Few Chinese artists have been further in different worlds than Hsiao Chin: east and west, America and Europe, inner and outer worlds – and the very cosmos itself. Even now, it’s hard to say what ‘home’ means for Hsiao Chin.
A case in point: over several months in 2016, he and volunteers from the Hsiao Chin Foundation painstakingly emptied the flat in Milan’s Via Gustavo Modena where he’d spent the past 40 years. Hsiao Chin, one of the greatest living Chinese artists, was moving to Kaohsiung.
You could say the timing made sense. The southern Taiwanese city was preparing to relaunch itself as a centre of the performing and visual arts, with a new HK$260 million complex that was to be the largest arts venue of its kind in the world. Unbeknownst to many of the celebrities and politicians who crowded into the new concert hall in 2018, an event of immense cultural importance had already happened: Hsiao Chin was living among them.
I went to visit him at the institute that bears his name, and for lunch in the house of its CEO, Maggie Woo (‘the best home cooking in Kaohsiung’, says a hungry fellow guest, Calvin Hui of the Hong Kong gallery 3812).
We talked of art and we talked of travel. Here are a few of the places he has dwelt in and responded to.
If history hadn’t intervened, Hsiao Chin may well have become a composer or performer. His father was a celebrated musician; his cousin, Hsiao Shu-sien, would become a rare thing, a noted female Chinese composer and educator. It wasn’t to be. Both parents were dead by the time he was 10 years old. He was taken by distant relatives to Taiwan and separated from his sister, Xuezhen. (Chin is pictured above with his sister and parents in their Shanghai home in 1937.) They would not meet again until 1980 when, as a distinguished overseas artist, he was invited back to Shanghai. She was by then living in a sanatorium and died there aged 75. His paintings often feature sibling symbols separated by uncrossable fields of energy.
Taipei and Kaohsiung
Chiang Kai-shek’s Taipei of the early 1950s had little time for artists: how different to the city today, which has become one of the great world hubs for collectors and galleries. But in a small flat in Andong Street, a charismatic and unorthodox artist called Li Chun-Shan held classes for a group of boys. ‘He taught me how to think,” Hsiao tells me. Li’s influence lasts until this day.
Today, Hsiao Chin lives with his second wife, the soprano Monica Unterberger, in Kaohsiung’s Cianjhen district. The Hsiao Chin Foundation is a five minute drive away. It’s a sunny, modern, bright place: a suitable home for the artist’s luminescent life’s work.
You sense that if Hsiao Chin could choose only one of his past cities, it’d be the Catalan capital. A scholarship took him to Madrid in 1956. But within two months he was gone.
‘I didn’t like it. So I went to Barcelona in ’56 and had to start all over again – I lost all my scholarship! But Barcelona was much more active than Madrid. I met a lot of artists’, he says. (And art critics, too, like Maurizio Vanni, pictured above with Chin in Barcelona in 1957.)
He threw himself into the Bohemian life of the city and the island of Ibiza – even then, a haven for hedonists and alternativos. He exhibited and wrote articles about the trends and cross trends in modern art. But he’d yet to find his own artistic identity. That would come with his next move.
Hsiao Chin laughs off any attempt to assign a nationality to him. Still, he has represented a country in overseas visits and cultural exchanges: Italy.
After the warmth and colour of Barcelona, Milan was a bit of a shock: ‘It was quite a modern, busy city,’ he says. ‘I didn’t have a place to stay’. And colder too.
But once he was settled in the arty Brera district, his career took off. A prominent gallery, Studio Marconi, took him on. Two great Italian modernists, Antonio Calderara and Lucio Fontana, championed his work. With Fontana, he launched an art movement called Punto: The Point.
Because Hsiao Chin had finally found a point, a purpose. He took on the mathematics and colour theory of modern abstract expressionism and married it to something deep in himself and his culture: a response to Taoist ideas of flow, of the harmony of expression and silence, and Buddhist iconography. Those Punto works sell for millions at auction today. Abstract art it may be, but it’s suffused with radiance and emotion.
It’s the mid-Sixties. For an ambitious young artist, there’s a choice. Paris is fading as an arts centre, and Hsiao Chin hadn’t found the right studio space in the city. He spent six months in swinging London, but found it too ‘leisurely’ for his liking. New York, the most dynamic art market in the world, the city of Warhol, Rauschenberg, De Kooning, Pollock, was the place to be.
If the Punto work was suffused with Mediterranean light and colour, the ‘Hard Edge’ works Hsiao Chin produced at this time were also a response to his environment. He painted not on canvas, mosaic or ceramics but sheet metal: the lines were harder, the compositions, if still true to the iconography of Eastern belief systems, more harshly geometric.
But new ideas were brewing. He visited Brazil and Mexico and began to muse on how ancient civilisations such as the Mayans and Aztecs incorporated astronomy and a sense of the universe’s movement into their lives.
His daughter, Samantha, was born in New York in 1967. But his seven-year marriage to Italian artist Pia Pizzo broke up in 1969 and he was finding the city hard going. ‘I lived there for six or seven years. But I could not make a living for us both, so my wife went back to Italy, then London. In ’73 I finally went back to Italy too’.
Italy, Russia, Denmark and the Eternal Garden
As he approached his forties, Hsiao Chin became an artistic ambassador, visiting Russia and China itself on behalf of his adopted Italy. In 1979 he and a group of avant-garde artists in the hippyish enclave of Christianshavn, Denmark founded a movement called Shakti (though Hsiao Chin had little time for hippies, especially their casual appropriation of Eastern philosophy and symbolism: ‘They have nothing to say and want to say something. They were superficial’).
In the summer of 1990, on a visit to Seoul, he learned his daughter Samantha had died in an accident in Los Angeles.
For the best part of a year, he couldn’t work. Eventually he returned to the studio with a renewed faith in the working of the universe, and a conviction that he would meet Samantha again. He set to work on his most moving and sublime series, the Eternal Garden and Samantha’s Ascension, where energy and light flow upwards and Samantha is represented by a single strip of colour. ‘She never left, she is just not here,’ he says.
Hsiao Chin has jokingly said that he doesn’t belong to any one country but he’s a ‘citizen of Outer Space’.
Maybe only half jokingly: in the 1960s he applied to be on NASA’s astronaut programme, ‘because they need an artist up there’.
His work has become increasingly absorbed in cosmic references: huge suns, refracted light in space and the ‘Dancing Lights’ series, which gained celebrity status when one of the canvases was unveiled in the lobby of the MGM Cotai in Macao.
He doesn’t have, and nor would he want, that status.
The art world has become a domain where sensationalists and self-promoters thrive. But for a growing number of collectors and connoisseurs, Hsiao Chin’s work deserves a lofty place in the history of modern art – be it Chinese, Western, or universal.