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Featuring new work by Canadian artist Christian Nicolay and Taiwanese artist Ya-chu Kang , Upside Down Fire at Initial Gallery sets a tone that crackles with political activism, symbolic meanderings and aesthetic interventions.

Featuring new work by Canadian artist Christian Nicolay and Taiwanese artist Ya-chu Kang, Upside Down Fire at Initial Gallery sets a tone that crackles with political activism, symbolic meanderings and aesthetic interventions.

I first learned of the work of these two artists when I discovered a fantastic, hilarious and video that they created entitled Boom and Bust, check it out HERE. In their words: Boom and Bust examines the fragility of interconnected global market systems and the relationship to the balance of opposing forces by literally bursting the bubble, the video depicts a world in which rational and irrational co-exist situated between absurdity and reality, familiar and unfamiliar, the vulnerable and invulnerable.

Kang and Nicolay have collaborated on projects together for four years or so. Their work together on Upside Down Fire resulted in an exhibition that explores complex global and local economies of the world, issues of sustainability, and also the artist's role in these realms.  Some heavy topics, yes, but Christian and Ya-chu interrogate these issues with steady hands, considered compositions and abstract narratives. The work reads more like an allegory than a political stand which makes it fascinating. The potential for interpretation is incredibly open ended.

I visited Ya-chu and Christian the day before the exhibition went up, we had a great conversation, read the complete interview below!  If you have time to only visit one exhibition this week, make sure you visit this one!  You will leave with a lot to think about and hopefully a little fire in your belly!

UPSIDE DOWN FIRE - September 11-30

Christian Nicolay & Ya-chu Kang

INITIAL GALLERY - 2339 Granville Street


VIA: Can you explain how the title of your exhibition Upside Down Fire came about?

CN: This body of work we started last year, it was shown in HK and the title of that show was Boom and Bust. We work a lot with duality and pairings in our work. This show was referencing the economic downturn and what was happening with the economy of the world. We are both politically engaged in what is happening in Taiwan and Canada and also relationships between Taiwan/China and Canada/America, western/eastern, man/woman, these dualities and kinds of relationships and pairings are common themes that are addressed in our collaborative practices. This show is a continuation of Boom and Bust. That show (Boom and Bust) was more focused on the cycle, this show is more focused on living through the economic downturn and becoming more focused on economic sustainability, and as artists and people, how can we deal with things that are out of your hand or forces that are somewhat out of our control.... Upside down fire was a metaphor for the current state of the situation that we feel we are in today..... We see the system as a fire burning out of control and we're chopping down so much wood to fuel the fire, eventually we'll run out of trees to fuel the fire and it will burn out.

Upside down fire is an attempt at what can we do to keep the fire burning, but discovering different ways of building that fire and being more sustainable....We've already come a long way and there are a lot of people who are passionate and working on ways to keep the human race here but without completely destroying the earth, this show is a reflection of those thoughts. Issues of sustainability is on our minds often and this show a reflection of those thoughts. We thought upside down fire was a way to reflect that. A lot of the work is more surreal or cryptic, we want viewers to come and be puzzled a little bit and go home maybe doing some of their own research. Is that true what they are saying or suggesting, those two things juxtaposed next to each other really frustrated me, or that really caught my attention. Not necessarily saying there that is the truth, but making visitors inquisitive.

Also, there actually is such thing as an upside down fire, it is like a log cabin of wood stacked up, the kindling is put on the top, and when you light the kindling the fire burns very slowly and moves down in the chamber of the cabin, you don't have to keep adding wood to it and is twice more efficient as a log cabin or a tipi fire.

VIA: In comparing your work to philosophies surrounding noise and information theory, it seems that there is a parallel to your work where you are trying to pull out the signal from the entropic noise of the system. Do you think that you may be trying to make the signal more audible or visible, or perhaps understandable?

CN: Are you meaning like through destruction there is creation, and creation destruction, or finding harmony or dissonance. Maybe it's like an antennae to pick up a certain signal in a different way all art does that in many ways, but we are consciously trying to send out a certain frequency or vibration with this exhibition.

YK: A lot of people don't discuss these issues, it isn't typically spoken about in the media either.

VIA: Often,  art is not always that critical in this regard.

CN: yeah, that is true. I get frustrated when certain things are happening in our country or also Taiwan. Very similar things, you have to research these issues through independent bloggers or activists or other people who create independent news, but often none of it reaches the mainstream. For example, Canada doesn't have any mandatory reporting on the arms and weapons industry in Canada, and there were gross errors in reporting that occurred in the claimed revenue by the government, the number even changed several times over.... People should know about these things, it is something that we are passionate about, not that we are going to all start a revolution and take down the government, but there should be more transparency and accountability for that level of operation of service.

YK: In Taiwan the municipal election is coming and next year is the presidential election. The government right now is signing a lot of economic deals with China. But the media is focussed on some pop singer. A lot of these things hold the peoples attention and they never learn about what the government is doing secretly.

CN: It's nothing new, it has been going on for thousands of years.

VIA: Are all the works in this exhibition collaborative pieces?

CN: No we tend to make our own pieces based on similar themes and ideas and show them concurrently.

VIA: Can you walk through the exhibition and talk about some of the pieces? Please tell us more about your Bear and Bull Sculptures.

YK: I made the bull sculptures first, they're based on the Wall Street Bull which is a symbolic powerful animal that is representative of the stock market I was interested in transforming the strong large bull into a little puppy. Each bull has a tail that is moving in a different direction, much like that of a dog wagging it's tail, or suggesting a certain type of mood, inquisitive, sad. The Bear was created as in the bull and bear of the stock market circle. The bull represents when the market is up, and the bear when it is down. I was also trying to suggest that the bear not simply represents the bottom of the market but also rebirth, or a new beginning. That's why the bears have baby faces, like a newborn. The bears and bulls have clothes to wear just like someone would dress up their pets. With the bear sculptures though, I also added fur and a bone like headdress to suggest that the baby is getting its energy from the animal. The clothes are made from the money bags from the bank, like when people are doing business and they need a lot of change, the banks place the coins in these bags.

VIA: Can you tell me a bit about some of the painting panel compositions?

CN: These panels are all part of one piece called Boom and Bust a speculative approach to solving problems. It is a narrative of listening to the news, researching things that are going on, the economic collapse, the housing crash in America, sub-prime mortgage loans, researching economic derivatives. In this work I am suggesting that the bankers of wall street, kneeling and praying to the market this one with the house was symbolic to the crash, as well as other abstract pairings that also includes my own sense of humour in the studio... i guess.

VIA: There are a lot of tools that can be used for building up or breaking down in this series aren't there?

CN: Yes, most of the elements within these pieces are found or salvaged detritus that I collect, bits of paper and pieces of things. Fuse boxes,for example, whenever i have a chance to open a fuse box, i always find bits of things. I often find things walking around in the street. A lot of both of our works are made from salvaged materials, going back to this idea of sustainability. The plexi that I use to cover the mixed media pieces for example, they are offcuts from other projects, they otherwise end up in the landfill. Some of the works are glass, others are plexi, I often scratch into the plexi on the surface as well. The carving on the plexi casts shadows behind, the material is transparent and reflective reinforcing the idea of transparency and accountability, something you can see through but also reflecting, like a fire as well.

VIA: Your clay face molds that all have different intricate materials woven together, can you explain more about this series?

YK: This was part of the boom and bust exhibition and works, using the idea of blowing up a balloon and the fact that the balloon is just hanging there makes it ambiguous what each figure is trying to do, are they blowing up the balloons are the exhausted from trying, you don't know which case it is. I also tried to create different shapes for each balloon and different materials to represent different industry. So like this one is made from the coffee bag, you can smell the coffee. For me coffee represents fair trade, this next one is made from grass, representing nature, this next one is electric wire, it represents power and electronics, and this one represents plastic bags.

VIA: You could do 40 million of those there are so many plastic bags in the world-wide-web

YK: Yeah but also the poorer countries often use these recycled materials to create objects to sell, it actually helps the economy. One additional balloon [in this series] represents the print industry with the printed fabrics that I have woven together, it represents how the print industry is going down. A lot of companies have shut down. This other one is the nylon bag that you use for getting items from the grocer. This final one is an inner-tube tire, to represent oil and gas industry. This is series four, I created three other series. These other series were more like the original balloon shape, but this series, each one has it's own unique shape that is similar to party balloons you can find in Taiwan. It's from people when they have a party they have many different shaped balloons. I think when people think of balloons they usually think of balloons as party items, and associate them with fun events.

VIA: A couple more questions on your practice and how you collaborate together. You have been collaborating together for four years now, what are some of the challenges/benefits of this model?

CN: She's based out of Taipei and I am based out of Vancouver, so that's a challenge! We've been fortunate to have enough projects and residencies to be together and so the time apart has been even, we are often working together for some time when we are working on a project. For this exhibition we were apart for a lot of the preparation, so we would constantly be having to send ideas back and forth, and pictures. So it is a bit of a challenge, things develop more naturally face to face.

YK: Because most of the collaboration is more that the pieces are connected to each other thematically. Now that we have this show up, we have already started working on the next project, we both always have an idea of what the other is working on so when we get together it is not like... what? That's not what I thought you were doing!

CN: Ya-chu is more technically a sculptor and has more experience with that, and i have had more experience with sound and performance and so our aesthetic, our vibrations are along a similar frequency. Ya-chu is often able to look through a different lens at my work and criticize or harness different elements that I would otherwise overlook. And so it is good to have that extra set of hands and a brain that pushes and pulls. That pushing and pulling takes your work further then if you were on your own. Sometimes you can jam with someone or not, you know right away or not if it will work.

VIA: What project together or solo would you say is the biggest success you have had in trying to blur the lines between art and the everyday?

CN: I'll let you go first! (laughs)

YK: Life and Death. The idea we have been working on this concept for several years. We are both very interested in how different cultures deal with this. Everyone is born and dies, and is a topic that everyone faces. Different cultures have different ways to deal with this, we have been working on this a lot and we still want to do more on this.

CN: Actually I agree, whenever we travel together we are always researching different burial practices, graveyards, Funarary practices. We were directing a residency in a small town in Taiwan and there was a student there who was a Maori artist from New Zealand, and some of the things that we learned from him about Maori burial ceremonies, that they're not allowed to practice anymore because of hygienic reasons. They would for example, leave their dead to decompose in trees. And once they had decayed, the remains the bones would be taken up to a waterfall and would wash them and only through this process of washing the bones in this waterfall this is when the spirit would be taken. So they can no longer take part in this grieving process and there is no sense of release or no closure for them. Rituals and things associated with these types of things are absolutely fascinating, each time it is evolving and changing, and the responses we get from people is amazing. We would create life and death parties where we could discuss what you would bring with you to the afterlife if you could. We would have fascinating conversations and disagreements as well. Really deep conversations about the afterlife. A topic that is shielded and uncomfortable to talk about. It was successful as we get people to open up. We are further opening up and evolving and expanding our idea of the afterlife as well

YK: We never know what will happen where we go, or what will happen when we die, I don't know what will happen to me.

CN: That's OK, I do... (smiles laughter)  That unknown quality is a intangible and beautiful canvas to work with. We keep building the idea with each project. That is one idea we are playing with the most.

YK: The project often requires the right timing and the right place as well.

VIA: What do you want people to take away when they leave the gallery?

CN: I think because we are not necessarily rallying out the obvious, when we hang out and talk with friends colleagues, families, everyone is talking about a lot of the same issues, there is good discussion and we need to talk about these things. We need to live with nature and find harmony, but we can't just stop the economic machine that we live in, it's more about if people can look at it and become more involved in their own way, maybe our fire can burn longer without using as much firewood and how do we do that, everyone will have a different approach. And everyone can contribute something a little different. We're passionate about it.

YK: We cannot turn the clock back, and we cannot live without economics, you cannot just focus on economics, it is not the most important thing, the environment is really important. Development also destroys a lot, and without the environment you lose everything.