In Conversation with Sophie Spence

Sophie Spence: Your film, Somesthésie, Mousse, et Lumière I. Is mysterious and full of the natural world. What brought you to consider your migration experience through this lens?

Alysée Yin Chen: It’s interesting that you describe it as a mysterious world, but actually the shooting location is from when I lived in France, in the countryside. It was a location I could easily go to after dinner. A place I’d walked for quite a while. So I decided I wanted to film how my eyes felt. I didn’t give it much thought before that. Of course I have my social observations, like political thinking on migration. But when I was creating this piece, I was like - “oh this place, I love this place. I want to record it.” So it happened in an instinctive way.

SS: So you have quite a relationship with this place, that’s very interesting.

AC: I think I decided to film after a year of going through this routine, to observe. And it’s funny each season looks different, So the audience only sees one perspective of it. I didn’t do the montage or edit until a year after. So it was a really long process from finding the location to the script being written - it was a two year process.

SS: I’m really interested in projects that go through a really long time of thought. There’s a lot of pressure to produce work all the time. So I love to hear about a project that has manifested over a longer period of time. I’m interested in the scripting of this project, there are two themes that stuck out to me, the gravesite and this kind of metaphor about a woman or mysterious figure. You’re thinking about life and death, could you unpack that for me?

AC: First of all, there’s no right or wrong way to interpret this film. It’s open for interpretation. I would love to give a bit of background about myself, because I think it’s interesting. I was born and raised in a metropolitan city, Taipei. So until my late twenties I looked at the world from a very human perspective. I had never been in an environment that wasn’t urban.

The migration process included two parts. The first is me as a city person, adapting to a lifestyle that lets go of time. You observe or you eat and then you go promenade; in French we say promenade, we take a walk. You don’t do anything, you just walk. The second, I was a foreigner in this little city in France that I’d moved to. There were probably only two or three asian people, and they were French. I was really… I stood out. So I kind of found peace in nature, but at the same time, it’s all very new to me. I cannot deny that I have tourist eyes when I see nature. I’m thinking “oh it’s very beautiful”, but for the locals it's normal. I also found my existence felt very minor. I’m a foreigner but at the same time when I’m in nature, I’m nobody. I felt my existence shifting between roles. It’s a philosophic process. But I learnt from the locals and through my own experience when I walked around in nature.

Bringing it back to the life and death feeling, it was because I was thinking; as an immigrant or foreigner, you don’t really get to decide where you’re born or where you rest at the end. In this way, the woman in the film is mirroring myself. It talks about how we care so much about our names on a grave. But in the end, nobody really sees you unless it’s your relatives or loved ones. And I feel it’s the same thing in nature. When you are a tourist or you just go on a hike for fun, you don’t really care about the seasonal changes. You see one view, not how it changes through the years and the seasons. It’s something you have to go see everyday to care. But if it’s something you just go see once, you think “oh ok, that’s nice”, but you don’t remember. So it’s a kind of mixture of a lot of things and it wasn’t intentional, the script. Because I’m recording myself as a process, in the end I express everything I feel and hopefully people who watch the film can feel other stuff as well. It’s the differences that are interesting.

SS: I also wanted to ask about the fabric, why did you choose the fabric to be the subject. It’s beautiful to be in that landscape because the textures are so different. But also it feels sort of familiar, a household item.

AC: Simple reason. I was doing fashion before. But the way I approached fashion wasn’t really commercial, it was more about sculpting. I was obsessed with form, I would spend days creating the exact form. I didn’t want to just use any fabric, I featured the toile, the canvas fabric, in my installation a lot. This is because it’s historically the most organic man-made invention. It’s funny you mention the man-made world and nature, that kind of got me thinking, “yeah it’s true, it is artificial but we all feel very organic to this fabric”. Painters for example use canvas, it’s technically not the same fabric, but the same genre. I feel that from an artist's eye, it’s something very comfortable aesthetically.

Then to go back to the fashion experience, it’s because I was obsessed with making the form I saw in my imagination. But I would suffer for a long time to fit it to the human body. Years after that I started to question, what is clothing really? Unfortunately in this society, people have this stereotype towards fashion and clothing in general. I mean it’s prehistoric, it’s like stoneware. Humans have been wearing clothes for a long time. But because of the economic system nowadays, we kind of get distracted about why we wear clothes and what it means. I use fabric for my own personal preference and at the same time I think it’s very social. It’s a symbol, this fabric we put on ourselves. And that’s related to my migration experience as well. We tend to have a second layer, because the language I use is not my mother tongue. It’s not like I pretend to be someone else, but when we use another language, we automatically shift to another culture and for me that’s kind of wearing clothes. I wear all black to express another attitude. Even though I don’t do fashion anymore, I think textiles are a huge inspiration for me.

SS: This piece of work went for around two years in the making, what's your process for making work?

AC: I don’t even know if I can tell myself how I do it, I just went back to school (laughs). For me, I do need time. I tend to do lots of stuff right away but I’m not in a hurry to make it into something. For example, I can go shoot 10 rolls of film in one day. But what do I do with those 10 rolls of film? I could wait years to decide what it becomes.

Then the whole process in between. I’m experimenting, just trying out different possibilities. I think it’s a crucial time and that any creator needs to be sensitive to what they're doing right now. I think it’s important to ask, “why am I doing this?”. I’m very careful how I treat another subject, when I go to another country or another city, I don’t wish to take what’s there just for my own artistic pleasure. It’s okay to have an iPod photo or a diary, but do I really want to say something? I think it takes at least a year, in modern times, to really think and do more research on what you should do. But when I create I act really fast at first. It’s kind of like journalism. That’s how I do my work, but I’m not that productive. (laughs)

SS: But it’s true, we’re always quick to produce work, but you don’t always know what it’s about. Even if you’ve produced work and put it out into the world sometimes you don’t really have the full picture around it’s meaning until afterwards. It does take time. I also wanted to ask, why did you choose to have the film subtitles in French and English?

AC: It’s funny because when I write a script, I’m bilingual. I’m not a master in English or French (laughs) but when you travel a lot and you live in different countries - for me I was already in another country for 10 to 15 years - it’s impossible to only think in one language. When I write down notes, a script, poetry, or my feelings in a notebook, it could be in any language with really bad grammar and the wrong vocabulary. For example, I’d have half in French and half in English, and then it’s all from a Taiwanese expression in the end. It’s funny because when I was doing the translation with a French friend, we’d often have disagreements; he would say “no one says that”, and I’d reply “I don’t care. I don’t want to express that in French.” (laughs) So is it intentional? I don’t know. In order to make it look more complete, we made professional subtitles. So I completed two languages in the end, but before that it was in pieces.


Alysée Yin Chen (b. 1990 Taipei) 
is a multidisciplinary artist who lives and works between France and Taiwan.

Her practice is an investigation between “time” and “area”, consisting mainly of analogue photography, film videos, drawings and fabric sculpture.

To see more work by Alysée Yin Chen, visit - Website / Instagram