29 November 2018

The Chinese pop artist exploring beauty and mortality

Discover the immersive work of Jacky Tsai.

A kaleidoscope of colour and graphics, Jacky Tsai’s art balances Eastern tradition with Western pop culture.  Born in Shanghai, the mixed media artist moved to London as a young adult, lending his talents to Alexander McQueen’s studio where he created the iconic floral skull.

Like McQueen, the theme of mortality is a thread running through Tsai’s work.  The familiar motif of the skull is displayed not as a foreboding symbol – but as a celebration of the beauty that can be found in decay.

Incorporating traditional Chinese craft traditions including silk embroidery, painted porcelain, lacquer carving and gohua painting, Tsai creates richly layered pieces that resonate with the Instagram generation.  Eastern landscapes and cultural symbols are juxtaposed with superheroes, pole dancers and outrageous scenes.

His largest exhibition to date, Reincarnation at the Unit London gallery features over twenty works from the artist’s career, with a monumental floral leather ‘Skullpture’ at the centre.  We caught up with Tsai to talk about the rich techniques and unique perspective that have shaped his aesthetic.

"The Pole Dancer" - Jacky Tsai

Hi Jacky, who and what were some of your earliest visual influences when you were growing up in China?

Traditional Chinese paintings and western pop artist such as Andy Warhol and Roy Liechtenstein have brought many ideas and influences into my artworks.

You incorporate many complex and intricate traditional Chinese craftsmanship and techniques in your work – is it important to you to balance traditionalism with modernism?

Yes, this balance is very important; between traditionalism and modernism, Eastern and Western elements, composition and colour. It is also the hardest and most complex part of the whole process as it requires a great deal of time experimenting and adjusting.

How did moving to London shape and change your work?

Moving to London has brought many changes to me personally, and my artworks. I tend to keep exploring new methods, incorporating fresh ideas, improving the artworks continuously. Coming to London has introduced me to a lot of Western techniques and art styles, which can be recognised in my artworks.

Back in 2008 you worked with Alexander McQueen – how was the experience of working together? And how have you reinvented your piece ‘Skullpture’ for this new exhibition?

I actually did an internship in the McQueen studio, it was during this time that I created the floral skull, it wasn’t a collaboration. I have been creating skull artworks ever since, bringing in new ideas and styles each time.

"The Little Pleasures of Life" - Jacky Tsai

What is the significance of the skull as a symbol to you?

I grow up in a very traditional Chinese family, and in our cultural things related to death are seen as ‘unlucky’, and luck is a very important key to happiness traditionally speaking. So, from a young age, skulls were presented as a very scary image to me. I try to make them beautiful and elegant, this process for me is also reborn after dead and beauty within decay, but all I did in the beginning was just to overcome my fear.

Are the internet and social media a good thing for artists? What do you see as the future of art in the digital age?

I think generally speaking, it is a double-edged sword. It provides a great platform for young artists to present their artworks, but at the same time the oversaturation of imagery caused as a result of such platforms can be overwhelming, preventing artists from finding their own style and developing original ideas.

Fashion is a big influence throughout your work and you have previously launched your own range. Can we expect any exciting future collaborations for you in the fashion world?

I cannot give any details as yet, but yes, stay tuned – we are working on a very exciting collaboration.

Who are some of the designers and artists inspiring you right now?

Right now, the Chinese artists from early 20th century, including YeFo Hu, are a very important influence on my artworks.

"Shanghai Tang Cafe" - Jacky Tsai

Jacky Tsai’s Reincarnation runs at Unit London until 22ndDecember. 

Follow @jackysaiart on Instagram for more inspiration.

  • All images Jacky Tsai
  • Words Fiona Mahon

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