An Interview with Zin Taylor

Photo: Lucie Malbequi

Part archaeologist, part translator and part storyteller, Zin Taylor sees words and language as shapes, then digs deeper to unearth cultural references reflecting people, places, events and eras.

Born in Calgary, Alberta in 1978, Taylor spent his early life there, earning a BFA in 2000 from the Alberta College of Art and Design. Moving to Toronto in 2001, he later earned an MFA from the University of Guelph. Known internationally for installations that include performance, drawing, sculpture, printmaking and video, Taylor often includes narration in his work, culled from popular culture, storytelling, news stories and his own research.

After living in Brussels for several years, in 2016 he moved to Paris, where he now lives. His work is found in public and private collections around the world — including the National Gallery of Canada — and he has participated in solo and group exhibitions across Europe and North America.

In this interview, Taylor describes how his thoughts literally take shape to become forms and images. 


Zin Taylor, Maquette for the Five Units of Haze, 2016. Image courtesy of Zin Taylor/Supportico Lopez. Photo: Zin Taylor

NGC Magazine: Your work seems to walk the line between tangible and intangible, concrete and nebulous. Your new show at the Oakville Galleries is called Five Units of Haze. What is the discourse taking place in these works?

Zin Taylor: I’ve been looking at how ideologies, in the past and present, produce and adopt forms. Five Units of Haze presents five different propositions, which overlap and assist one another. How does thinking take shape? What are the tools it uses to communicate? This exhibition is a culmination of ideas that I’ve had through the years regarding a language of difference, and the ways in which recognizable forms can be used for alternative means. 

NGCM: What inspired this show? 

ZT: When Frances Loeffler approached me about developing an exhibition for Oakville Galleries, two options presented themselves. The first was obvious: composing something that was site-specific to the natural setting of Gairloch Gardens and the colonial-style house occupied by Oakville Galleries. This is something that has been done quite often, and for good reason, by many artists. My other idea was to do something more unsettling: pushing through the gallery spaces with little regard or sympathy for the building’s narrative, and instead of being responsive to the context, dropping ideas into the space so that they move like a fog between the four rooms. 

Zin Taylor, Body Alphabet (The Reclining Hippy), 1/6, six A4 color photographs, edition of 2, 2015. Image courtesy of Zin Taylor/Supportico Lopez. Photo: Zin Taylor

NGCM: You reference the work of Auguste Rodin, and Alexander Calder’s mobiles in Five Units of Haze. Could you explain how those two artists influenced you?

ZT: These two artists were thinking-tools in helping me develop an approach in which thoughts are translated into a visual language — where the finished form on display is a stand-in for the composed language that exists behind it. 

Rodin practiced a process called marcottage, cutting up and re-assembling his sculptures to develop new ideas. I saw this as an attempt to produce an alphabet of gesture, or units, from his own sculptural language. The shelves of his studio were filled with different versions of arms, legs, torsos, heads, hands, etc., like a giant alphabet of objects, that his assistants would articulate into new poetic compositions of Modernist form.

With Calder, of course, the mobiles come to mind — in particular, the oblong forms that were cut from metal, grouped, and then suspended in the air. Through the years, I’ve found several written indices that relate each abstract amorphous shape to an alphabetical analog. In other words, each cluster of shapes is the composition of a word. It’s literally language hanging in space. The works in Five Units of Haze share these approaches in one way or another, translating thinking into something to look at, listen to, visually read, abstract, and so on.

NGCM: This show also features a wall mural stretching throughout the gallery, which you’ve described as “illustrating a narrative about human form in relation to objects in space.” Could you explain what that means? 

ZT: The wall drawings, started in 2014, are collectively titled, Thoughts of a Dot as it Traverses a Space. It’s what I would describe as a psychological backdrop. The line of the dot as it traverses the surface — to borrow a line from Paul Klee. The composition of each frieze entails the building-up of illustrative units, working together to build a narrative: something akin to the letters of the alphabet. The illustrative nature of the walls ties in with the idea of a caricature serving as the abbreviation of a thought: the way it looks needs to be recognizable, to resemble a certain impression of a subject. This is similar to a verbal expelling of sound (talking, stating, asking) as the abbreviated communication that turns thinking into something others can understand. Think of it as haze collecting along the surface of the wall.

NGCM: You mention the figure of a reclining hippie in this show, along with a sound system playing contemporary psych music. What drew you to re-visiting this era of socio-cultural history? What are you attempting to represent? 

ZT: I’d say the full-blown references to the 1960s almost came about accidentally. Anyone who knows me is familiar with my interest in music and the cultures around it. Palms of the Fog (2013) is a book I wrote about this. I was looking at the ideas floating around in the 1960s, where criticism of what was actually happening in society began to morph into forms that exist to this day. Psychedelia, and the hallucinatory narratives related to this, had popular appeal and presence. My interest in contemporary psych music stems from looking at a musical genre that is actively using history to generate something new.

Zin Taylor, Three Ideas About Haze, 2015, Supportico Lopez, Berlin. Image courtesy of Zin Taylor/Supportico Lopez. Photo credit: Roman Schramm

NGCM: What else inspires your work?

ZT: Pretty much everything and everyone I’ve ever seen and met. Travelling always does something. A few years ago, I was pressured to come up with an idea for a show in London, England. I was talking to the curator of the space and had to admit that I had nothing. No ideas. I was really burnt out at the time from an exhibition schedule that was pretty intense. So I actually said “I have nothing.” But, I knew I was going on a three-day trip to Puglia in southern Italy for Easter, to a place I had never been, and told him I’d have an idea by the following Monday. I came back with the start of the show in my head, which became The Tangental Zig-Zag at Kunstraum, London. That show became what I consider one of my favourite works in the last few years. It opened a direction to thinking that is still being mined to this day. It certainly informs the Oakville show and this idea of haze as narrative material.

NGCM: Can you describe your approach, or process, when you are conceptualizing a new work? Does it start with a shape, a thought, a word, or all of those combined? 

ZT: Everything begins with a thought that I translate into forms. It’s always a little different. The material is typically secondary, unless I receive a specific invitation to work within a confine: a wallpaper, public sculpture, a 12-metre-long two-sided lightbox, for example. But these are opportunities: moments where you get to think differently about subjects and forms.

NGCM: You have been described as an “exquisite narrator.” What are the stories or narratives you want to tell?

ZT: I’ve always wanted to tell a different story — simple as that. I look for ways to develop a broader and more diverse story for some subject or thing that I run into. I work pretty hard to make sure the objects, images, or what is made, can talk without me being there.

NGCM: Do you see the images and shapes that you use as a “language”? How would you describe that language? 

ZT: I think the role of the artist is to develop a language that is their own. What does talking look like? What do your opinions look like? These are questions about the act of making that I ask continually in order to develop and grow. If I had to pin it down, it’s a portrait of organicism that I’m after: showing how elements of engagement, thinking, and abstraction work together.

Zin Taylor, The Proposal of a Surface (Lichen Wall), 2013, digital print onto textured wallpaper, 3000 cm x 550 cm. Image courtesy of Zin Taylor/Supportico Lopez and Kunsthalle Wien. Photo: Andrea Fichtel

NGCM: The National Gallery of Canada recently acquired your digital print mural, The Proposal of a Surface (Lichen Wall) (2013). How did this conceptual work evolve?

ZT: The work was made specifically for an exhibition at Salon der Angst at Kunsthalle Wien. Nicolaus Schafhausen brought me to Vienna with the intention of looking at the spaces and developing a wallpaper. He and I have worked like that for a while now, so I understood my role. Initially, the wallpaper was to be over the entire two floors. This really changed what I would consider inflicting upon an audience. That all-over immersive thing is a little forceful, and sometimes not in a good way. The best thing about a sculpture is that the viewer can walk away, turn their back, or look at something else. I like conversations, and I think a work of art should address this in some way. Immersion doesn't do this. It's too much of one story.

I knew right away that objects would be arranged around the wall, and that pictures and paintings would be hanging upon whatever I eventually decided to do. Eventually the two full floors of wallpaper were turned into a single wall on one floor. It was at this point that things began to come together more cohesively for me because, with one wall, it begins and it ends.

At the time, I was working on the Lichen Voices video for Fogo Island. When I was there a year earlier (in 2012) I started to photograph lichen and look into what exactly it was: a multi-leveled organism, existing as a surface, that changes its form based on what is going on around it. It is a kind of organic recording device affected by the environment, changing colour and shape accordingly. Lichens are also prehistoric. So, in my mind, they are observing and recording a vast period of time, incorporating this into their visible forms.

The photos in Lichen Wall are from one area of Fogo Island. I overlaid them in Photoshop to get a larger spread of pattern. The colour was very white, green and black. It looked boring, so I inverted the colours, as in a photographic negative. The negative, or the inverse, is like being on the inside of the image looking out. Or at least I thought of it that way. It also looked like something a person would want to think about. So this was good. 

Then there was the moment when I made a negative out of the positive colour photos, and it looked like a liquid light show from the late 1960s. These shows were designed around making visible what goes on in the mind during a hallucinogenic episode; it's what ideas look like under the influence.

NGCM: What would you like to create next?

ZT: Luckily, I have no idea. But, I think it might be about potatoes. 

NGCM: What advice do you have for emerging artists?

ZT: It’s okay to be weird.


Five Units of Haze is on view at the Oakville Galleries in Oakville, Ontario until December 30, 2016. For more information please click here. 

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