Interview #69 — Angie Pai
Interview & Photographs by James J. Robinson
As a child of diaspora, Angie Pai’s artistic practice explores the compromises that come with living on the cusp of East and West.
Her multidisciplinary works reimagine the ancient teachings of Chinese philosophy within a present-day context, acting as meditations and remedies for millennial anxieties.
Angie talks to James about creating a 'home', belonging to two cultures, working towards tranquility, and using creative expression as a way to digest the world.
"Seeing my culture in it’s beautifully cinematic portrayal made me nostalgic and miss home. Especially watching dialogue in Taiwanese (the dialect), which is a very intimate language. It kind of felt like distant relatives talking to me and giving me a hug."
Angie, both of us have recently been going through a phase watching new Taiwanese cinema. How was it watching a Taiwanese film for the first time as an adult? Did you feel there was something that was represented in a Taiwanese film that you identified with or was empowering?
It was incredibly emotional, almost visceral — I stayed with you in my first week of moving to New York from Melbourne, and it felt like home. We watched Yi Yi and I cried like a baby. As the film portrayed the trials and tribulations of the Jian Family in Taipei, I realised it was the first time I identified with all the subtle nuances of a narrative. From the dark jokes to the colloquial conversation to the deeply embedded cultural doctrines and everything in between. It was the portrayal of my other home.
Unlike Hollywood blockbusters, new wave Taiwanese films focus on down to earth portrayals of Taiwanese life. Genuine stories of people in urban and rural towns, progressing at a realistic pace, as opposed to the the conventional narrative structure of building the drama to a climax. They are sincere and honest in their examination of issues within Taiwan during the 80’s and 90’s. Themes such as urbanization, the struggle against poverty, conflicts with political authority and the tensions between traditional values and modern aspirations. I saw my parents through these characters, and memories flashed back from my childhood — fragments of fights I didn’t understand, hiding in corners as I watched my parents cry with my grandparents. I felt their pain and I cried for them and I cried for the confused six year old me.
These films gave me fuel as I started a new chapter in New York. I wish I had known them to be such an invaluable resource as a teenager. Seeing my culture in it’s beautifully cinematic portrayal made me nostalgic and miss home. Especially watching dialogue in Taiwanese (the dialect), which is a very intimate language. It kind of felt like distant relatives talking to me and giving me a hug.
You mentioned ‘home’ just now; what defines a home for you? Is there a sense of identity being tied to the place that you grow up? And if so, do you define yourself more as Taiwanese or more as Australian. And do you think there’s a difference?
I think a ‘home’ takes a while to build and I haven’t figured out the formula yet. I imagine it’s a place where I can feel at peace. I have a lot of perpetual anxieties and insecurities that I’m trying to shake off, which probably has something to do with the fact that I’m constantly negotiating my identity with myself. Belonging to two cultures can be a privilege where you get the best of both worlds, but for the majority of my life, I’ve often felt a sense of identity homelessness. I’m actively trying to change this perspective though.
I’m pretty outspoken within my immediate Taiwanese community, probably seen as the rebellious child. I get angry about outdated customs, refusing to be subdued by Asian expectations. I’m sure it’s not deliberate, but sometimes the wider Asian community gets a kick out of telling you how to live. At times I just put up with it because the alternatives are exhausting. On the contrary however, in Australian culture and within my group of creative friends, I am often the most conservative. I find myself hyper-considerate and overly analytical of how I may be coming across and it’s pretty counterintuitive. I feel like I live in a contradiction of myself sometimes, and I really hate it. Maybe ‘home’ is just a big fuck off to all that, where I can not think about anything.
Growing up, I would assimilate to Australian culture more than I would to Taiwanese culture. But I think that stemmed from the desire to fit in. I identify myself more as Taiwanese now. In times of strife, I have found certain Asian principles and morals served as an anchor, allowing me to regain a sense of purpose.
"For someone who doesn’t drink, doesn’t take drugs, doesn’t smoke and abides by a strict temple vegetarian diet, to also exist in a friendship circle that is very liberal can be difficult."
You just spoke about how you feel particularly conservative around a lot of your other friends because there’s a tendency for people our age to be quite hedonistic. Is this something that you always felt growing up?
This is quite interesting because it touches on Asian cultures rooted in Confucianism, specifically the virtue of filial piety which doesn’t really exist in Western culture. The Chinese word is xiaoshun (孝順).
Confucian principles are a complex system of moral, social, political, philosophical and quasi-religious thought that have had tremendous influence on the culture and history of Asia. At its core, it teaches citizens to be an extension of their family, of their society, where every action carried out has a direct implication to the people within that community. At the extreme, this collectivism mentality can take away the ability to be an individual, out of respect to elders. Although some Confucian ideals were developed within a male-centric world (and thereby very sexist), there are other values I respect and admire which have served as a stimulus for my endeavours.
When I hit adolescence and started to be enticed into partying, having that background allowed me to know my standing, even though it did make me feel like an outcast. It’s taken practice for me to feel comfortable with it. For someone who doesn’t drink, doesn’t take drugs, doesn’t smoke and abides by a strict temple vegetarian diet, to also exist in a friendship circle that is very liberal can be difficult. I’ve learnt that as long as I’m assertive, most of the time my friends understand and respect my decisions as I do theirs. So this kind of conservatism hasn’t been a hindrance per se.
You recently talked to me about an experience that you had at a workplace in which there was a White queer male who said something the wrong way, which made you question your identity. Would you mind sharing what happened and how that made you feel, and how you feel now about the situation?
I think about this particular instance and I’m not sure if there were negative intentions. It came across so matter-of-factly — although maybe that in itself was more problematic. This was an ex-colleague I wanted to say goodbye to at the end of a job. He asked me what it was I wanted to do. I said I would consider further studies in fine arts. I wanted to say that in a place like New York, maybe it would be a good move to climb the institutional ladder. It’s the same for anyone.
But I was saying in this particular instance that as a woman and a person of colour, I feel like I should at least try and achieve as much as what the average White male in the industry has. He stopped me immediately and said “Woah, hold on. Do you consider yourself a person of colour ? Because in America I don’t think we consider Asians people of colour. Pigmentation-wise, you’re not dark. I would just be careful if you were labelling your work or yourself as ‘Person of Colour’, I just don’t want you to get in trouble. Maybe go home and look up the definition.”
I was so taken aback I genuinely didn’t know how to respond. I wish I was more confident to know that I know — how dare you take my identity away from me — but I genuinely for a stupid second questioned “Oh my goodness, have I wrongly identified myself for the last 25 years? Maybe in America — we’re just not a part of the people who are discriminated against?”
It took a moment before my brain decided to function again. Historically, Asian immigrants have been persecuted and discriminated against for not being white. Western histories around the world have shown that Asians have been seen as the “others”, “aliens” because of the colour of our skin. Therefore I think it’s important to recognise that whilst Asians may have different experiences to other people of colour in the US, that doesn’t mean Asian narratives are not valid. We are still not white, and that still has consequences.
This experience reminded me to be more confident in that conviction.
"I think it’s important to recognise that whilst Asians may have different experiences to other people of colour in the US, that doesn’t mean Asian narratives are not valid. We are still not white, and that still has consequences."
Do you think that all of these experiences of oppression that you faced growing up as a Woman of Colour in Australia, has helped you self-actualise and find a way to identify yourself? For me, when working, it can feel like a lot of the work that I’m pouring out is useless in a way that it’s not really trying to say anything—but I feel like the work I do which feels like it actually means something is always work where it comes from this anger I have from the oppression growing up.
We know of infinite stories like ours, where POC children grew up wishing to be White. I think my anger hasn’t so much been with my personal experiences of oppression. My anger came from the way my parents were treated. My mother owned a high-end florist in Armadale (predominantly upper-middle class demographic of Anglo descent) where she made extravagant wedding flowers. There were many other florists on the street, and even though her flowers (in my opinion anyway) were just as beautiful as any others, customers would opt for arrangements from the Anglo owners. It made me feel like we were of less value. This, and seeing other microaggressions that took place daily, like drivers on the road yelling “Go back to China” as they drove past, made me really upset.
Creative expression has always been a way for me to digest the world. It wasn’t until recently that I felt the need to direct it towards research- based work. I think it comes from a place of wanting to pay my due diligence. When I go back to Taiwan and speak with my cousins, I realise how much Asian history I haven’t known about and it makes me feel like a bad citizen. So it’s not so much about putting work out because I’m angry about something. It’s about finding a part of myself that was always there, highlighting it, and telling the world I’m proud of it. I’d like to think overcoming these hurdles (or at least trying to) made me more resilient, so in that sense I’m glad they’re experiences I can draw inspiration from.
You created ‘Gravity of Thought’ last year, supported by some ancient proverbs that you found that came from Chinese culture.
I remember speaking with an art consultant at Metro Gallery—her name is Claire—and without knowing they were ancient Chinese script, she told me “These remind me of scarification!”. That felt so true. She articulated my objectives in words I wouldn’t have chosen myself. The scripture works are phrases I grew up learning, virtues that stem from Taoist philosophy. One of them, qingjing wuwei (清淨無為), is ‘the strive towards an unconditionally clear and tranquil mindset’. It’s derived from the Taoist philosophy of wuwei (無為), a concept literally meaning non-action or non doing. In the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu explains that all beings (or phenomena) that are wholly in harmony with the world behave in a completely natural, uncontrived way. It’s believed to denote these main objectives: an attitude of genuine non-action, motivated by the lack of desire to participate in human affairs, and a technique allowing for one to gain enhanced control of oneself. Considering I am probably by definition the opposite of 'tranquil and still', it’s a nice goal to try and work towards.
"Considering I am probably by definition the opposite of 'tranquil and still', it’s a nice goal to try and work towards."
Do you have any advice for emerging artists?
Hold on to the practice of making work purely for yourself — make it selfishly. Disregard what other people may think and then please tell me how you did it.
Who inspires you?
At the moment I’m very inspired by the works of Li Binyuan and Zhang Huan. These Chinese artists address the evolving relationship between the body and the land in contemporary China through their projects. Comprising works that mirror shifts from collectivism to individualism, as well as tensions between the natural, the cultivated, and the urbanised.
What are you reading?
I just started reading Fingerprints of the Gods. Graham Hancock goes on a quest for proof of the existence of an ancient advanced civilisation that predates Egyptian, Hittite and Chinese cultures!
What are you listening to?
Red Sex by Vessel. This by Modeselektor ft. Thom Yorke.
F E M A L E by Sampa the Great.
"Hold on to the practice of making work purely for yourself — make it selfishly."
What do you do for self-care?
I am the worst at self-care. Probably ice cream and long walks to walk off the ice cream.
What does being Asian-Australian [or living as an Asian in Australia] mean to you?
It means learning to harness the multifaceted aspects of my intercultural upbringing in a pragmatic manner.
"It means learning to harness the multifaceted aspects of my intercultural upbringing in a pragmatic manner."
Interview & Photographs by James J. Robinson
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