2018 / 2月
蔡爾平最早在國立藝專（今台灣藝術大學）打下陶藝基礎，而後赴美，前後在Parsons School of Design、New York Studio School專攻雕塑與繪畫，紮實的科班訓練，加上專心致志的態度，以及懂得舉一反三、不被框架限制的個人特質，對蔡爾平來說，創作就像日常行止一般，易如反掌。不過，他強調，他的創作從來不是單純為了表達視覺美感的藝術衝動，更意蘊深刻的價值思維，他說：「空間中少了一件藝術作品沒關係，但作品少了藝術內涵、生活關懷，以及現實的融入，那都是單薄的。」作品說白了，不過是一項載體，讓他表達對土地、故鄉的關愛之情，他也說：「戴我的作品，不會提高身分地位，反倒讓人忘記身分地位。許多貴重珠寶常常給大地開腸破肚，但我沒有用什麼有價值的材料，還可以讓人想想自己、想想這些小生命，在大自然的歸屬。」
蔡爾平表示，他的父親常說：「Live in nature, live on nature, live for nature.」（親近自然、依靠自然、捍衛自然）博學多聞的父親，小時候帶著他上到自家屋頂，指著浩瀚蒼穹說，「這，是宇宙。」也帶他來到地面，拾起地上的沙土，並且拿到顯微鏡下觀察，跟他說，「這，也是宇宙。」這種返本歸真，願與自然共存榮、以自然為家的心，深刻地影響了他的一生，讓他橫跨半個地球的距離，也在紐約長島的黃金海岸，開闢出另一處種滿了奇花異木的絕美花園。
Tsai Erh-ping,millefiori porcelain,Koji ceramics,cut-and-paste ceramic art,Beigang /photos courtesy of Jimmy Lin /tr. by Phil Newell
It’s hard to define precisely what kind of creator Tsai Erh-ping is. He crosses the boundaries between ceramics, metalworking, painting, sculpture, and horticulture. He is a sculptor, a gardener, and a jewelry designer. From the most exquisite and meticulous pieces of jewelry to the layout of a large-scale garden, he can make something wondrous out of nothing.
He started out on his career in New York, and he has a discerning creative code. He personally devised the technique for making “millefiori porcelain” combining ceramics with metalworking. Well-known figures from the worlds of business and politics, including Hillary Clinton and former US secretary of state Madeleine Albright, love his work, and in 1993 he was named an “American Outstanding Craft Artist.” Now in his 60s, he is at the height of his powers, but he no longer seeks success for his personal business, hoping instead to use his energy to repay the homeland that nurtured him.
With their gorgeous colors, exaggerated proportions and exquisite craftsmanship, the breathtaking works of Tsai Erh-ping often leave people dazzled as soon as they set eyes on them. The most representative products of his brand “Jewelry10” are pieces ten to 20 centimeters long in the form of lobsters, chameleons, lizards, spiders…. Through the artist’s skill these creatures, overlooked by most people, manifest their innate dignity and magnificence. At first glance the pieces look more like works of art, but when pinned to a person’s clothes they become jewelry that can be matched with clothing and worn. Or perhaps they can be better described as miniature sculptures that combine the beautiful lines of fine metalwork with the glossy texture of ceramics. In close-up, the elaborate designs have a highly fashionable look. The uniquely styled creative themes, choice of materials, and craft techniques play off each other, radiating a high degree of artistic tension.
Always returning to nature
Tsai Erh-ping’s earliest artistic training was at the National Taiwan Academy of Arts (today the National Taiwan University of Arts), where he got a foundation in ceramics. Later he studied sculpture and painting in New York, at the Parsons School of Design and the New York Studio School. With his solid classroom training, his focus and dedication, and his character traits of understanding how to extrapolate and not being limited by frameworks, for Tsai Erh-ping creation is just routine behavior, and is effortless. However, he emphasizes that his creations have never been purely artistic impulses that express a visual aesthetic, but that they imply profound values. He says: “If a space has one less work of art it doesn’t matter, but if a work lacks artistic content and concern for life, as well as the incorporation of reality, then it is frail and flimsy.” Put simply, his works are nothing but vehicles that allow him to express his concern and love for the land and his native place. He also says: “Wearing one of my works will not raise your status, but in fact causes people to forget about status. A lot of precious jewels require exploiting the earth, but I don’t use any especially valuable materials and still can make people think about where in nature they and these small creatures belong.”
This acute awareness of nature and his love for all animals and plants originated in his unique upbringing. We can get a sense of this when we come to the “Affectionate Garden,” owned in common by Tsai Erh-ping and his siblings and located in Beigang, Yunlin County. The land was originally purchased by his father and mother, and cultivated in their spare time. Although it is called a garden, you will not see sumptuous floral displays. This is because it is based on the notions of biodiversity and “recreating the jungle,” and it looks more like a botanical garden. It was this ecologically rich, natural garden scenery that nourished the lives of the four brothers and sisters in their childhood years. Even today, though both parents have passed away, the whole family shares the same desire to continue to maintain and manage this space.
Tsai Erh-ping recounts that his father, who was very erudite, often said in English, “Live in nature, live on nature, live for nature.” When Tsai was small his father took him up to the roof of their house, and pointing at the boundless sky, said, “This is the universe.” Then he took him down to ground level, scooped up soil from the ground, and showed it to his son under a microscope, saying, “This too is the universe.” This mindset based on returning to the natural state of things, living harmoniously with nature, and taking nature as one’s home, has deeply influenced Tsai Erh-ping’s entire life, prompting him to establish another beautiful garden, filled with exotic plants and trees, half a world away on the North Shore of Long Island, New York.
For Tsai Erh-ping, fame and fortune mean nothing. The values he really cares about are these: not creating a hierarchy of living things but caring equally for all; thinking about and reflecting on the environment; and man’s humility before the unbounded vastness of the universe. Just as his father left these things to him, he is also passing them along to his children, and, through concrete works of art, spreading them to others.
Deep sentiments leave traces
With the Lunar New Year approaching, Tsai was invited by the Chiayi County Government to take part in the 2018 Taiwan Lantern Festival. He returned to Taiwan from New York and threw himself into creating a large-scale work that requires mobilizing more than 100 people. He is distressed that many large-scale exhibitions generate a lot of trash after the event is over and waste resources. Therefore he aimed to make his lantern display into a collectible large-scale sculpture with artistic value, and he personally went to scrapyards to seek out materials for it, hoping in this way to express the values of “recycle, reuse, renew, repair, refunction.”
We go with Tsai to a metal window-grille workshop in Beigang. He rolls up his sleeves, puts on cotton work gloves, and excitedly discusses details of the work with the metalworkers, who are his fellow Beigang townspeople. Tsai says he certainly is able to produce meticulously crafted works himself, but nowadays he prefers to make opportunities to get more people involved and working together, to create things with greater meaning and value. This is also an inspiration that he got from nature. “In the past, everything was about success for myself, but at a certain point, you want to take the knowledge and skills that you have accumulated over a lifetime and spread them around—just as a tree, after absorbing light and the essence of the earth, at some point will flower or produce fruit and give shade and shelter to living things. Only this is a complete life history.”
This large sculpted lantern, which goes by the name Inexhaustible Vitality, not only uses a lot of scrap material, we can distinguish within it hints of many traditional utensils used in cooking, including ladles, pot lids, and oil strainers. After deconstruction, they are transformed into a new structure. Tsai Erh-ping says with delight: “This is a large pot cover for making rougeng [pork stew]. Rougeng is my favorite!” (This pot cover later becomes the roof dome of a castle.) These elements, which belong completely to his native land, the common people, and local life, are all present in this magnificent work.
Tsai Erh-ping states that the reason the family garden is called “Affectionate Garden” is to commemorate his parents, Dr. S.H. Tsai and Mrs. H.Y. Liao Tsai. The father studied in the Department of Medicine at Taihoku Imperial University (today the School of Medicine at National Taiwan University), but he chose to return to his poor and remote native place to practice. He devised a method of using needle aspiration to treat liver abscesses, saving the lives of about 3,600 people and making a great contribution to his hometown. The late Dr. Tsai’s given name, Shenhe, means “deep river,” and the garden’s Chinese name, Shen Qing Yuan, literally means “Deep Sentiment Garden,” which expresses the idea that “A river that flows with deep sentiment is sure to leave feelings.” Tsai Erh-ping is like his father.
Tsai’s wife, Cynthia Chuang, says, “Because many industries no longer operate in Taiwan, today although most public art is still designed in Taiwan, the work is mainly done in mainland China.” Tsai hopes to make the creation of the Lantern Festival work into a mass movement, with everyone from his hometown participating, using local materials and the help of local workshops, to reinvigorate local workers and resources and create new opportunities for this rural community. Like a gardener working with deep sentiment, Tsai is spreading seeds of hope, writing a new chapter for his beloved native place.