October 4, 2023

Yeh Hsin-Hung A-Lei – Monster Secret Base | Art City Travelogue

The slender Ye Xinhong (A-Lei) has a youthful charm, transforming humor into creations. With his hands, he molds round and amusing three-dimensional monsters, and with ink brush strokes, he presents different monsters. In this episode of “Art City Travelogue,” we take you into the secret lair of the father of these monsters.

The road of creation is inevitably full of ups and downs, and for Ye Xinhong (A-Lei), it is no exception. Compared to many creators who are still floating, he can be considered to have experienced bitterness before sweetness. Graduating from the Ink Painting Department of Taiwan Art University, he entered the illustration industry, creating girlish images that do not match his own appearance. Life is pressing, and the girls he depicts always carry a sense of sorrow. It wasn’t until the age of 29 that he won the gold prize in the 2005 Designer Toy Competition with his first creation of a doll, and the gears of destiny began to turn. From paper clay to pottery, he molds the contours of his dreams with his own hands.

The monsters he creates are both strange and cute, exuding a kind of playful magic. In recent years, the monsters have also been transformed into bronze sculptures, going from fragile to strong, and their size has expanded exponentially, carrying his hopes for the future. Last year, at the Taipei International Art Fair, the monsters were presented in the form of ink paintings, showcasing his highly personal new works.
Yeh Hsin-hung, who gained fame through his monsters, is full of humor, just like the monsters he creates, always making people laugh. Because he is the monster, and the monster is him. This artist, who seems like a child trapped in an adult’s body, views the world from an appropriate distance, which is also his way of creating and living. Just like his pen name, “Ah Li,” which is a transliteration of the Japanese term meaning “that one over there,” he takes on the perspective of an observer, maintaining a somewhat detached relationship with the crowd. Ah Li, who is accustomed to hiding behind his works, is now stepping forward to share with everyone his dreamlike monster paradise filled with mist and rain.

“Can you really make money from collectible toys?”

As time goes by, the boundaries between many things become blurred, and art is no longer exclusive to a select few. It opens up more possibilities and challenges Ah Lai’s concept of creation. This leads him to transition from illustration to toy design, and then to his famous ceramic monster series. To trace the origins of all this, we have to go back to the late 90s when Hong Kong’s “Figure Father” Michael Lau sparked a craze for collectible toys. Ah Lai laughs and says, “At that time, collectible toys were popular in Hong Kong, and it fascinated me while also challenging my existing notions. So you can actually make money from toys? Michael Lau had an exhibition in Taipei at that time, and I was amazed that art and toys could be combined. His 12-inch dolls had a unique design sense, and with over 40 pieces on display, the visuals were stunning. It made me realize that you can do what you love and make money from it.” With his imagination running wild, Ah Lai found even more motivation to push forward in the face of adversity. After graduating, he took on various jobs to make a living, but his passion for creating never waned. He quit his regular job and self-recommended himself to newspapers, as social media had not yet arrived. Traditional print media was the only platform for illustrators and the window to the outside world.

Ah Lie, who comes from an ink painting background, created his first personal illustration that has nothing to do with ink painting, but instead depicts a girlish style. He said, “I don’t like ink painting, but I like the ink lines. They are suitable for portraying girls in paintings.” The delicate girlish style did not attract much attention, but it earned him a living. His illustrations of girls also became the covers of Taiwanese author Zhang Manjuan’s works, and “Ah Lie” became his pen name during this period. Even though he occasionally received more job opportunities and had loyal fans collecting his newspaper works, his monthly income from illustrations was less than 5,000 Taiwanese dollars, sometimes even zero. Suffering from the harsh reality, the girls in Ah Lie’s drawings carry an indissoluble sorrow, trapped in a difficult situation. The Hong Kong toy craze opened up another creative path for him. He had been working in flat illustrations, but being poor became a turning point for him. He tried creating three-dimensional dolls with the lowest cost paper clay to participate in a designer toy competition. With no way back, Ah Lie won the gold award in his first competition, and from then on, he embarked on the creation of three-dimensional dolls.

Ah Li’s illustrations during the girl style period.
“Clay is very warm and full of vitality.”

Alie, who has won the gold prize twice in the designer toy competition, did not pursue toy design in the end, but “three-dimensionality” led him to develop in ceramics. It wasn’t until he was almost 30 years old that he took a ceramics course at a community college. Among a group of elderly students who were making cups and plates, he was making strange dolls with limbs. The process of transforming from two-dimensional to three-dimensional, from nothingness to reality, made him crazily obsessed with ceramics. The world of creation became broader for him. He laughed and said, “Ceramics have warmth and vitality, and they feel connected to my personality. Each type of ceramic material has its own interesting aspects, especially the glaze color, which cannot be fully controlled. It is a very individual medium. The moment of firing often brings both shock and surprise. That’s also why I didn’t continue making toys. Toys are too neat and lack a sense of life.” It seems to be within grasp yet uncertain, ceramics are just like this contradiction, but they are the same as fate.

Over time, things ferment and present themselves in different ways. Ah Lie’s ink technique has transitioned from traditional handmade paper to clay, revealing a different color tone. His monsters don’t shine, but rather appear weathered, as if they are covered in wind and frost. This comes from his foundation in ink techniques. He shares, “I use ink brushstrokes to glaze, and also use sponges and knives to scrape, as if painting on a three-dimensional canvas. Sometimes I stack multiple layers of glaze and then scrape off the surface, creating a translucent visual effect. For example, with white, I don’t use just one shade of white, but layer two or three shades of white. So I like to use different glaze colors to let them naturally produce changes.” The same glaze put into the kiln produces different colors at different temperatures, making the stacking process more challenging. But Ah Lie doesn’t like mainstream spray guns or dipping glaze, because the brightness and completeness make him feel like it’s a product, lacking the tension of life. Through intricate processing, he gives his monsters a textured quality on the outer layer, revealing vitality and a warm ink-like feeling.

“Style may be influenced by the accumulation of life experiences.”

For ceramic creation, Ah Lie humorously said, “In the process, I feel like a chef cooking. Rolling clay is like rolling noodles, cutting clay is like cutting toast, and pressing it into thin slices is like dumpling wrappers. Gradually stacking these ingredients into a dish.” He metaphorically describes the creative process in a relatable way because Ah Lie’s inspiration for his creations, including the birth of monsters, also comes from his understanding of life. He shares, “Style may be influenced by the accumulation of life. I gradually found elements that I like, which are interesting but also a bit ugly. Monsters are the inner representation of every person. You can say they are transformed from humans, or you can say they come from outer space or the universe. There is no absolute answer. I enjoy creating monsters. No matter what they do, how long their limbs are, or how disproportionate their proportions are, it is all reasonable because they are monsters. They have absolute freedom.” Looking closely at his monsters, they give a sense of familiarity and strangeness. For example, they may resemble cats or diamond shapes, things from daily life that Ah Lie creatively transforms into different forms and expressions from established concepts. These monsters are “dynamic,” presented in biological postures. They can lie down or daydream, giving people a magical smile when they look at them.

Monsters are not only observed and evolved from daily life, but also carry Ah Lie’s emotions. He thought for a moment and said, “I feel that monsters are partly speaking about some marginalized people in society, like me. I couldn’t find a job because I didn’t know computer graphics, so I became a monster that is ignored by society, pitifully cowering in the corner. For example, I really want to travel abroad but don’t have the money, so I become a monster with wings, able to fly freely.” Monsters are both the different roles played by Ah Lie in his eyes and a reflection of his current mood and desires. In the end, this monster who has always hidden in the dark is finally stepping into the spotlight, being seen by the Fubon Art Foundation and invited to hold an exhibition.

When it comes to the monsters that have caught the attention of the general public, we have to mention the solo exhibition “Spring River Beast Moon Night” at the “Kanhai Art Museum” in Checheng, Pingtung in 2021. At that time, one of Ah Lie’s monsters, “Spring River,” became a large inflatable version and climbed onto the roof of the art museum. The interesting and impactful scene left a deep impression. The giant monsters also expanded Ah Lie’s pursuit of “volume” in his creations. His ceramic works became larger and larger, and later he even crossed over into bronze sculptures. He jokingly said, “In the past, my creative pursuit was for basic needs, but once those were fulfilled, desires become stronger and greater. Now, I hope more people can see my works. I hope to establish an art museum. The hard material of bronze also aligns with my pursuit of having monsters in natural landscapes. It allows my works to be displayed in larger outdoor spaces without being limited by the size of a kiln.”

In 2021, Chunjiang Beast outside the Pingtung Sea Art Museum.
In 2021, a solo exhibition titled “Spring River, Moonlit Night” was held at the Pingtung Seashore Art Museum.

The pursuit of vitality in copper sculptures only involves using different techniques. Ah Li explained, “Copper, like pottery, has unpredictable characteristics. Copper needs to be corroded with chemical agents and then wait for several days or even weeks to see the effect. It will also oxidize, and then it can be waxed to isolate water and air for color fixing.” Copper sculptures often weigh hundreds of kilograms and have large dimensions, requiring the use of stairs for transportation. The corrosion process is highly dangerous and requires high-temperature baking with open flames. The process is relatively laborious compared to working with clay, but Ah Li enjoys it.

The process of making bronze sculptures.

“A monster’s ink feel!”

On the one hand, he is obsessed with harder and larger bronze sculptures, and on the other hand, he returns to the quiet creation of ink paintings. When he picks up the brush again, he realizes a change in mindset. Perhaps he doesn’t dislike ink paintings, but rather dislikes being bound by the rigid educational system in the past. He recalls his feelings when he re-engaged in ink painting: “It took me a lot of time to try ink painting again. I express it in a monster-like way now. Without a teacher denying my creation, I return to ink painting. I am free. I can constantly find the elements I like in it, a monster’s ink feeling.” The shackles are broken, and Ah Lie can freely splash ink, placing the monsters in his mind into different ink paintings. He laughs and says that the inspiration for ink painting is very spontaneous, presenting different characteristics of monsters based on the current brush quality and ink state.

For those with a neat and peculiar Ah Li, the biggest difference between ceramics and ink painting is day and night. Ah Li said slowly, “Before starting ink painting, you need to tidy up the surroundings very clean, the floor, the table, the cushion, etc. After placing the paper on the table, start grinding the ink. While grinding, feel and search for the image in your heart, looking for the path to encounter the monster in the white space. Ink painting is a journey of the mind from nothing to something, and then back to nothing. The creative process must be quite quiet, so it mostly happens late at night.” With a sense of ritual and regularity, the essence is similar to traditional ink painting. First, settle down in the present moment and return to the true self. He added, “Painting is a quiet medium, silently accepting the additives given to it. The process is comfortable and a bit lazy.”

“The hardest part of the creative journey is maintaining a childlike heart!”

After only half a day of interviewing and spending time together, you can feel the childlike innocence in Ah Lie’s eyes, just like his works. They possess a kind of magical happiness, which is also the core message and creative concept of his works – happiness. He jokingly says, “You must be happy first in order to infect your works and give them energy. They will then become healthy works.” He recalls that the images of girls he painted when he first started were not happy because he was under a negative energy brought on by the pressures of life. Unhealthy works cannot attract more people’s love, and he doesn’t like to create works with a gloomy expression. He jokingly mentions the four major survival standards: sunlight, air, water, and humor. This sense of humor is also his creative engine. He thinks and says, “The most difficult thing on the creative path is to maintain a childlike heart, to maintain the purest starting point. The prerequisite for creation is honesty. You must be honest with yourself. This work is something you genuinely like and sincerely want to complete, rather than just thinking about how much money it can sell for. Nowadays, many creations are too hollow. Too many people are copying Yoshitomo Nara. It’s okay to start with imitation, but don’t end up losing yourself in the process.”

Born in Kaohsiung, grew up in Taipei, studied in Keelung, served in Kinmen, and now residing in Xindian, to the present day in Taoyuan, Ah Lie has always been in a state of movement. Each city has provided different nourishment for his creations, especially Keelung. Keelung, where it rains for three-quarters of the year, combined with the mysterious fog, has become the location of his ideal “Monster Art Museum”. Because Ah Lie’s dream is to build a “Monster Art Museum” in a place with fog and rain, this specific climate requirement is not only due to Keelung, but also stems from his imagination. He jokingly said, “I think fog gives people a mysterious and terrifying feeling, and it also attracts your curiosity. It’s a perfect atmosphere for monsters to appear! When I first came to see this studio, it was around December and there was fog on the floor above. It was this fog that made me decide to choose this place. This place cannot be accurately displayed even on Google Maps. I call this place my secret monster base.” It is fortunate to visit this “secret monster base”, and it can only be said that it is truly far away from the city, very suitable for hiding monsters. The surrounding mountain scenery and the fog that moves like clouds have also become the scenery in his ink paintings, quietly discovering the traces of monsters in the valleys.

Mentioning the most influential or meaningful city, it is Kinmen, where I served in the military. He said, “Kinmen gave me a sense of detachment, but it was the freest time of my life. At that time, I worked as a movie projector operator in Kinmen, with no worries every day, not having to worry about making a living, just unable to return to Taiwan Island, so I spent my days leisurely drawing. Moving to other cities afterwards allowed me to see different interesting scenery, giving me a happier and more adventurous feeling.” Whether he will continue to move in the future is unknown, but at least for now, Ah Lie will continue to use his hands to create the monster paradise in his heart.

Producer: Mimi Kong
Interview & text: Kary Poon
Photographer: Wei
Video Edit: Kason Tam & Alvin Kong
Design: Alvin Kong
Producer: Mimi Kong
Interview & text: Kary Poon
Photographer: Wei
Video Edit: Kason Tam & Alvin Kong
Design: Alvin Kong

Share This Article
No More Posts
[mc4wp_form id=""]