Taiwanese artist Chen Sheng-Wen embroiders animals out of trash. The folds of a surgical mask cleverly disguised as a moth wing; a disposable fork replacing the claw of a crab; a piece of rusted aluminum forming the body of a pangolin. If you don’t look close enough, it is easy to miss these pieces of trash concealed in Chen’s meticulous stitching.
Chen was born in Taichung, Taiwan. He graduated from the National Yunlin University of Science and Technology with a degree in Visual Communication Design and his work was granted first place in the annual Taipei Free Art Fair. His work has also been displayed in exhibitions such as Art Madrid and Art Osaka.
What seems to juxtapose in appearance—adorable animals and filthy garbage—are harmonized under his stitches. They are delicately composed and point to the greater need for a cleaner earth.
I spoke to Chen about his work process, climate change, and patching up our relationship with nature, one stitch at a time.
JC: I just wanted to start by saying that I love your work. I think it’s very unique. Although I’ve seen other artists incorporate trash into their work, I haven’t seen embroidery and trash used together. How did you think of combining trash and embroidery?
CSW: I think this question goes back to how I started embroidery. From a young age, I’ve always been interested in crafts, especially working with needle and thread. I always knew I was going to pursue some sort of design path, perhaps fashion. But I ended up studying graphic design in college.
During my senior year, as I was preparing for my final project, I found myself getting bored with doing the same things every day. I remembered my fascination with sewing and thought it might be good to revisit it. I’m not that knowledgeable in fashion so I thought why not embroidery? I started off small, with small animal pieces and keychains. But as I completed more small projects, I wondered if there was more to embroidery than personal entertainment.
In Taiwan, design students go on an ‘unofficial’ tour after their graduation show, by participating in different design fairs around Taiwan. I participated in YODEX in Taipei. I saw one group there that had an exhibit on the theme of “Clean Mountains (淨山).” They hike up mountains and clean up the trash they find there. They were granted first place in the graphics design group. Although their display wasn’t special, their content really attracted me. It was profound and I thought it could be extended and explored further. So, I reached out to them. I wanted to contribute my technical skill of embroidery to their cause. I made my first piece of a flying squirrel. It was immature but you can still see my attempt.
Speaking of your work, the trash you include in each piece fits so seamlessly, sometimes it takes me a while to spot them. How do you decide which animal or piece of trash to use? What is your work process like?
The process is different every time. Sometimes, when I’m doing research, a particular animal catches my attention. Then I’ll try to analyze its shape to see what kind of trash will best fit and then go from there. But other times I pick up a certain piece of trash that inspires me and then I try to find an animal that can match it.
From this whole process, you must’ve come upon some really interesting stories.
Yeah! I did a sperm whale recently and it was inspired by my first impression of sperm whales. I think it was around 10 years ago? They found the body of a sperm whale in Tainan. They wanted to do research on its body by dissecting it. But while they were transporting it to the lab through Tainan city, it exploded! The whale exploded all over. It must’ve been dead for a while and the microbes that were eating its insides released gas. The whole delivering process probably disrupted and triggered the gas. Anyways, there were blood and guts all over. That left a strong impression on me.
Wow, that must’ve been a huge explosion.
Yeah, exactly. Also, I did a piece of a Formosan Rock Monkey and used a cigarette pack for its body. They used to be an endangered species, but now they’re not. They are very close to humans and they imitate human behavior. I once read that some people purposefully light up cigarettes and give them to the monkeys to smoke. The cigarette pack goes well with the monkey because of this story.
That’s terrible.Since your art addresses environmental issues by incorporating trash into your work, how do you see art relating to the environment?
When I studied design, my professor once asked us what the difference between design and art is. I thought a lot about the question and I think design solves a problem while art raises the problem. Design is meant to be used and is generally more commercial, while art is made to highlight a problem. Of course, it can do this in many different ways, whether that’s through words, photographs . . . I think my background in design influences my art. I tend to make pieces that are not about personal issues or deep, intellectual knowledge. Rather, I want to reflect on the current problem.
The animal and trash are two juxtaposing images and I harmonize them. Everyone can have their own interpretation of my art because everyone has their own experiences. That’s okay. But I do believe that art should serve society in some way. How to serve society is what I’ve been thinking a lot about lately.
I do think your art serves society. I think a lot of people, like me, know about environmental issues but are reluctant to do anything about it. Perhaps it’s because it doesn’t affect us, or so we think. It’s up in the mountains or by the beach, and we don’t see it every day.
Out of sight, out of mind.
Exactly! And your work exposes these problems and forces people to think about them.
I do think people have changed their view of the environment, especially recently. Mountain climbing and nature activities have become increasingly popular in Taiwan. The pandemic has made natural sites a popular destination. But of course, this comes with the harm of more pollution with people bringing their trash from the cities to nature.
I think there are two important factors in this problem. One being the law—do we have effective legislation to protect our environment and do we have leaders who will guide us there? And the second is education—this is about social responsibility and empathy. But people usually don’t care unless it directly affects them.
Do you think it’ll get better? Have you seen changes since you’ve started embroidering?
I don’t know if it’ll get better. The harm we’ve done on the environment lasts centuries so I don’t think I can talk about the “change” in the past 5 years I’ve been embroidering. It’s just not proportional. Of course, I hope it’ll get better. But I’m not that optimistic. I do see people becoming more aware and willing to act against climate change online. Then again, maybe that’s just the social media bubble. Still, I think natural resources will never catch up with our population growth and human consumption.
Sorry, that was a bit pessimistic.(chuckling)
No, I understand, I’m pessimistic too. I’ve read so many reports on how more wild animals are coming out and how air quality has improved because of COVID restrictions. It’s sad that you have to literally force humans to stop consuming for the environment to get better.
I’ve seen those reports too. But humans are selfish. When we are deprived of things we think we deserve, we often come back with double the harm to overcompensate. Back in April and May, there were reports of how air pollution in China decreased dramatically after factories were shut down. Production went down too. But who knows? Maybe later people will pump out double the pollution to make up for the lost numbers. This is all temporary.
There’s an organization that calculates how much resources humans can consume in a year. They’re called the Global Footprint Network. Each year they compare human consumption of natural resources with the capacity of nature to renew these resources in a year. The day that we use up more than Earth can regenerate in a year is called Earth Overshoot Day. Last year it was in July. And this year, because of COVID, it was extended to August 16. So, we’ve used up all our quota a few weeks ago. Everything we’re using now is taking from the future. But we’re still going to pay it back someday. Whether that’s us or the next generation, I don’t know.
I learned yesterday that even if global warming stopped today, the Greenland ice sheet will continue to melt.
Also, last year, Iceland created a memorial after one of its icebergs melted so much it couldn’t be considered one anymore and lost its name. They even left a message for future mankind.
I really don’t understand those people who still won’t believe climate change is real!
You mean Trump? (laughing)
There are still global leaders who continue to deny it. Like in Brazil, their president stands for cutting down rainforests.
To go back to your work, I know you’ve recently also worked on a large whale sculpture made out of felted wool and fishing nets. Do you anticipate more projects like this that differ from your original embroidery pieces? What is the next step for you artistically?
I’m currently working on more woven projects like the whale. But I wouldn’t divorce that completely from my embroidery work. I see weaving like a large-scale embroidery project, with my body as the needle. Kind of like “human-body embroidery,” I guess.
But next, I’m also looking to explore the relationship between humans and the environment. My past projects focused on animals as a result of the human-environment relationship. But now I want to focus more directly on humans. The ideal and the reality we live in. Our brains and their contradictory nature of wanting to achieve our ideal while still living in reality. I’m trying to capture this ‘in-betweenness’ through my large woven projects.
As I get more used to embroidery, I find it more therapeutic. It has repetitive actions and it is an action that fixes two different things together. I’d like to imagine I’m patching up the relationship between us and the environment. It’s also a kind of comfort to know that at least I’m doing something and speaking out against this problem. As people start to drift further away from nature, embroidery is also a way to bring them back closer.