Teng Yung Han grew up in Tamsui, a seaside town nearby the Tamsui, or “fresh water” River. She describes it as “beautiful but always wet.” Somehow, this sentiment reflects in her work–a dreamlike blend of pastel hues that appear to ebb and flow like a river or a faded memory. She recalls as a child playing make believe and drawing with her friends in an abandoned house next to her own. “It was kind of a wild time–simple and precious. Nowadays, people aren’t allowed on those fields anymore. I wonder if the abandoned house is still there.”
Nostalgia continues to reign over internet culture, youth aesthetic and various digestible forms of media. From blockbuster remake after remake to the decontextualized Tumblr-regurgitation of fashion and advertising, the 21st century seems to be stuck in a make-believe world, hovering in limbo while rapidly making way for an undeterminable future.
Teng is at heart the essence of present time. Her DIY aesthetic blends imaginary creatures and worlds with found imagery from friends, textbooks, advertisements and online shopping, to reference some of the purest moments in today’s society.
Below, Lulu Yao Gioiello speaks to the artist about her process and how her vision of the world gives bittersweet solace to the lonely dreamer.
Lulu Yao Gioiello Who are the characters in your work based off of? Do they have their own personalities?
Teng Yung Han Ever since I was a child, I have talked to the characters I created. I like to play with them, maybe even start a soccer game together. I keep this kind of relationship with them, so they always come to me unexpectedly, like a surprise grab bag. I often ask them, “Who are you?” and laugh, but when I make a sad piece, they will try to comfort me. They all have their own personalities, I take time to get to know them when I create them and have conversations in the process. Still, there will always be some mysterious characters whom I can’t really tell what they are thinking.
Lulu How would you describe yourself?
Teng I feel like I alternate between being overly rational and overly emotional, but in the end, they’re kind of the same thing. I use my rational side to suppress my emotional side, and vice versa. The moment I start to become aware of my own “innocence,” I’m no longer innocent. There may still be some part of me that remains under the surface. Sometimes I feel distressed, sometimes I feel grateful. The last time I saw a beautiful child smile at me on the bus, I cried.
Lulu What made you become an artist?
Teng Ever since I can remember, I’ve been drawing all the time – it came naturally. Although I really love art and went to art school, I subconsciously never wanted it to be my job. I really wanted to keep it as pure as possible, so I tried working a lot of different jobs to support my hobby. In the end, though, that made me realize my favorite thing in life couldn’t just be a hobby. I had to take art more seriously by making it a career and living for it. It took a lot of time to adjust to this new mindset, but I try to remind myself of where I started every day.
Lulu Do you keep a journal or a sketchbook?
Teng I keep both, I always have an A5 size sketchbook with me since it’s lightweight and easy to carry. Drawing is like journaling to me – I can capture my mood in the moment as well as some subconscious, unspeakable things. But I also have a 10-year habit of writing down thoughts. Most of time I don’t really think about what I’m writing besides capturing the moment.
Lulu What’s your favorite medium?
Teng I love them all! It sounds kinda greedy, but sometimes I’m in the mood for pencil, sometimes it’s watercolor day, or maybe I’ll even feel like making a sculpture. It’s hard to control myself, which bothers me sometimes, especially at work where I have to learn how to be more stable. But whenever I feel like drawing, as long as there is some kind of instrument, I will be fine.
Lulu What’s your favorite cartoon?
Teng This is a really hard question! As a kid, all sorts of cartoons and animations helped me feel less lonely, so I can’t really choose a favorite. But I’ve been rewatching The Powerpuff Girls lately and realized how much it influenced me! It’s such a cool and timeless show. A couple of episodes deeply scared me when I was a child, like the ones with the clown and the magician. I love it.
Lulu How do you feel the internet has changed the act of making art?
Teng I was born in 1995 and the good thing about that is I had half of my childhood without the internet. I think I formed a rather balanced relationship with it. I used to spend so much time on MSN Spaces, blogging, and playing around with Photoshop, but then I also went out every day to have my little adventures in the woods and used my imagination. I’m grateful for both, as both made a huge impact on my life and art. I consciously try not to let the internet take over my whole life. I need a balanced life to keep creating. That being said, it has indeed changed our minds. It’s like a big runway show nowadays – we all have to learn how to display ourselves.
Still, I have met all kinds of different artists and wonderful people around the world through the internet. I have absorbed tons of inspiration; it’s amazing how we can open up new horizons every second. All of our creations seem to be becoming more and more hybrid, and the gap between everyone has become smaller. As a result, distinctiveness has become more precious. Everyone wants to be special and different, it’s exciting to witness. But maybe one day we will all get tired of being “special,” and “ordinary” will become the new fashion. But what is ordinary anyway?
So I guess I both love and am afraid of the internet. It is a very contradictory feeling. There have been moments where I thought I couldn’t live without it. Now I prefer small events that I stumble upon in real life – the shape of the leaves, the shadows of you and I, a smile. Maybe the internet will blur the boundaries between people even more in the future, but I still hope that people can cherish these beautiful sparks of life more.
Lulu What would be your dream exhibition?
Teng If I keep creating art and become an old lady one day, the last show before I die will be my dream show! Many artists’ work seems to turn more simple and pure towards the end of their lives. I hope to let go of many things as my life goes on until I finally let life itself go. Life and death are both beautiful.
Lulu What are your dreams like?
Teng I’ve been dreaming the same dream since I was a child. In that dream I’m deep in the black ocean, disoriented and unsure of where I am. All I feel is just pure fear from the bottom of my heart. When I look up, I realize I have been locked into some kind of laboratory – people in white robes observing me from “up there.” Then some huge deep-sea creatures with big, sharp, weird-looking teeth start to surround me. In order to survive, I have to swing to the only tiny land in this whole black ocean, it’s horrifying! I still dream of this sometimes…but there have been sweet dreams about the deep ocean too.
Lulu How do you decide on titles for your artworks?
Teng Sometimes I look at my work and the title just comes to me the way creating the work itself does. I rely on intuition a lot. Of course, sometimes it’s not there, and I have to leave it for a couple of days or even months. Maybe one day as I take a shower it will come to me. If it doesn’t, the piece will just join the untitled club and maybe that’s for the best –it doesn’t need a title.
Lulu What is “innocence” in 2022?
Teng Innocence has two sides, I think it can be pure, but at the same time, dangerous, kind of like beautiful poisonous flowers. We are always surrounded by flowers like these, and if we become careless, even if they’re beautiful they can hurt. So, being innocent can be dangerous. To be so is flawed. But I love defects, and I just think we need to stay alert in our beautiful yet dangerous world.
Teng Yung Han
Lulu Yao Gioiello
Auguries of Innocence, Teng Yung Han’s inaugural New York solo exhibition, is on show from June 17-July 24 at WHAAM!
15 Elizabeth st. NY 10013