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MOUTHFUL: a conversation with Emi Eu (STPI)

MOUTHFUL is a series of in-depth conversations with leading creative practitioners who reflect the values of crossroads thinking.

For almost two decades, Emi Eu, Executive Director of STPI Creative Workshop & Gallery, has worked with some of the most influential living artists to promote artistic experimentation in the mediums of print and paper. Artists who have participated in STPI’s residencies include Do Ho Suh, Pinaree Sanpitak, Anri Sala, Rirkrit Tiravanija, and Eko Nugroho. Eu is also on the Selection Committee of Art Basel Hong Kong. 

We spoke to Eu earlier this year. She missed lunch with her staff to keep our conversation going. 

We like to begin by going as far back as possible, and in your case I think we may have to start with your mother! She was a textile artist and historian, yes? 

I was brought up by my father’s parents— my grandparents— until I was thirteen, and I only got to live with my mom from the age of thirteen onwards. And honestly I really didn’t  know much about her background and what she did, but only through things that were written about her and then through photos was I  able to put all the pieces together  . 

When I started to live with my mom, she was in New York so I came to New York. I had to learn English fresh because I didn’t know the language, right? At home I was always surrounded by Japanese art because she had this affinity to Japanese gardens and most of our home furnishings were a mixture of Japanese. I think there were some Korean chests, now that I think back, but she really appreciated Japanese aesthetics. This was the early eighties, and I think Japan was also a big influence in the Western part of the world at the time, you know? I still remember there were not that many Japanese restaurants in New York; people didn’t really eat sushi in the early eighties. My mom loved gardening, and everything in our garden was inspired by Japanese gardens. We had a pond, but within the house we always had Japanese kimono displays and some of her works, because I remember she was also teaching embroidery at the Metropolitan Museum, so I remember her preparing a lot for her classes, and then at one point she was taking a class at Parsons on pattern. So, she was constantly at work, but at that time I was not interested in the arts, I was more interested in music— classical music— so my youth was really spent on just listening to the recordings of Wilhelm Kempff’s Beethoven sonatas, over and over again. 


Because Mom had a collection of Deutsche Grammophon and I had a turntable in my room, so that’s what I did. That was mostly my memory, and then practicing piano and going for exams.

How did the visual arts connection emerge? Were you trying to be closer to your mother by pursuing that or not at all?

No, not at all. I was really not exposed to the arts in such depth until I went to live in Venice, which was after college. But my first foray into the visual arts was when I did my internship at the Metropolitan Museum of Art after graduating from high school. It was a summer internship and I think my mom just pulled her strings there because she was so well-known within the museum then, and she wanted me to do all this to prepare for university. Like, what mothers do. But it was really interesting because I wanted to study business; that’s what everybody wanted to do then, and Mom was like ‘Well, why don’t you write you want to study art history, nobody wants to study art history,’—that was back then. Now everybody wants to do art history! And I was like ‘No, I want to study business’, so of course I didn’t listen to my mom. 

But, I think we all have our time. Even in the Bible, in Ecclesiastes, everything, there’s a time for everything. And the more I work in this field, it’s like, if it’s not meant to be, it won’t be there. It just doesn’t materialize. And this is also drawing on Chinese philosophy of Dao—you should just go with the flow.

How would you describe your mother’s work?

She was an innovator. She is a visionary. Just like any other traditional form of art, there are rules and there is tradition that you need to keep to. I don’t know embroidery very much, but what I know is that she basically came up with new ways of twisting the thread. For example, because embroidery’s on a two-dimensional surface, it’s almost like drawing on silk, right? She had a book called Drawing with Needles. It’s all in there. Depending on the thickness of each part that you embroider, you are creating a relief, just like what the sculptors did, or even the Renaissance sculptors or the Chinese wood carvers. You try to create the depth by—


Yeah, by texture, or the thickness of the thread, and how it’s twisted, and if you combine the colours. It’s all very, very different. She is extremely talented. From an artist’s point of view she has a gift of seeing things in colors. Her color aesthetics are just really amazing. 

When she was doing her PhD, she spent half a year in Venice, and that’s why she wanted me to go there. And she was really poor, she says. There was not enough money to buy materials that she wanted, but she would just find leftover fabrics from the studios. And she made collages  instead of drawing the landscape, so when I look at them now it’s really amazing. 

Yeah, wow. 

And she’s an amazing cook. That’s how I learned my cooking! 

That seems to be a thread there, isn’t it? Between people who apply their senses to a particular craft being very well-versed in other crafts—

You know what— I don’t know if I mentioned this to you last time… but after having worked with over a hundred artists, I find the common thread amongst artists that I really admire, a lot of times, they know how to cook really, really well. And if they don’t cook, they have an extreme sensibility to the senses.

In Venice, do you remember a work that really struck you?

Oh my gosh, that’s such a big question. I mean, I can tell you the moment when I felt like, ‘Oh, I do actually like art’, was when I was interning at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I think they had a blockbuster Monet show. And I was wowed. I was really obsessed with Monet after, and then I tried to copy one of his paintings. I mean, I’m not really good, but I could copy things pretty well. So I used to do that. 

Where and when did Singapore come into this story?

I’ve never really had deep roots in one place physically because I’ve moved around so much. And I never really felt like anywhere specific was home, until Singapore. That’s because this is where I started my family. My kids were born here and this is now home for me. 

But if you ask me how I would identify myself, I really would say I’m still Korean. Both my mother and I are very, very attracted to the history of our heritage. And because of that, I really see the whole world as one, because everything is related. We just speak different languages, we may look differently—

Can you expand on that a little bit?

That we are all related?

Yeah, and how that relates to your understanding of your own heritage. 

Well, I have to say that this is a really personal thing, right? I have a very deep commitment to my belief in Christianity, and I have been studying the Bible for almost 20 years now. And what does it mean to study the bible? One of my teachers is a retired judge from the Singapore government. After having attended on and off, here’s what really impacted me from his classes. We’re not just studying the Word, but also how it applies to us. And this is what I believe: I believe there’s one God. And this may sound really weird to you guys but, you know the story of the Tower of Babel? 


But even before that—I just started two to three weeks of Genesis chapter one. From there I got a much better understanding about the creation of the world, and the one thing that really struck me was— how many continents do you think there were when God created the world?


That was it. I was like, ‘Wow.’ And then the whole thing just fell into place. And that’s why—I mean, that’s where my belief is: that we are all connected. We come from one source. And because I travel so much and I look at the food. 

And when I first came to Southeast Asia, when we first went to Vietnam 19 years ago, I remember going to some of the Delta areas and I just saw all these little fish that people were gathering. It was so smelly. That’s when I realized, ‘wait a minute, that’s what they do in South Korea. That’s how they make the fish sauce!’ And I thought, ‘Wow, this is really interesting’. I was just learning this through food and I was like, ‘Wow, that’s exactly what we do too.’

That’s right up our alley. I think that personal realization is at the core of our practice. 

I have a very good friend who is a collector of contemporary art, but also of antiquities. He’s really a true collector because nobody knows what he has except for the people that he knows. Over dinner, he once invited a Spanish professor who had just finished contributing to a documentary about not the Silk Road, but the Silver Road— by the sea. 

That’s huge. 

He had published a book before— a very small handbook— and he’s been tracing the route of silver. And you know how Geoffrey [Eu’s husband] went to Potosi in Bolivia… that’s where the whole thing started. But why was the silver trade so big? It’s because Qianlong, the Emperor of China in the 18th century, decided that he wanted silver to be the kingdom’s currency. 

So there’s already a South American-Chinese connection. 

And Spain needed the money to support their war. They found the silver mines in South America and it all started there. They basically went to Mexico, and from Mexico to the Philippines. That’s why the Philippines was the center of trading silver. It was really amazing. Can you imagine what else came with that?

As a side note, I was just reading how entire villages in China were dedicated to specific pottery traditions that they felt would supply European demand. And this is hundreds of years ago. 

It’s Jingdezhen. 

People were already playing a supply and demand of sorts—but that created entire societies, towns, and villages, and organised and changed culture.

When you really go back into prehistoric time, we are all essentially related. We are all one because even when there was no religion, people knew there was a higher being and everybody built something to worship. If you look at Easter Island and you look at Stonehenge—they’re so far apart, but they all look the same! We talked about that when we went to Akan Lake where the Inuits— not Inuits, the Japanese…


The Ainus, right? Their patterns look like something from Polynesia or the Samoans but they are so far apart. Because we all have the same desires—same desire to feed ourselves, make sure that we’re protected. 

Have you read a book called Patterns that Connect? 

No, but I think you’ve told me about it. But it definitely connects. You know my mom’s main focus was to look at symbolism in patterns, and especially in the embroidery of royal court costumes. 


I would like to study more about Middle Eastern visual language. This is why we must spend time in the British Museum. That’s one thing that I wanted to do— spend a month in the British Museum in February when nobody goes to London. When you look at the patterns of their walls, even the mythical animals, you just can’t get away. Everything is there because people traveled and other people brought things… when we look at the Chinese pottery and Persian motifs, it’s all there. So that’s why when I look at art now, there’s so much crappy art because people think they’re producing something new but they’re not. 

Why so much crappy art? 

I do think this is the result of the market. People follow a trend. Artists follow a trend to create something to make money, rather than truly creating things that drive them. 

This is what’s happening, we have the mainstream, and we have the one that is really, like—I wouldn’t say it’s the true thing because some true artists who are also mainstream. I cannot say that Rirkrit Tiravanija is not in the mainstream. He has to be part of the mainstream to do the things that he wants to do. A lot of times, artists get very distracted when you’re just as good an artist as Rirkrit. But he needs to be part of the mainstream. He cannot avoid it, because in order to get the support that he needs to do what he wants, he needs to be part of this system. As an artist, it’s really difficult to juggle that and to juggle it well. That’s why you need good galleries and you need good friends.

Do you think that art has the ability to inspire change in people? 

It depends. I think if we don’t know the history of things we cannot appreciate what we have today. The depth of it. So the thing that I like about you is that you go and find out: what is the history, what was the context in which objects and methods were used.

We were speaking about similar topics with Rirkrit. In the past year, we have really come to understand distinctions between different art forms— paintings, sculpture, film, food— as arbitrary. How do you think about these distinctions? 

I don’t know. I think all art forms are related. It’s about creating. 

But then I think there’s a fine line between skill, technique, and your ability to master your own craft to be able to express what you want to.

Yeah, you have to know what you’re dealing with. 

The relationship between technique and meaning— that one is not more important than the other. 

Yeah, so you have to bridge that.  As a creator, you must be able to bridge your ideas—what you see—to how you’re going to bring this to people.

There are many technically talented artists, chefs, etc. But they may not necessarily have something to say. And there are many people who have things to say, but they don’t have an ability to translate that into a medium.

So just imagine those who are able to bridge this. How amazing are they? And yet, we still have a lot of artists like that. That’s pretty cool, no? 

Have you ever gotten to a place with your self-awareness or self-knowledge, where you’re looking at a work and you understand what the things are in that work that make you appreciate it? Not just the technique behind it, but have you managed to connect with, ‘Why do I like this?’

With contemporary art, I am quick— ‘I like this, I don’t like this’. [laughs] When I go to biennales I go ‘No, yes, no, yes, no’. But when I look at historical works, I spend a lot of time just learning. Because there’s always things to be learned. And I am a very visual person, so when I see something, it triggers a connection in my brain.

That’s interesting. Why are you willing to be impulsive with contemporary artists and much more studied with historical artists?

Because I think with historical works, we only have the really good ones leftover. But today, there are artists who are not— in my opinion— that good, and most of them are not good but are trendy.

The artists that you work with closely; do you see them as cultural diplomats? Do you see them as speaking between and beyond cultures? And if so, how do they do that?

Actually, I don’t. I don’t. That’s funny, right? I never really thought about it like that. I’m really looking in a holistic way. And this is, going back to my Bible study, when I realized everything is connected. That’s where I had a realization from one of my earlier years— everything that I do, I believe I must look at it holistically. 

I really think that nature is taking its own course, because I remember this whole movement of cultural diplomacy that started with music you know? Yo-Yo Ma, for example.

The Beatles did it in their own way. They are the ones who really brought out Indian culture to the world.

Yes, the sitar came over to the West with the Beatles, George Harrison.

Thank god for music! Seriously, guys, if we didn’t have music, whether it’s classical or jazz or pop or whatever… I mean it just brings people together. 

It’s almost like the return to what the most elemental parts of artistic expression were about, right? 

If we look at history— even from the prehistoric period— when people gathered they always had some kind of rhythm. When they did the rituals it was always accompanied by some sort of music. Music is one of the things that bonds us together. 

I feel that we will see visual arts as being a part of our lives and affecting us after. Exactly, because the visual arts has always been visual, historical, documentational; it’s an archive. So we will see its impact later. 

But there’s always a direct connection between what you want to do and what you do.

Mind, body, and then to the connection.

Output is not separate or broken down. Ivan’s stepfather came to the restaurant recently and he brought with him his two flutes. And before he started playing, he said that it was the fortieth year he had been playing the flute. 

Oh my gosh.

He plays in a classical Turkish orchestra. You know the reed flute? It’s similar to the Japanese shakuhachi, the one without a mouthpiece that you just blow on. A bamboo tube, essentially. But he says that in the first three years of playing, you don’t make any noise. 

Yeah, you cannot make any noise. 

It’s just hollow bamboo. And of course, Jiro says the same thing about how you have to work in his restaurant for ten years before you can make tamago.

You can’t even make rice!

You just sweep the floor.

Yeah, exactly, you just sweep the floor.

It’s like Karate Kid. I’ve always loved this story about how in Japan, a lot of these automated car factories still have a human knife sharpener to sharpen the cutting tools for the robot.

Yes, probably that it’s needed.

When you put that question into the context of contemporary work, what makes a contemporary work more likely to stand the test of time? 

I think in contemporary work it’s going to be all about ideas. It’s about an idea, and that idea being executed the way it should be. 

This is so interesting. Jerry Saltz says art is thought embedded in material. 

That’s right. Exactly. 

I’ve been obsessed with this idea that connection lies at the birth of it all. That we’re consistently just looking to find connection with things that we see. It isn’t necessarily just symmetry. Otherwise computers could do it. 

You guys are actually kind of indirectly addressing one of the critical issues that the art world faces today. There aren’t enough scholars or curators who can interpret at various levels—or somebody who can understand, ‘Oh, you know what, for this show, if our aim is this, then we gotta write it like that, for this show it would have to be something different’—we need more discerning people who can actually mold and change the same thing onto and for different levels.