Using traditional Taiwanese skills passed down by her mother...
... textile artist ChiaShan Lee creates knitted sculptures out of both British and Chinese newspaper. As a result, her work is imbued with both personal and political themes that resonate with the viewer.
Could you tell me about your background - did early experiences influence your journey into craft?
I have been fascinated with crafts since I was a little girl, and my mum taught me knitting, crochet, sewing and embroidery skills. I was lucky to have an art department in my junior high school, and after that I was trained as a professional textile artist specialising in knitting and knitwear both in Taiwan and the UK.
I always feel happy and comfortable while handcrafting - spending countless hours repeating the same process is like therapy to me. I have spent nearly half a year continually working more than 10 hours a day to complete a work. People might think I’m insane but I actually find the process satisfying.
In 2010, I moved away from my hometown Taipei, Taiwan, to London as I wanted to see and explore more. As a Taiwanese artist living in the UK, I have travelled from one cultural context into another. The change has not only been physical, but extends to experience, ideas and their effect.
You’ve identified that you use your craft to navigate a transnational life. How has your practice evolved since moving to the UK?
Sigmund Freud said that the uncanny/unhomely is a kind of frightening that goes back to what was once well know and has long been familiar. How can it be – under what conditions can the familiar become uncanny and frightening?
I am always interested and confused about where my home is and where I belong – I always have the strange feeling of both homes. My emotions of home are mixed, complicated and fragile. Maybe I have been away for too long or my perspectives have been changed. When I think about my original hometown, the familiar has become strange, anxious and frightening. My second home, London, I used to feel unfamiliar with, now it has become homely and secure.
In cultural psychology, Erikson said that people are exposed to unpredictable events generating uncertainty, events which are partly imposed on them, partly created by them. People do not always have the relevant knowledge, skills, experience or social support to face the unpredictable events in their lives, such as living in a country at war, moving home, becoming a parent etc. But culture presents people with both material and semiotic tools that help you deal with such uncertainties. When I moved to the UK I developed a way to express and release my emotions and sentiments of home by creating “social elements” with my familiar craft skills.
Could you tell me about your choice of materials and why they suit your work?
How long does a newspaper survive? The typical answer would be a day. In my eyes, newspaper is not just medium for information, they hold people’s memories. From the newspapers, I trace back the moments through my eyes and fingers retaining those feeling and memories.
Using newspaper has mean taking up a challenge to turn nothing into something. I experimented continuously to perfect the texture and discovered that I could only create work I’m pleased with by preserving the original form of the newspapers. Despite the spinning and knitting process, even old work remains in good condition. Although there is some yellowing, I see it as a progressive sign of my work.
Do you use both British and Chinese newspapers whilst working in the UK? And does the content of the news story on the paper affect your work?
Yes. Using English newspaper is a metaphor for life in western culture, and vice versa with Chinese newspaper. Which one I use depends on what projects I am working on.
Whist working, I am often distracted: I knit and read the newspapers concurrently or I might recall a moment and reflect on the position of my life journey. I like the uncertainties of knitting newspaper and I believe that every single item has its own soul. From spinning to knitting, the combination of words/letters and the finished work can be completely different to my original ideas.
Besides the words, the colouring of each newspaper (every newspaper company is different) is another essential element for my work. In order to reach a satisfactory colour, I persevere and keep on making samples. Although these samples never made their way to the final work, they truthfully recorded the journey from conception to completion.
Where from here, what’s next?
Currently I am working on a sustainable project, collaborating with a high street knitwear company.
This is a very special experience and opportunity for me to bring the craft and sustainable concepts into high street fast fashion. While on the project, I had chances to visit Dhaka, the capital city of Bangladesh and one of the largest apparel manufacturing cities in the world. There I experienced the biggest culture shock I have ever had. The poor living conditions are the ironic contrast to the “glamorous," low-cost and disposable garments.
What piece of advice would you give your younger self?
Do more travelling and explore various cultures and lifestyles. When you travel your mind and thoughts are slowly and gradually changed, and you bring this new perspective to where you are from.
See ChiaShan Lee's work on the Crafts Council Directory.