With a wide range of skills amassed during years of studying costume design and fine art, Lulu Meng has built a gorgeous body of work around the practice of imbuing objects with a relatable human energy. The physical and spiritual world feel totally in harmony when experiencing her pieces, due in large part to an animistic approach she developed while navigating the cultural influences of the United States and her native Taiwan.
In her Midtown studio and apartment, she performs grand gestures in a relatively small space, each corner hiding little clues to better understanding her profound vision. We frequently choked back tears while in discussion with Lulu about her creative philosophies — hers is a sweetness rarely seen in this or any age.
You work out of studios in both New York and Taipei — what are some of the challenges and benefits of being an artist in each of those cities?
The majority of my art-making has taken place in the States. I spend most of my time in Taiwan with my family and friends since I am always busy and focused on my work when I am here. I am starting to engage with the Taiwanese art scene more. However, I would like to approach your question from a cultural perspective.
I often think of the cultural influences I have from both places, Taiwan and the States, which affect my creative practice a great deal. People in Taiwan care for others and are willing to go an extra mile to help. This collective characteristic taught me to be generous and empathetic. Growing up in Taipei, I also learned to be a part of a group, blending in, not standing out too much. I cared a lot about how others thought about me. As result, I became quite observant, and sometimes over-thought about many things.
When I first came to the States, individualism was a foreign idea for me. Getting used to this idea was even harder than articulating myself in English at first. I still remember it vividly. In one of my very first classes in graduate school, a classmate was hanging his photographs for critique. I approached him to help spontaneously. He was very surprised and said I was so nice. I was surprised as well. The gesture I offered was so natural between people in Taiwan that I didn’t realize that it was special. On the other hand, I also tasted the freedom coming from a society that doesn’t emphasize the collective. I’ve learned not to care too much about what others think of me.
Being able to be perceptive is certainly beneficial to my art-making, while the liberty and confidence coming from not concerning myself too much about what others think helps to shape my unique voice to express my feelings and thoughts through art.
In some of your past works, molded shoes have represented whole people and wrinkles in shirts have represented emotional memories. Can you remember when you first started associating clothing items with more complex themes?
It has been a gradual development since my study of costume design in university. One important aspect of costume design is that costume assists in the building of a character. In other words, costume shapes identity. It helps the actor/actress to melt into a character and influences how the audience perceives the character.
Throughout my study of costume design, I thought a lot about identity — not just the fictional identity that I needed to analyze for design purposes, but also how people in general construct their identity through clothes.
Later, I worked briefly in fashion, which is the “real world” compared to theater. I found a similarity. Or I should say, it’s the same. In real life and on stage, we don’t run around naked, usually. Clothes are always the second skin that covers our bodies, even when we are asleep (for most people, of course). We cannot choose the color/texture/features of our skin and body. But, we can choose what to wear.
A costume designer can make a character look younger/older, poor/wealthy, feminine/masculine. Same thing in real life — we can choose for ourselves or are sometimes conditioned by societal circumstance, like financial status, religion, or occupation (uniform).
The humble shirt has also made multiple appearances in your work — you’ve made stainless steel collars, printed buttons, massive elongated sleeves, even pieces about the hangers they rest on, as though they were parts of a person. Do you think a shirt has a soul?
Shirts, collars, or other body-related elements represent people in my work. In a way, I think you could say that a piece of clothing has a soul or an identity.
What intrigues me is the absence and presence that simultaneously exists by exhibiting a garment or a piece of a garment without a body. The sole existence of clothes indicates the absence of a person, while the style and material imply the characteristic or culture of the imaginary owner of the clothes. However, such implications conceived by a viewer predominantly depend on the background of the viewer. What we see is what we project. Like in Shakespeare’s play, As You Like It:
“All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players…”
I put on the costume. Every day is an act of the play of my life. In theater, costume is a way for the audience to recognize a character. Is it the same in real life? Without being covered by the specific kind of clothes that I choose to represent myself with, can I still be myself? Am I still unique? Do I still feel comfortable and confident enough to put myself out there to interact with others?
Although fabric has been an important medium for you, it's far from the only one in your wheelhouse — photography, film, performance, painting, poetry and others have all been tools in conveying your concepts. Where did you start? Was there a specific practice that made you fall in love with art in the first place?
Making things with my hands has always been something I enjoy doing. I remember my grandmother taught me how to make origami clothes and animals, and my grandfather taught me to write calligraphy. They would hold my hands, guide me to do them. I used to build paper castles with great details, such as a fully functional drawbridge that I was very proud of. It was natural for me to make something to share my happiness or simply just calm myself down, like repetitively folding paper, which helps me to be focused.
Then something I will never forget happened. It was the first time I wanted to do something to materialize my feelings. It was a dance performance I saw when I was fifteen. I was deeply struck by the dancer’s forceful yet graceful movement. I had never felt so emotional and speechless before. I wanted to write down my feelings to remember but found no words that could describe how I felt, truly, to the core. That night, when I got home, I just asked my dad to buy me a camera. I wanted to capture feelings that I couldn’t articulate.
Later on, with all the skills I acquired, my practice naturally evolved to be concept-driven. Use of different mediums depends on the ideas and the visual presentation.
Movement and mobility are common themes in your work, from your multiple collaborations with dancers to your own movements around the world. Has this always been the case? Do you fear stagnation?
It is more of a conscious choice to explore and learn from firsthand experiences. For me, movement is essential in life. Nothing is ever completely still. Even in something as solid as a piece of rock, on the subatomic scale, particles (electrons) are appearing and disappearing constantly. Due to my scientific background, I often think about most things or situations in life as some kind of physical phenomenon. To me, in life and in science, ‘what it is’ is usually less interesting than why it is what it is. Asking why indicates an act of search, which equals to movement. It’s the same when I am making art and living my life. Rather than defining what things are, I prefer to ask why it is and try to near the answer through asking more questions and making something tangible.
In terms of traveling around and collaborating with people, physically being in a different culture stimulates me. New experience not only enriches my life and work, it also makes me reflect on my existing ideas and belief. In short, movement facilitates growth.
Your 2012 series, ‘Amassment’, displayed people in front of their expansive collections of everything from high heels to CDs to boxer briefs. Are you a collector yourself? If so, what do you collect?
On the contrary, I don’t think I am a collector. Yet, I’ve been thinking about this. Do I really not collect anything? There is indeed something that I am keen on — I will say I collect faith and positive energy. I tend to keep good memories. When good people and things come into my life, I make an effort to remember the moments, the affirmative feelings, fill myself with them and share them with people.
In your description of your 2017 piece Virtue and Reward, you wrote: “My parents are rather open-minded. Yet, it is challenging to remove myself from the culture and history I came from.” Why have you felt the need to remove yourself?
I am surprised to see what I wrote. Thank you for bringing up this question. Quite a shock actually. I am caught off guard by you and my previous thought, to “remove myself from the culture and history I came from,” especially the word choice, “remove.” Such a strong gesture.
Sitting here answering your question in 2018, I realize how much I’ve changed in the past year.
I guess I had carried the feeling of suppression with me all the way since coming here seven years ago until very recently. The suppression from the social norms in Taiwan that I wished to run away from.
Growing up in Taipei, I was used to but tired of being the person that I expected myself to be and that others expected me to be. I felt anxious when I was around 26. I worried that my life would just be like that, doing a job that I didn’t feel passionate about, and never getting to do what I love to do. I felt I had to leave, escape from myself and from Taiwan, go to a different place and start anew.
The more time I’ve spent in the States, the more I figure that the repressed feelings I had didn’t come from my Taiwanese culture and history. There are many things I love about Taiwan, the beauty of our land, the warmth of our people. Traveling and living in different countries makes me see that each society has its own strengths and conventions. Here in the States, it is liberal in some aspects, but not so much in the others.
I had the similar feeling that I wanted to leave again after living in the States for a couple of years. I felt trapped again by all my efforts, trying so hard to fit into society here.
Very recently, a serendipity found me and gave me profound clarity. I came to the realization that trying to break away from conformity and labels was what hindered me. Walking away from what I don’t like is never a solution. I was not satisfied with how some of my thoughts and feelings were influenced by external factors. Yet, good or not ideal just yet, I am who I am now. Only through fully embracing who I was, what I did, where I came from, what my influences are, what I want, and who I am, am I able to inch toward the ideal me that I see myself to be.
This reminds me why I chose to make art. The process of art-making enables me to reveal my most honest feelings and thoughts to myself and to others. Physically engaging with materials grounds me in the earthly world, while imagination and contemplation elevates me to spiritually connect to divine energy.