Artist Tao Xian Uses Technical Glitches to Reshape Our Views on Identity

Tao Xian 陶显 was born in 1991 in Maanshan, Anhui province, China, and lives in Hangzhou, Zhejiang, China. Tao Xian expresses her artistic identities through painting, photography, and printmaking. Particularly, she is interested in exploring the relationship between advanced technology and the traditional painting, and how the technology influences the artist’s artistic directions or the audience’s understanding of contemporary painting. She manipulates the found images for creating a new way of narration and challenges the viewer’s visual boundaries. Her works feel as if they are slowly fading away, yet stay strong in your memory. Her vigorous colors contrasting her euphemistic figures in a portamento style, which diffuses a sense of eastern beauty.

Painter Tao Xian
Photo courtesy of He Cong.

Q&A with
Tao Xian

A Women’s Thing and AucArt’s exhibition is titled “Stretching Arms,” which asks the viewer, how do we transcend solitude? In the midst of this global pandemic, many of us are immobilized by our emotions and isolation. This exhibition highlights artists that structure their work with self-compassion and reflection, which provides empathy for others and establishes a community that endures any separation. How does your art practice transcend solitude, especially during this time? 

Tao Xian: I think human beings are ultimately solitary animals. I was painting alone in the studio during the pandemic period, and it made me realize that I could get along with myself better than before. After social life becomes out of reach, most people have turned to their inner selves, finding their own spiritual world. Some questions about life may be raised during this time, such as, “What do I really want? Where will I go in my life? Am I satisfied with my current state?” It’s not easy to find peace in this challenging time, some people may fall into depression. But for me, working in the studio can help me dispel some negative emotions. When I’m painting, the psychological time becomes sufficient, and it also stops the anxieties I get from the outside world.

Music by Ketsa.

What is the system your paintings are exposing through glitches? What are the glitches in your paintings recontextualizing or exposing? 

TX: The glitch effect is a tool to express our visual experience in the digital technology era and its relationship with us. I try to ask the following questions in my art practice: How does the screen present all the information of the three-dimensional or even four-dimensional world on a two-dimensional plane? Are they real? Can an individual create multiple “identities” in the digital world? Can our spirit reach eternity in the virtual world?

In 2016, the paintings were more abstract, with subtle hints of personified forms. However, in recent years, you’ve moved into distorting more clearly depicted female forms. What incited the change in how much of the female form you wanted to depict?

TX: My paintings continue to switch between figurative and abstract. For example, I recently painted more abstract works during the recent epidemic. The range of representation in my paintings depends on how I feel about the subjects and myself at the time. If there’s a more clearly depicted form in a work, it means that I have a deeper emotional connection with the person being depicted, or her face and body reach an abstract tension.

From your experiences living in China and New York, do you see any major differences in how women are displayed? 

TX: There are differences, but this difference is gradually becoming smaller. Twenty to thirty years ago, society was significantly more conservative. Many of them believed in marriage and in establishing a family at a certain age. However, unlike the situation in some other East Asian countries, most Chinese women, even with a family, will continue their own careers. Nowadays, the idea of feminism has gradually been raised by many people in Chinese culture. There are many young and independent women in big cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen. They can choose the lifestyle they want without having to bear too much pressure from those around them. However, even so, they still receive expectations and urging from their parents. The idea that women over 30 years old equals less value still exists. In contrast, the women I met in New York are less likely to be tied to their parents and family members, so they seem to have a much more independent spirit.

It’s not easy to find peace in this challenging time, some people may fall into depression. But for me, working in the studio can help me dispel some negative emotions. When I’m painting, the psychological time becomes sufficient, and it also stops the anxieties I get from the outside world.

In painting distortions of women, has your own perception changed on the female body? 

TX: My perception of the female body hasn’t changed much. I always think that the female body is one of the most beautiful creations ever made, it’s both powerful and mysterious.

Could you share the process of creating “Kabukicho”? What references did you incorporate into the work and how did you utilize them? 

TX: The painting “Kabukicho” was created after traveling in Japan in the summer of 2016. One night in Tokyo, I took my camera to Kabukicho, the famous red-light district. As soon as I got there, I was attracted by the futuristic scene it showed. There are hundreds of led billboards with images of hosts and hostesses filled entire blocks. I took a lot of photos there, and one of them stood out. It was a naked young girl with her back to the picture, turning her head around with a smile on her face. Her smile was so pure and innocent as if she did not belong to this place and time. I feel like I have seen her before, but couldn’t tell which part of my memory she was connected to. I used this picture as the main body, along with other pictures taken in Kabukicho to create this painting. It compresses the elements of time, space and distance in its two-dimensional picture plane.

Over the years, you have used printmaking, photography, computers, drawing and painting in your practice. What makes painting the best platform for this current series? Do you see your glitches moving into other mediums in the future?

TX: Every time before I make a new painting, I will take a picture and then process the image on the computer. Therefore, my entire making process actually contains a variety of media, and painting is the final presentation. In the future, I hope that I can try to put such forms on media such as holographic images, large scale projections, and video games.

After international travel sanctions have lightened between the U.S. and China, what are your plans?

TX: I was planning to go to the ChaNorth Residency this summer, but based on the current situation, I will probably postpone the time till later this year or the following year. I try to keep myself positive during the challenging time. Somewhere in my mind I believe the situation will get better next year, and international exchanges will gradually return to normal. I am currently working on a two-month artist residency project in Shenzhen.

How were you introduced to AucArt? What are some of the positive outcomes from working with a gallery platform?

TX: I submitted my works to AucArt after seeing their open call for artists for their April’s online auction, and they were selected for the exhibition. Working with this platform gives my work more exposure and opportunities. I feel a level of affirmation in my career as an artist. For young artists, the first two or three years of their careers are very difficult. However, having positive feedback and international support, such as AucArt’s, helps build confidence. 

Sarugakucho #1 Tao Xian
Sarugakucho #1
Tao Xian
Oil on cotton,
132 × 102 cm (52 × 40 in), 2017.

Sarugakucho #2 Tao Xian
Sarugakucho #2
Tao Xian
Oil on cotton,
102 × 76.5 cm (40 × 30 in), 2017.

Perfect Pink painting by Tao Xian
Perfect Pink
Tao Xian
Oil on cotton,
107 × 157.5 cm (42.1 × 62 in), 2018.

Songbird Tao Xian
Tao Xian
Oil on cotton,
132 × 112 cm (52 × 44 in), 2019.