An Interview with Yi Ten Lai
To be peaceful, to be bovine in the best sense, to be ever-changing and to be from somewhere: Artist Yi Ten Lai tells me of her work, her rituals, her roots and her obstacles with exact identification. She describes her childhood awe of the mystical city of Granada, her passion for skateboarding, her admiration of her older sisters and her desire to imbue others with a sense of calm, still and careful introspection in the presence of her performances. By Amelia Wilson.
Wilson: How has your work changed over time?
Lai: My first love was drawing, as a child, and then graffiti, as a teenager. In high school I got into the routine of making a few small “colour studies” every day. Painting for me was mostly about the act of the eye itself, being in front of something and trying to understand that fraction of reality through the shapes of colour. It is a very contemplative activity for me. When I did my exchange in Berlin, I put painting on hold, and started experimenting with ceramic vessels and sound. I wanted to make something that could pierce through people. That is why I like to work with sound. This led me to get back my long-forgotten childhood wish, to become a potter. I started making the vessels on the wheel for my sound performances and installations, which led me to my most recent period: the “teapot period”. Working on the wheel, as a contemporary artist, places me in this tension area between craftsmanship and artist-ship. I have recently been able to weave all these different practices together to create my own language, and I am just now in a very exciting place of my creating process, where routine is a very important thing.
I have recently been able to weave all these different practices together to create my own language, and I am just now in a very exciting place of my creating process, where routine is a very important thing.
Wilson: Which artists do you most admire? Who inspires you?
Lai: My work has been conceptually marked by the reading of François Cheng and R.M. Rilke, as well as the ideas on the metaphysics of mixture by Emmanuelle Coccia. I spent some years as a copyist at the Museo del Prado. This resulted in my integration of these “old masters” as part of my genealogy as a painter, but it also led me to question the meaning of their presence in the national collection and in the construction of a “national pride”. The sound dimension of my work has been influenced greatly by the piece “I Am Sitting in a Room” by the composer Alvin Lucier.
Wilson: What brought you to art? Why do you make art?
Lai: As a child, after receiving a strong visual input, I would mimic it extensively. I guess this was a ritual for me to wrap my head around this image. For example, I would mimic my sisters’ drawings because in my world, they were a big deal. When something gives me a strong impression, I need to mimic it to understand its significance. It is also a way to make something mine, or to create a relation of kinship to it. As a grown-up artist, with a broadened horizon I am still looking for “my big sisters´ drawings”.
I would mimic my sisters’ drawings because in my world, they were a big deal.
Wilson: What else do you like to do? What are your other interests?
Lai: I like to go skateboarding, and dancing. I also like to make tattoos on people, that’s a side product of drawing. I also like hanging out with dogs. Wish there were more dogs in my life.
Wilson: Do you listen to music while you create? Besides other art, what are you inspired by? What pushes you to create?
Lai: I mostly listen to audiobooks and podcasts while I throw on the wheel. This is possible because the wheel is such a body-based activity. My brain can be distracted with some fictions, interviews and essay books. I like to listen to “Hidden Brain”, because they go deep into human behavioural phenomena, which feels like they are talking about humans as if we were a different species.
Wilson: What is your dream project?
Lai: I would make a context for my small format works: the interior patio of an Andalusian house. A cool, shady place in the middle of a hot summer day, quiet and away from the busy streets, but still very close to them. I really haven’t spent much time thinking of a megalomaniac project. Nevertheless, lately I have been thinking it would be cool to make a project for the central patio of an Andalusian house, involving the Icelandic choir I was part of in Berlin. Maybe a hybrid of a taekwondo exhibition and a choir concert, mixed with some “danza española”. This would involve many people, training and rehearsing, composing, choreographing… I guess this would be the direction. Or maybe something more simple, like the skatepark that glows in the night, by Koo Jeong A. I think that work is brilliant, I wish it was my idea!
It would be cool to make a project for the central patio of an Andalusian house, involving the Icelandic choir I was part of in Berlin.
Wilson: What materials, sounds and symbols are you drawn to? What resonates most with you, with your sense of self?
Lai: I have been attracted to materials that provide me with a genealogy, for example oil painting (temple and oil on wood), silk (connecting channel between Far East and Europe), porcelain (also baldly referred to as “china”). These materials are categorised as “poor”, because they are not eternal. They will eventually perish. They have a certain simplicity and humbleness that I like.
These materials are categorised as “poor”, because they are not eternal. They will eventually perish. They have a certain simplicity and humbleness that I like.
Wilson: Having grown up in Spain, what aspects of Andalusian culture resonate with you? When connecting with your Chinese roots, what aspects of Hakka/Hongkongese culture resonate with you?
Lai: I am not sure I know what it feels like to “be from somewhere”. I am only from “somewhere” when I am not there. For example, I am from Spain when I am in Denmark. But I don’t feel very Spanish when I am in Spain. My family has been moving around for generations, so there aren’t deep roots attaching us to a specific place. When I am in Spain, I am the one who left, became a little bit Valencian, then a bit Madrileña, then a bit German, and now I am drinking from the Danish waters. Always belonging “somewhere else” might feel like an uncomfortable thing, but I must say I grew comfortable in it. I wouldn’t be able to fit in any of those suits. I think this is the case of many people nowadays. It is the condition of our times.
I am from Spain when I am in Denmark. But I don’t feel very Spanish when I am in Spain... When I am in Spain, I am the one who left, became a little bit Valencian, then a bit Madrileña, then a bit German, and now I am drinking from the Danish waters.
Wilson: Where do you feel most at home in the world? Which places do you love the most? Why do you make art about the city of Granada?
Lai: I think every place you live in, becomes your home, becomes part of you. What makes it home, for me, is that I share those places with my family, or with my friends, or my tribe, so to say. But what really makes me feel home is to move the furniture around all the time.
Granada was a vacation place to me, as a child visiting my grandparents. It’s not a big city, but it was the biggest city I knew for many years. There was this big contrast to me, between my grandparents’ house, and my maternal family, quite a Catholic environment, and then going out into the narrow streets in el Albaicín, where tourists wandered around, mixed with blond, young, homeless-by-choice people walking barefoot with their unleashed dogs, North African shop owners, and gypsy women giving you rosemary bunches. I loved going there. I still love it. To visit my family, and also to rediscover all these places as a grown-up. It was always a very alternative and culturally exciting place to me, deeply inspiring in so many levels. It was full of street art and hippies and hip hop, all things that seemed very cool and cosmopolitan in my childhood eyes.
It was full of street art and hippies and hip hop, all things that seemed very cool and cosmopolitan in my childhood eyes.
Wilson: How do you want people to feel, when you perform? What atmosphere or feelings would you like to evoke?
Lai: That time should be a moment of introspection somehow. I hope to evoke an atmosphere of curiosity, just like when you are watching animals in the field, or the rain fall on water. I would like my performance and installations to have a natural atmosphere to them, in terms of the elements, and the gravity of the movements. If I am lucky, what they perceived during the performance will resonate with them in the following hours, days, and the memory will become part of the way they experience the world. I think of my work as a mirror. When people look at it, they can look back at themselves. The performance “Mamá y Papá” might have a feeling of “memento mori”. I see these performances as an action towards the sensitivity to ephemera. To accept the ever-changing nature of this world, and the importance of memory, and continuity with the past.
Wilson: Has anyone ever responded to you work in a special way?
Lai: My favourite reaction, which happened a couple of months ago, was from my mum, in front of the work “One Of Us”, which is a homage to my late paternal grandmother. Together with my partner, we designed this piece out of images I found on the internet about Hakka traditional clothes. I unfortunately didn’t have the opportunity to get to know my grandmother much, apart from what my mum would tell me about her. So when my mum came to the exhibition and saw the textile installation, she was struck by a strong flashback. She said “It is her! It is just like the shirt she wore everyday”. My grandmother had only own two sets of shirts and pants, and the undershirts looked exactly like the ones I was exhibiting. This turned into my mum telling me my late grandma’s daily routines. It was a beautiful moment.
This turned into my mum telling me my late grandma’s daily routines. It was a beautiful moment.
Wilson: What is your process like? How do you feel when working with ceramic, porcelain, pottery wheels, etc? How does it make you feel? Do you sense that these emotions while creating carry through into the objects?
Lai: Getting to learn how to throw on the pottery wheel had a very similar feeling to my martial arts training. First you have to feel the corporeality of the clay. Let yourself move with it, become one with it. Then you have to find your center, and convince the clay to follow you there. Finding and keeping the center is an ever-present action, or state of mind. Then I breathe with my hands and with the clay. There isn’t much thinking involved in it. For me it is purely body awareness, like training in martial arts.
I think my ceramic pieces embody my presence. I have also observed that they make other people observant and calm.
Wilson: Could you see yourself doing something other than being an artist?
Lai: I sometimes daydream about being one of those cows you see in the north of Spain, hanging out on the side of a hill, eating and laying around, and having a very slow life. A life of contemplation. It might as well be very boring after a while.
I sometimes daydream about being one of those cows you see in the north of Spain, hanging out on the side of a hill.
Yi Ten Lai (b. 1996, Bailén, Spain) holds a degree in Fine Arts from the Complutense University of Madrid, ES (2019) with a year at the Berlin University of the Arts, Berlin, DE, and a year at the Polytechnic University of Valencia, ES. Lai lives and works in Berlin and Copenhagen.