of becoming a Fine Artist felt intimidating. I did not have enough emotional support from the family about the ambition of being an artist. Looking back, it was only the beginning of my artistic journey. 

I got accepted by Central Saint Martins’ Foundation. I started getting a degree specialized in Fashion and Textiles. We did a lot of experiments around large scale drawings with different mediums. I felt connected to materials and textures, So I took on my BA courses at Chelsea College of Art specializing in Print and Textiles Design. During my years studying at University, I learned to verbalize my ideas and be open to other’s ideas. I had a home studio set up when I was living in a warehouse in east London.

Besides spending my days at university, I spent many evenings making Oil paintings and inviting my friends into my flat to discuss my works with them. Someone had told me once that experiences enrich my practice. During my time studying at university, I surrounded myself with many artists and musicians. By living in the warehouse, I got to experience a creative community in my household. Frequently, there were musical and artistic projects happening in the rooms around me. I learned a lot from spending time with my close friends in the same space. I got to understand how a community could inspire people to create. I had a lot of close friendships, and that was the first time I ever experienced the idea of “home.” It nurtured me and fostered a personal sanctuary in my environment, which inspired me to create something that truly represented a process of healing and rebirth. It was an artistic identity I found during my time living there.

What is the message of your work? Are there themes/narratives/purpose? 

My work examines otherworldliness through translations and the ever evolving reinterpretations of mythology. My work is formed from those observations of time, fragility, and the interplay between reality and the unseen. Time in my mind, always in a circular forward movement, represents ending and new beginnings leaving traces in our surroundings. I like to observe mortality in worldly objects, from contemplations on ice melting to flowers withering, then to an illness of a family member. I put my attention on the idea of impermanence, depicting hopes that stem from each end.  I began to use metaphors and symbols composing narratives that carry through my work. I create with the intention that every single piece of work represents a little metaphorical narrative that resonates with my observations and relationships with my environment in the reflection of that moment in time. In a way, it is a bridge channel between the internal world and the external.

Words have been significant in the process of making. My purpose in creating this kingdom was my way of grasping the time. Each piece of work symbolizes each moment that no longer exists in the present reality. Yet, in the kingdom and imaginary space, there’s an ever-evolving narrative that challenges the idea of time as each piece that intertwines with the other moves in a linear motion towards the future.

I began to write more and more by using metaphors and symbols in the exploration of fragility as I weaved them into a piece of mythology in the representation of the fictional imagined identity “a little girl in a blue dress collects teardrops to save the dying sunflowers” and her journey through a “Kingdom” which is an imagined space that I create. In this space, I would like to find ways to excite my viewers with the idea of pain, fragility, and danger, to find sources of sublime in my work. Like Burke mentioned, “When pain and danger at a certain distance, they are delightful as we everyday experience.”

However, I plan to manifest these narratives through different forms of expressions across mediums. I picture my narratives with the emotions of “Joyful Sad,” I came across with this term when I was reading a book called “Blue Mythology” since then, I have been using this word to describe what I create, Like what Joni Mitchell writes in her song;

Blue, here is a shell for you,

Inside you’ll hear a sigh

A foggy lullaby

“Blue”

Where do they come from? How would you describe your aesthetic? 

I use a lot of Blues. I found myself connected to this color so much that almost most of my works in the past few years have been made of blue, violet, red, and peach. Like the colors of the night, I was drawn to the colors we see just before the sky turns dark when everything is tinted by the color blue. I have always admired the color palette of some romantic artists like Simeon Solomon, Alphonse Osbert. I love the way they depict the nighttime. Soft and mystical. I picture objects with a sense of human emotions and gestures, to compose narratives to examine social conditions, time, fragility.

Who and what are your greatest influences? 

My most significant influences are Gaetano Previati, and his fragile feminine brush works in the depiction of human forms. William-Adolphe Bouguereau’s arrangements in his iconographical works and its relationship with the viewers. Hieronymous Bosch’s “The Garden of Earthly Delights” portraiture of heavenly hellish imagery. Marc Chagall’s romantic color palettes. Contemporary artists Matt Collishaw’s prints of insects and flowers examine the topic of life and death. Yves Klein’s creations in Blue and gold. I have been looking at many emerging artists like George Rouy, Sarah Anstis, James Owens, Antonia Showering.

Gaetano Previati, Mammina, 1908.

Are your works planned? What do you want people to take from your work when they view it? Do you have the audience consciously in mind when you are creating?

From having an idea, to writing about it, to making many sketches to visualize my thoughts, then testing out the compositions and imagining the fantastical way to deliver the narratives. I hope, through my work, that people would experience the kind of emotion that doesn’t usually occur to them, yet is familiar like “joyful sad,” or “grief yet delightful.” I’d like to have my audience be immersed in the narratives and take a moment to allow themselves to look inwards and find the meanings that would make sense for them. Allow it to be a mirror for them.

What events in your life have mobilized change in your practice/aesthetic? How has your art evolved? Do you stick to one medium? Do you experiment? Do you see any parameters for your work?

I think the most significant time that changed my practice was when I lived in the warehouse. Even though I was surrounded by lots of people, I still spent some time in complete solitude, in my room meditating, writing, and making art. I spent a lot of time looking inward and healing. That healing process offered me a new way of interacting with the world. I was lucky to study textile design. I was able to work on some conceptual ideas and tested boundaries across different disciplines. I was supported by my contemporaries and tutors to challenge my thoughts. They helped me from working very conceptually to experimenting with all different materials and scales that I never felt confident to work with, such as working in 3-D forms, installations, projections. I continue to write narrative poems and continue to make more paintings. They also helped me transform thoughts into ideas that facilitated my musical project,  “Ceremonial Collection.” There I played a role as a visualization of the fictional identity in my “Kingdom.” I work with many talented musicians. The music we wrote fused with the narratives that paralleled the stories in my “Kingdom.” It feels like I’m never limited by any possibilities and assumes that I can express my narrative through different forms of expression. I am excited about the direction my practice is taking me, and I would like to keep an open mind to the possibilities.

What are your ideal conditions or catalyst for creating a good” piece of work?

For me, space and a mood determine the quality of my work a lot. I like to decorate my studio and put on delicate music. With all the beautiful things surround me, I am inspired. It is a space almost coherent with the narratives. As I am creating new works, I imagine that my body is within the stories to unfold so I could travel in the tales. I learned a lot about Paula Rego’s process of making and her way of setting the scene in her studio, almost like a theatre backstage with puppets and composed her stories with the environment. As she said, she belongs in her studio.

What are your goals for the future? (Projects, collaborations)

I would like to work more with a much larger scale on canvas and silks. I would like to work with different textile materials. I’d like to have the guidance of a teacher.  I want to carry on with storytelling through many other disciplines such as Video Art and Sculptures. I have the ambition to perform on stage with my musical project “Ceremonial Collection.” I hope to infuse my art practice into music. As I continue to unfold the narratives of this imagined space, I’d like to make props and stages to facilitate this project.

How has your art practice been affected by self-isolation?

Surprisingly, I became more productive and more creative in response to this pandemic. I spend most of my time planning a new body of works. I am experimenting with different techniques, mediums, and color schemes. I am also revisiting some of the narratives I have written in the past. Now I am exploring them with a different perspective concerning what is happening with the world now. I am excited to see the new opportunities, reflections, and chances to develop my artistic abilities through being in isolation.

Are you creating new works while social distancing?

I am challenging myself to do things differently by working on smaller scales and working with mediums that I do not often work with before. Though, now, I am making a few oil paintings as a continuation of my previous narratives. I am planning to learn skills relating to videos because I would like to find ways to bring the stories in the oil paintings to life with movement.

How are you staying creative?

I still enjoy being outside, observing the change of the season, and being around nature. Even if it is just a glimpse of the outside world, it helps me to stay connected and focused so that I can create more. However, I try to spend my time reading and learning new things. I try to take things slowly and reflect. I also look at online galleries to get inspired by other artists who have transformed their experiences in isolation into something beautiful.

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