Speakeasy with Ting Ying Han

The Chinese artist discusses family, relationships and her work on view now at Spruill Gallery

When Ting Ying Han left Taipei, Taiwan, a few years ago to pursue art in the U.S., the 23-year-old left behind more than a city. In many ways, Han also shed her identity as she — and her family and friends — knew it. She gladly shook off the restraints of her rigid Chinese upbringing to freely pursue art and sculpture in Atlanta. But the metamorphosis hasn't been without its challenges. Han leads a double life of sorts, her family ties becoming increasingly tenuous as more time passes. It's not a huge surprise, then, that Han's work fixates on family, objects and spatial relationtionships. "Missing," her meticulously crafted rice table now on view in Spruill Gallery's Emerging Artists 2009, is a heartfelt meditation on absence. 

Where were you born and when did you come to the U.S.?
I was born in Taipei, Taiwan, and came here when I was 23. I wanted to come here for a long, long time. Actually when I was little, I was told I can come to U.S. for education and my dad refused me to go until I finished a degree in business administration.

I started to do art since I was little for after school art school. I would say since I was 6 till the beginning of high school. I always feel that this is something I’m good at, but in my culture art is not something you go to school for. You go to school for a diploma, to get a job, and make money and to satisfy parents. So I come here to do what I want to do.

Where did you go to school?
I went to Perimeter College for two years. At that time I was still trying to compromise with my family — do the business classes, even thinking about pharmacy — trying to make them happy because they are paying my expenses. Then one day I took a painting class with Cynthia Boss — she’s like my mentor — and I realized that I could paint for eight hours without getting tired. I said this is me; this is what I want to do. So then I finished at Perimeter and went to SCAD.

I think I been really lucky. I was really shy and never able to talk to anybody … I have friends that helped me grow. I like to talk about my work, so by doing this I learn about myself.

My work is about family and relationships. I am a woman, a Chinese woman, and by talking to people and sharing their experience I learn about myself and what I really want.

So did you study painting at SCAD?
I did one painting class and I know a friend, he was in a sculpture class, and I decided to take one. I like to use my hands instead of a brush to touch the material. I think that kind of feeling the texture really gets more interesting than finishing a painting.

How would you describe your relationship with your parents?
My work is all about my relationship with my family. My relationship wasn’t good. I always want to leave the house. The family wasn’t happy. I tried to connect with them … . There is a gap or invisible wall. I call my mom every day and we have a strong relationship, but they don’t really understand me as a person right now. They knew who I was. So, it’s a struggle, the relationship.

The Chinese — we don’t compromise, we discourage. As a father figure, my father is a typical Chinese parent. He doesn’t get in touch with me. That is the most common relationship I know.

“Missing,” the piece you have in the Emerging Artists show at Spruill, is very much about family and culture. Will you talk about that some?
When I was in the beginning of sculpture stage, I could take the cultural influence of a Chinese woman in U.S. I focused on how I was changing being in the U.S., but more than culture I was focused on my family, who is Chinese and I am Chinese. That is a breakthrough for myself. OK, the work is about rice, about a Chinese table — a happy dining table setting — however there is no food or anybody sitting in the table. It’s about relationships: the missing of the food, the missing of the relations.
Was creating the table an emotional experience?
For the process I use my body as the element. I bind my feet and I use my body as an element to the work. The process of being physically included in a the work — the feel of putting the rice and the time it took — kind of became like a ritual in the morning. Yes, it was about finishing the work, but this material is so familiar to me and other people I know and I use this material to describe relationship between me and my family. It becomes ritual and emotional — very sad, very emotional. It takes two months to finish everything.
When I was making this it is really simple and mechincal: Put it the rice up, smooth. I was moving, thinking about relationships: Why is this happening? Why do I want to do this? I feel OK now that I’m finished. I look back and feel sad on the inside. I still try to avoid talking to parents, especially my mother. I feel like I have a house but I don’t have a home anymore. For most people they have to adjust their livestyle. I can adapt to every situation, but when there’s change you can never change it back. So my parents and friends back home, they see me as a totally different person. This is my life. I just have to do it to survive.

What are some of your other projects?
Right now I’m interested in using projected images. The recent project I did, I live in a storage unit for two days and I create a space and I use my own belongings to move into the storage unit. …I want to talk about space and objects. Sometimes I don’t feel the connection to what I have here. I don’t know when I’ll go back, but I can say that when I go back everything here will disappear and that it’s an illusion but the projected images preserve my life.

You think you’ll lose the self that you’ve created here by going back?
I feel like I cannot be an artist and not be myself. I always tell people I have a switch in my mind. When I go home I have to switch back to the girl who likes shopping, going to parties, and when I got back here I switch back. My family would look at me like, “What the hell are you talking about?” I go home, I switch back. I would not be happy like that. That is not reality there. So I don’t think I can ever be happy going home. It’s going to be really hard to go back.

The parents always think they know best for you even if you are 30, 34. They make you do what they want. The kids that grow up here, they have the chance to grow. If you fail, you can start over again. Where I come from, you have one choice to be the person that everyone expects you to be.

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