Interpret the Seemly Random, NYC-based Multidisciplinary Artist Hongyu Pu

Hongyu Pu (b.1993, Chengdu, China) graduated with a BFA in Cinematography from SUNY Binghamton University and an MFA in photography from Pratt Institute. She worked in Chambers Fine Art after graduation. Hongyu curated the Experimental Film Festival at Art Mission Theater and Bundy Museum in Binghamton, as long as group exhibitions in Brooklyn, NY. She had solo exhibitions in Steuben Gallery (NYC) and participated in group exhibitions internationally, including the Copenhagen Photo Festival (Denmark), Vanities Gallery (France), New Visual Image Arts Center (China), and Artosino Gallery (NYC). Her artwork is in the collection of Pratt Institute Library and Admission Center.

Untitled, Archival inkjet photograph, 15 x 12 in, 2018

Can you tell us a little about yourself? 

I’m from Chengdu, which situated in the south-west part of China. It is a city of all year round cloudiness, and now and then when it’s sunny, the residents would go to the park or riverbank to have a drink or chat. While I enjoyed the laid back lifestyle at Chengdu, I don’t feel like sticking around one place all the time. So later I went to SUNY Binghamton University to study cinematography. Featuring the teaching of avant-garde and experimental film, learning at there has boosted my passion for visual arts. On weekends, I always went to various exhibitions at museums or some indie film screenings in New York City with friends. The artistic atmosphere of NYC is so appealing that I decided to apply Pratt Institute to study Fine Art. In Pratt, professors from our department strongly encouraged students to experiment with their artworks by using different media other than that of their discipline, so I started integrating various arts, such as painting, installation, videos, and photography.

Tundra, ice and acrylic on canvas, 8 x 8 in, 2017
Untitled, ice and acrylic on canvas, 11 x 14 in, 2017

You have been working with different materials and media. What is your favorite material to work with and why?

Yes, I like making artworks through different media and materials. I often use textile materials, like yarn, down, wool, or cotton fiber in my installation arts, and Hug You And Squeeze You Into… is one such piece. I deem the sense of touch as an important element in my work because I love that dry, rough, or soft and fluffy texture. I often imagine my body as a whole piece of swollen cotton or cloud that lures the squeeze, yet empty within. These fabrics, with their fragile characteristics of both evoking my thought of protection and destruction, has given me a feeling similar to the state of desperately searching for one’s existence. They are squeezed so extensively as an effortful hug that I need. They’re completely exposed under your eyes as if those of our revealed vulnerabilities. Compared to the sense of sharp pain, this feeling of being obtusely squeezed is breathless. In this moment of stagnation, all the thinking ceases. The feeling of the body outshines those entanglements of unresolvable void and confusion in the mind, thus granting a temporary comfort. In a long time, I left myself following the imaginary touches and pictures in my brain to create, until I came across this passage while studying the theory of Nihilism: “We are creatures who need meaning, but we’re abandoned in a universe full of meaninglessness. So we cry into the wilderness and get no response. But we keep crying anyway.” I may be the one in the wilderness and keep inquiring as well, even if I know it is just an attempt to search for answers in an answerless world.

Frame by Frame NO. 1, Dream? 00’00”-01’52”, photography, 24 x 42 in, 2016

What ideas are you exploring in your practice? Is there any subject or theme you’ve been particularly interested in?

“By chance”, “Contingency” and “Out of control” are themes that constantly intrigues me. I often set up some rules in the preliminary stage of making my artwork, and then let the work itself develop randomly with uncontrollable factors, which often ends up contingently. Curiosity has driven me to create through experimentation, which I find can lead to unpredictable delights. In this light, I made a time-based work named Melting Series. I made some rules, mixing different acrylic paints with water and freezing them into ice cubes of various shapes. I then stacked those ice cubes and let them melt naturally on the canvas or hung the ice cubes up and let them melt and slowly drip off. I also tried to increase the randomness and diversity of the artwork by using canvases of different sizes and making various arrangements such as stitching or overlapping. In the end, time and nature would finish all the rest part. So, what exactly created these paintings? It doesn’t matter to me. As opposed to clearly defining things, I always prefer to leave them in an ambiguous state, thereby opening the possibility for multiple interpretations of the seemingly random.

Frame by Frame NO. 3, Sketch #5 00’06”-01’58”, photography, 24 x 35 in, 2016

You presented the possibility of how time could exist in photography in your project Frame by Frame, can you tell us more about the project?

Frame by Frame Series is a project consisting of time-based photographs that were transformed from my existing short films. As we know, a frame is one of many still images which compose the complete moving picture. In comparison to the motion of film, photos are relatively still. In Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes discussed the relationship between photography and mortality. He believes that the photographic image is evidence of that which no longer exists. After the moment the photograph is taken, nothing can survive. For Barthes, time passes linearly. Time is an inescapable force pulling both everything and everyone towards chaos and dissolution. This is a common understanding of time’s passing. However, is it possible to redefine photography by lifting them out of linear time into some different understanding of time? In this project, I collected video works that I made when I was an undergraduate, and then I used a scanner to record the entire process of them playing on my laptop. Turning a constantly changing film into a static photo is a way to inject continuous time into a quiet moment. The word “time” could be seen as a noun and also a verb in this process of re-creation. Time is compressed through the scanning process, bringing the photo a sense of weight.

Untitled, Staple and thread on canvas, 14 x 11 in, 2018

What are you working on right now?

At the moment I’m working on a screenplay based on a short film I shot last year so that it could become a more complete screen narrative. 20 Questions is a film about a different way to know others. In our daily life, if we want to know about a person, we usually tend to ask the person and then make conclusions on their reply. For me, however, the best way to get to know a person is to see what kind of questions he or she might ask. It is through what a person is most keen to ask that one can find out what he or she values most. I hope to, in these questions, examine how others know about themselves and how they perceive their existence and their place in the world. Also, I tend to tap into how they can reconcile with themselves from the conflict (if they have) or even live with it while asking these questions.

As a young artist, what is your future plan for your career?

I plan to teach at an art institute in my city and meanwhile have a studio to continue to create more artworks. My mentors, Allen Frame and Justine Kurland have helped me greatly during my time at Pratt Institute. Every week during the Critique session, which I like the most, our professors would have discussions with students about everyone’s work. Their guidance often gave me a better insight into my work, and I learned how to take my ideas further and express them in a more in-depth manner. Just like those of my professors, I wish to help students who want to study art, tutoring them to construct ideas and turn their ideas into practice.

20 Questions, video, 5’40’, 2020

text & photo courtesy of Hongyu Pu

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