Clem So exhibition investigates identity at Birdwood House, Totnes, until September 12

Uniquely positioned as part of the Totnes Festival and Devon Open Studios, the beguiling, thoughtful work of Clem So, which is at Birdwood House, Totnes, until September 12, investigates family and identity. We found out more

• Hope the exhibition is going well – sorry we couldn’t make it to the opening.

The exhibition is going well and the response from the public has been overwhelming. Nearly everyone who has come to see my work has stayed quite awhile and has been fully engaged with the work. There have been very few who have found my work harrowing, although two people have been moved to tears by the work.

You got in touch about a feature on the Arts+Culture site, and I’ve got a few questions for you, if that’s ok.

• Which afterlife are you portraying? Is that of your ancestors, or that of your own Chinese identity?

I am a practicing Nichiren Daishonin Buddhist and believe in the eternity of life, to me the afterlife is a continuous stream of causality, everything my ancestors were exists through me and everything I do from now validates their lives even more. I am portraying my ancestors, but also through my genealogy, they are also are portraying themselves. Portraying my ancestors and questioning my Chinese identity are not separate. By portraying my ancestors, I am questioning the very core of how I came about.

• Are the images haunting or comforting?

I do not deny that some may find some of these images cathartic, this is naturally the nature of being human and grief may be one of those responses. I take full responsibility for making these images, but the viewer’s response is 50% of this interaction. Each person is an individual and the response has been very different, but I have found the majority of the comments from the audience have enjoyed the work and found it to be deep, powerful and thought provoking.

• Your paintings focus on your own search for identity, and you ask that people reflect and reminisce about their own family connections. How does your work help with that?

In the last three days I have had many conversations about my family and naturally this has brought up discussions about family with all who I have spoke with, we all have ancestors, that is a fact that we can embrace.

• You say you begin with the flow of Chinese ink – do the methods you use in creating the pictures reflect the link between past, present and future you are trying convey?

In Buddhism, the link between Past, present and future is called ‘The Three existences” I understand this as a cascading sequence of cause and effect. Using the flow of ink as a starting point, I allow the force of nature to dictate where some of the shape and form of the painting will go. My memories of my family life, early photographs of my ancestor provide inspiration and represent the past. The present is the now statement of the marks I make or the images I create. The response (or effect) is the future.

• How far have you come to tracing the intangible and reconnect yourself with your Chinese identity?

My body is Chinese and my mind is that of a western man. I cannot make myself to be mainland Chinese, that would be too contrived. By default, everything that I am now and tomorrow is my identity. Tracing the intangible is a bit like chasing a Rainbow, You never really get there.

• Is there anything you’d like to add?

Thank you for this great opportunity to talk about my work. Respectfully Clem

• Clem So, many thanks

Visit Clem So’s website for more info