Taiwan artist sees the world in a grain of sand

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The Independent Culture

When Taiwanese artist Chen Forng-shean paints and carves, he needs to hold his breath and use a magnifying glass because of the materials he works with - hair strands, ant abdomens and sesame seeds.

The 54-year-old has produced some of the tiniest art in existence today, penning miniature books that weigh less than one gram (0.04 ounces) and sculpting animals smaller than a needle's eye.

"I want to make miniature art because it is more challenging and innovative," Chen told AFP at his studio in suburban Taipei.

It is a personal obsession, and Chen spends all his spare time at his work station, which is occupied by a large array of magnifying glasses, carving needles and paintbrushes as thin as a hair.

The artist, who has a day job at the central bank's engraving plant, recently finished drawing on a grain of rice both Taiwan and China's pavilions at the Shanghai World Expo, with a small crowd of people outside.

"It's historical for both Taiwan and China to be present at the event and I hope my work can bear witness to their improving ties," he said.

Taiwan's return to the Expo after a 40-year absence was made possible by a thaw with the mainland, which still claims sovereignty over the island and limits its international participation.

Miniature art can be dated back thousands of years in China, but its popularity soared in the Ming Dynasty (1368 to 1644), when noblemen started collecting meticulous ivory and walnut carvings.

"I was fascinated by the tiny curios I saw in the museums," Chen said, explaining how a graduate from a vocational art school came to love miniatures with millennia-old traditions.

It is a time-consuming process, and in the 30 years he has spent so far honing his special craft, Chen has created just 120 pieces.

It took him three months recently to complete a tiger figurine from artificial resin measuring just 1.2 millimetres (0.04 inches).

The animal looks vivid with its mouth wide open, baring white teeth and sticking out a red tongue.

The work he is most proud of is the recreation of ten literary masterpieces in mini versions, including the Chinese classic "300 Tang Dynasty Poems" and the famous French novella "Le Petit Prince."

"The poetry book alone took two years because it was strenuous to write such tiny characters. It was exhausting and I almost wanted to give up," Chen said.

The artist enjoys experimenting with unusual materials, including insects, which are in ample supply in a big garden outside his studio.

He carved English poet William Blake's verse "to see a world in a grain of sand" in Chinese on a grain of sand and wrote chunky complex Chinese characters on ants and the wings of bees and dragonflies.

On a match head, he drew former US president Bill Clinton and White House intern Monica Lewinsky to poke fun at the infamous affair in a reference to the Chinese slang "dry wood fierce fire" used to describe fiery illicit relations.

"I will keep making miniature art for as long as I can, hopefully for at least ten more years," said a fit-looking Chen. "I've got good eyesight."

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