Inside Outsider Art: A Conversation with Cole Lu
St. Louis-based artist Cole Lu has always taken one piece of advice to heart: Never hesitate if you’re thinking about buying a book. That’s how she ended up with more than a thousand of them in her Downtown loft apartment. “My dad has been the library director at the Oriental Institute of Technology in New Taipei City, Taiwan for more than 30 years, so that’s how I grew up. The library was my babysitter,” she says.
A graduate of Washington University’s MFA program and Assistant Director of Fort Gondo Compound for the Arts, Lu’s work often centers on questions of identity and the irony of miscommunication, largely inspired by literature. “So much of communication is based on gesture, body language, and eye contact. Those speak louder than the words you choose,” she says.
Born in Taiwan, Lu has a heightened capability to capture that double-edged sword of communication: how it bears the ability both to connect and to isolate. The idea led to her show at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis in 2015, titled “Smells Like Content.” Lu’s latest installation is built from a library of her own books, shown at Roman Susan in Chicago. Of the work, she says, “This library is my self-portrait. It’s very personal.” This year she will also show at the Fiesp Cultural Center in Brazil, and in the show “Brave New World” in Greece. I sat down with the artist to discuss her inspiration and background as a creator.
Are you the kind of artist who came out of the womb and started sketching?
No, I started with photography. For me, it was a quick entry point to art-making without formal training. I didn’t need to paint the most beautiful painting to feel like I was qualified to make work. Then I realized that how I see things together is the craft. I taught myself dark room photography on the weekends while I was working full-time as a lab manager at a plant and microbiology lab, and used my darkroom photos to apply to graduate school.
Do you think art has the ability to influence positive social change?
I do. Art, because it’s a visual language, can disseminate broadly and open up a dialogue. It’s a good way to create change, rather than coming in with a manifesto. Especially with a lot of the great programming in St. Louis—the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis is free, Saint Louis Art Museum is free, Pulitzer Arts Foundation is free. That’s really rare and different from many other places. Museums cost money, and cost is another way to reject certain people. But visual art as a language can be the norm, and it can be used as a social justice tool. Having it free and open to the public makes that possible.
Is your family supportive of you making art for a living?
At first they were like, “What are you doing?” But at the time, when I chose to quit my job and go to grad school, I wanted to ll my soul, rather than be a breathing machine in order to get my bills paid, have money, and then consume something material to ll whatever may have been empty inside. I couldn’t take it anymore. They understand that. My mom said, “Whatever makes you feel happy is the most important thing.” She knows that I don’t need a beautiful outfit or a house in the suburbs in order to feel happy. This is enough for me.
What do you think of the label “mixed—media artist?”
I think labels are really funny. They’re just an easy way for people to filter who I am. People tend to be intimidated by things they can’t figure out, and it’s a way for them to quickly assess what you do. I don’t get bothered by it. I consider myself a visual artist and I choose media that t the concept. Sometimes it’s books, sometimes it’s an envelope, sometimes it’s audio. I’m not bound by any medium.
Where do you find inspiration?
I find inspiration locally because I have a lot of amazing artistic friends—not to mention a lot of faculty from Washington University in St. Louis and an amazing writer’s community, which influences a lot of my work. St. Louis is really good in that way. As far as artistic inspiration, I think it’s both traveling and staying rooted, where you can build a really personal connection.
You’ve talked about losing your mother tongue, Taiwanese Mandarin, in the process of learning English. Can you elaborate on the implications of that and how they surface in your work?
Yes. Even though my work has an aspect of humor, it also has an aspect of sorrow. I think this ability to know multiple languages is also a disability, because in order to know a language so well that you can be fluent, somehow you have to give up some capacity of another. I can’t always be 100 percent fluent; for me, they cancel each other out. My mother tongue has gotten worse over time. I’ve made work about the same thing— how you might be a part of multiple cultures and then in the end, you don’t feel like you belong to a certain one (as seen in 2016’s “Soft Architecture”). I constantly feel like I’m an outsider of every culture and every language. When I go home to visit, I feel a reverse culture shock because of a lot of customs and cultures that I’m not used to. Luckily, I am in visual art. My peers tend to be extremely liberal and understand the notion of marginalization. I consider myself lucky to be surrounded by people like that.
Cole Lu’s work will be exhibited at The Luminary in St. Louis opening on Sept. 2, as part of The Oklahoma Visual Arts Coalition triennial exhibition and regional artist exchange. The show is titled “Concept/Focus,” and will be on view through Sept. 29.
All photos by Attilio D’Agostino. This story appeared in ALIVE’s “Express Yourself” issue. Subscribe to ALIVE here.