A Decade of Indigo Dyeing Creation in Retrospect

CHEN Ling-Hsiang

About a decade ago, in 1999, the production of natural indigo dye stuff was restored in Taiwan, and in the next year, I decided to be an artist working with this most ancient dye. After viewing countless indigo dyeing works and trying all kinds of expression techniques, I firmly believe that only the technique called Shibori in Japan can best elaborate the elegance of Taiwan indigo. In 2005, I published Shibori— Patterning Technique with Indigo, archiving the Shibori technique that I knew of. Actually, during my ten plus years in indigo dyeing, being introduced to Taiwan indigo in 1997, it was tough most of the time. I had been staggering along from the fumbling early years till couple years before I settled down to my specific way of creation. Luckily, I was invited twice to exhibit in Taichung County Culture Center, which gave me the perfect opportunity. It helped me to stand firm and also gave me greater courage to continue the uncertain journey.

This year, at the invitation of Keelung City Cultural Affairs Bureau in the spring of 2009, the Hundred Years of Taiwan Indigo is the first exhibition of my workshop, marching into its second decade. I and the other six artists, Jhu-Jhen LIN, Li-Gan SYU, Huei-Jhen HUANG, Fu-Mei CHEN, Pei-Ling HUANG and Li-Ren PENG, all value it greatly, hoping to give our best performances. The artworks of these six artists are all special in their own ways. In addition, we specially invited Ms. Chia-Yi CHENG to display her work—Aurora. This is an installation art that opened a new course for indigo dyeing creation.

Natural indigo is the dye with the longest history. Oddly, during these thousands of years, it seems that it has always been known as a fixed color, the dark blue. This color appears in all parts of the world, yet people at different places have varying interpretations of it. In Indonesia, it used to be a color only for the nobles even the king. However, in Japan, it was used to dye the work cloth of ordinary people. These polarized perceptions are due to the special property of indigo dye. Dark blue fabrics need to be dyed and washed repeatedly, which is time and effort consuming. Only the nobles can afford the high cost. However, dark blue also has the advantage of dirt endurance. Adding to it, natural indigo can strengthen the fibers of cotton cloth. Thus, dark blue cotton cloth turns out to be the best material for farm and labor clothing. In some areas such as the desert in middle east or the Yunnan-Kweichow Plateau in China, people not only dye clothes dark blue, but to the extent where it is close to black. In addition, they smear it with gluten and beat it hard to brighten the color. This kind of handling has more to do with their daily needs than with their peculiar sense of beauty. Not only is this kind of flashy cloth totally dust resistant, it is also water resistant. There is no need to clean it, which is a living wisdom of residents in areas with insufficient water supply.

Although indigo disappeared for almost a hundred years in Taiwan, and has just recently been recovered, the dark blue memory has returned immediately. As a result, in a new Taiwan Indigo dyeing epoch, during which the Taiwan indigo is regaining its strength, the creations we have seen are mostly an expression of the past instead. Taiwan indigo, this reborn-infant, carrying too much burden from tradition, is not given the chance to be young. It grows old right after birth. To get to the bottom of this, indigo dye as an equivalent of dark blue is a false perception. The indigo on traditional fabrics is not limited to dark blue. The clothes of ancient nobles in Japan were dyed lighter blue, while the clothes of ordinary people were dark blue on the other hand. The use of various shades of blue to create a sense of space found on medieval European tapestries is enchanting. There are also fair amount of light blue on the Chinese silk tapestries “kesi”. The holiest blue in India can be found on Krishna. It is expressed in all shades, from light blue to dark blue. Indigo is a worldwide dye. There are indigo dyeing works all over the world with different expressions. As long as you keep the knowledge of different fabrics in the world in mind while creating, you will not habitually dye your work dull dark blue.

I cannot deny that I was once trapped in this myth of dark blue. Facing these simple yet extremely contrasting blue and white, I often had difficulties in maintaining my enthusiasm toward creation. It was quite hard and mind-consuming to finally come out from the maze of color. Probing the characteristics of Shibori in detail, I found the border between the white shape and blue color to be an extremely subtle, misty and mysterious area. The light blue gradually disappeared in the white. I wondered, “Is there a way to expand and magnify this border?” Therefore, in my solo exhibition in 2006, I gave up the more accurate sewing method and used a relatively special creation method. I drew a very simple pattern, folded the outline into small plaits and fastened it with strings. With dye penetrating, innumerable radiating blue fine lines formed around the figure, inserting into the surrounding white and gradually diffused, dissolved… These overlapping, thin film-like blue patterns are one of my interpretations toward the unreachable deep space. My four pieces of work displayed in this exhibition are my most recent creations. Hope they will inspire and help the ones who enjoy and intend to participate in the creation of indigo dyeing.

At last I would like to say that my father was from Keelung. While I was born in Ba-Doo, I grew up, educated and worked in Taipei. My father spent his entire life in the mining industry in Keelung and passed away in Keelung Hospital. He was fifty years old that year. It has been forty years since he left me. Could it be him who is guiding me imperceptibly? I would like to dedicate this exhibition to my father and his hometown—Keelung.

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