Now based in Taipei, Dutch artist Karin Janssen has for the last ten years been living in several countries, working as a full-time artist amid this nomadic life. Her Dutch and Indonesian roots have shaped her unique identity and vision, reflected by the surreal composition of exotic tropical lands in her work. As an artist, curator and mother, Karin Janssen shares her experiences and struggles in the collision of different cultures and identities. The interview is conducted and written by independent journalist Zoe Teng.
Z：How do you see art as a career? How is it different from other jobs?
K：I think that an artist’s practice is very similar to a normal day job, in so far that you have to do it every day, sit down and start drawing and painting every day at the same time for a whole working day. It is not a matter of waiting for inspiration to strike and then start. It is more a matter of doing, doing, doing, and whilst you’re busy doing, the magic will happen. Or, as some people put it, the muse or the idea will come and pay you a visit, but it is only useful if they find you already working.
That is why a blank piece of paper isn’t something scary, but just something you start working on and gradually, by doing, things start to click and fall into place and make sense.
I do think being an artist is different from being a graphic designer, because you have to let everything come out of yourself. A graphic designer makes someone else’s vision visible, while I have to bring about my own vision.
As a graphic designer you have to listen very well to other people’s ideas and work with those, using your own style of course, but still, the start and end point is the customer.
As an artist, the work itself is the starting and ending point.
Z：How’s your experience in holding your first solo exhibition in Taiwan?
K：I cannot believe the reception I’m getting. I didn’t expect Taiwanese people would be very interested in my work, since it is my first exhibition in Taiwan, but I’m thrilled so many people came to see the show.
It’s very exciting to hold an exhibition at such an amazing institution as Taiwan Contemporary Culture Lab (C-LAB). Yesterday, I was visited by the Dutch representative Guy Wittich, and together with C-LAB director Hsiangling Lai , we had a conversation which was covered by Georgiana Fan’s (方念華) show “Feature People” (看板人物) on TVBS. So I feel very warmly welcomed by Taiwan.
Z：Do you feel “uprooted” living away from your home country for such a long time?
K：I don’t particularly feel “uprooted”, since in a way I have always felt rootless. The Netherlands often felt a bit claustrophobic for me, not necessarily because of any characteristics of the Netherlands itself; it probably has more to do with the life I had there when I was young.
I do quite enjoy the status of outsider I have when living abroad; as an artist you are by definition an outsider looking in, not fully participating in events, rather reflecting on them.
But I do miss the casual interactions that you can have with people. You can read extensively about the history of a place, but if you don’t understand what the people around you are talking about, you do miss vital connections.
So it is a mixed feeling, being an outsider.
Z：What’s your family background? How has it influenced you as a person and as an artist?
K：My father is Dutch, but my grandparents on my mother’s side were from Indonesia. My mother was born in the Netherlands, and so was I. I grew up listening to my grandmother telling me tales of this wonderful tropical faraway land with its beautiful forests and exotic animals. My grandfather always watched a lot of nature documentaries, and, I think he even said his family used to own a zoo.
Although as I say this, I’m starting to wonder if I dreamt this bit. I am also pretty sure my grandmother told me she was a descendant of an indigenous Indonesian princess. But fact and fiction in these stories were hard to distinguish anyway, because a lot of these beautiful stories hid the ugly truth: that they lived through a war, were held captive in a Japanese concentration camp and were forced to flee the country of their birth. They always longed for this distant paradise of the Dutch East Indies with its fragrant food, beautiful people, gorgeous nature and exotic animals, but it is a dream that no longer exists. I think that longing for the exotic has influenced me a lot, and finds expression in my work.
Perhaps it was also a way for me to escape the reality of my early life. And I liked to have something so exotic to be part of my identity, to be what my grandma called me, a “tropenindo”, someone Dutch-Indonesian who is good at living in the tropical jungle.
To this day, I’ve not been to Java, where my grandparents were from. I have travelled all over the world and seen so many places, but I’ve been afraid for years to go there and spoil the dream. To see with my own eyes that it is just another country, where the rubbish bins stink, with potholes in the road and human development and tourism taking over what was once a paradise.
Z：Being a full-time artist across 3 continents / 4 cities, what do you hold on to as the source of creativity when you’re constantly moving?
K：Every continent I move to, every place I live, my own experience of that place inspires my creativity. My own clumsiness, my own ridiculousness, my own struggles. The places change me, as a person, and that change, that transformation – that is what my work is about.
So it is not that I travel through a place and literally paint the landscape. I paint how the place changes me.
Z：You have also run a gallery in London as an independent curator. What drove you to work in this field? How is it related to your art practice?
K：That happened almost by accident. I cycled past an empty old shop in the east end of London, and it was available for rent. So I and my then boyfriend, now husband, moved into the back of it and bought loads of tiny foldable Ikea furniture so we could live on 20 square meters.
The front room became my studio, but it looked so much like a gallery! With its street front window between a butcher’s and a Bangladeshi pound shop, there were so many people walking past every day peeking in.
So I gathered a group of artists and together we set up a group exhibition. After that, I invited some curators to set up exhibitions.
Through these collaborations, I learned how to be a curator as well as the practical side of setting up art exhibitions. This is a valuable experience for an artist, because normally you don’t see that side since the gallery you work with does all the PR, press, organisation and sales for you.
Being on the other side taught me a lot about the artist-gallerist relationship, but what I most enjoyed was the relationship with the artists as an artist myself, the artistic connection, the feedback and the discussions about our work.
Z：You described yourself being an “outsider” in foreign countries. Does that reflect your experience growing up as a biracial child in Europe?
K：Not in the way you would think. I have felt since my teenage years I’ve had some kind of weird racial advantage being part Dutch, part Indonesian. I often felt that people of most countries see me as not quite the same, but never totally different.
I never felt discriminated for being mixed in the Netherlands, which is a very multicultural country. Although, I did grew up in a poor part of the Netherlands, where it wasn’t exactly a pretty thing to be white.
I was born in Lombok, in Utrecht, a working class area named after Lombok, the Indonesian island, which was very multiracial. After moving to Kanaleneiland I was one of the only 2 Dutch kids in the whole of my primary school. I felt extremely like an outsider for not being Moroccan, Turkish or Suriname. Later, we moved to a more ethnically Dutch town in the south of the Netherlands, but I kept being pulled towards people from different ethnicities. That just felt more interesting and exciting to me. Especially in my teenage years, being mixed race became a huge part of my identity.
I always loved to be kind of a chameleon, kind of standing out, kind of fitting in. But in Asia, I am often presumed to be American. People don’t ask “Where are you from?”, but “Are you American?” So here I have lost that chameleon part of myself.
Z：What are the things in Taiwan or Asia that inspired you the most?
K：I do take elements from Taiwan and turn them into my own stories. For example, I like the colourful, lush temples with all the gorgeous dragons. Dragons are perceived so differently in the East and the West. Here, they are a symbol of good fortune and power, whilst in the west they are evil mythological creatures. I love it when things have a double meaning like that. So I have used dragons in my own work to symbolize when something that initially seems bad, actually turns out to be a good thing.
Also, the landscape and especially the coral reefs inspire me. Since arriving in Taiwan, I started to paint the human psyche as an island. In a way, it was also my semi-subconscious way of processing Taiwan in my work.