Jacky Tsai


Down at Unit London Gallery right now, you can find Chinese Pop Artist Jacky Tsai’s biggest solo exhibition yet. ‘Reincarnation‘ sees the brilliant contemporary artist creating a truly individual style, bringing his massive art pieces to Unit London in Hanover Square. We went to his studio for a chat.

This is the largest solo show that you’ve done isn’t it?
It is! I haven’t done a solo show in the UK for a while. Even though I’m based here I have so many projects going on and working with different brands from all over the world so I’ve been doing shows in different countries. So this is the first time in two years that I’ve done a solo show here. That’s why I’ve got so many artworks to show. Each of the large canvases are hand painted and there are so many procedures to make one artwork. They take a while too – each one takes two months each. I like to make sure that every element in my artwork is in the right position because I do collage art so if you change one part by just one centimetre it affects everything else. Everything has to be in balance. 

Are they all new pieces?
No, no. The main floor of the gallery will be all new pieces but in the basement there will be a selection of my favourite pieces. Those pieces are all chosen from my warehouse in Hong Kong. I don’t want to sell all of my art so I collect my own work to have a nice record. When Unit London approached me I liked their idea that I could have a kind of retrospective of my work as well. So I said OK, let’s fully commit to this show and dig out some old favourites! The most amazing part of it for me is this is almost like a group show – the aesthetic is, of course, the same because it all comes from me but the techniques can be totally, totally different. Some of the pieces are from four years ago and I’ve changed a bit since then. When I’ve put them all together, even though the pieces are different mediums and different formats, people will still know that they’re Jacky Tsai art work. It’s very exciting for me. 

Shanghai Tang Cafe

Was it nice to curate your own work? 
It was, definitely! I have made the decision as to where each artwork is positioned and normally that’s something that a curator or the gallery will do. But for me, with this show, I have total control and also total freedom. Unit London is an artist-led gallery and they respect what we do! 

You’re known for your meld of Chinese art and Western pop culture references, how did you start deciding that combining these two things were the way you wanted to go?
That’s a good question. First of all, the show is called Reincarnation and that, to me, means your self moving from your past life, your current life and future life. For me it’s almost like time travelling. You can go back to see your early life and you can travel to the future to see yourself there. You could be an animal, you could be a human – who knows? All possibilities are there. So within my artwork normally I’ll have a traditional figure from the past, a current figure and a future figure. They always mix up and create something completely new. So that’s the idea! Western, Eastern, Future, Past: everything together. 

You’ve used some traditional Chinese craft for some of the pieces in Reincarnation – are there any that we might not know about? 
I have several pieces in the show that use lacquer carving, which is almost a dying Chinese craft. It’s carved by hand and then painted by hand with gold and silver leaf. It’s quite an ancient technique in China. I’ve been practising it for a long time and I have a team who do it – there are only about five or six older craftsmen who can do the high level lacquer carving. The carved pieces in the show were all done in China and then shipped here.

You’re influenced by Warhol and Liechtenstein. Can you remember the first time you came across work?
Of course! I grew up in China and before I came to London 12 years ago I was at the university in Shanghai, I was reading all the books about Liechtenstein and Andy Warhol. They have influenced me a lot. They influenced me massively. Their work is almost the opposite to Chinese art aesthetic, which is watercolour landscapes. Everything is neutral and free flowing. It’s not like the processed, very precise work you get in Pop Art. Liechtenstein for example is very rigid with vivid block colours and bold black lines. This opened my eyes and I was addicted to Pop Art. When I came to London I was thinking how I could make my art different. I didn’t want to copy Pop Art, I wanted to create something different. With the experience that I had both in China and the UK I could naturally combine these two cultures together in my art. Now a lot of people want to do this kind of art but they can’t because they haven’t experienced both cultures. For me it happened very naturally. I just want to do Pop Art in a Chinese way. I’m not copying anyone.


Interview: Josh Jones
Photo: Tom Medwell


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