Cross-Pollinated Approaches Generated in an Interdisciplinary Practice, Shanghai and Cambridge-Based Artist Yu Yan

Yu Yan (b.1996, China) is a visual artist based in Shanghai and Cambridge. She graduated from Smith College with a B.A. in Studio Arts and Economics in 2018 and is currently a Master’s candidate at Harvard University, Graduate School of Design. Primarily working with images and objects, she is interested in the connectedness between human beings and the trivial occurrences in the overwhelming developments in the urban scenes. 

Her recent exhibitions include 500 Film Project (Fuji Film X Space, China, 2020); Windows of Harvard (Harvard University, U.S., 2020); Pandemic (40 Kirkland Gallery, U.S., 2020); Out of Focus (Vanities Gallery, France, 2019); Here & There (World Trade Center, U.S., 2019); Epidermis (Yi Art Institute, China, 2019); Surfaces (Loosen Art Gallery, Italy, 2018); Now Feast (Jannotta Gallery, U.S. 2018); Conceptual (Blank Wall Gallery, Greece, 2018).

Silver Castle from New Chinatown Archive, Archival Print,  2018

Can you tell us a little about you?

I am Yu Yan (闫雨) ; my friends also call me Delta. I started my journey in art when I studied Economics and Studio Arts at Smith College in Massachusetts, and at the time, I worked in photography and installation. After graduation, I went to New York and worked at several photography agencies, museums, non-profit art foundations, and commercial galleries. Just like removing items from a wish list, these crazy working experiences allowed me to realize what I would not like to do for my future career. I am pursuing my Master’s Degree at Harvard University Graduate School of Design and focusing on the interdisciplinary research of art and design in the public domain, seeking cultural sustainability in local, marginalized communities. 

Nothing in the Wood, site-specific and time specific installation, Pine trees and acrylic mirrors, 2016

What is your process like? Is there a theme that you are currently addressing?

Coming from an interdisciplinary background of social science and studio arts, I understand my practice from the questions raised rather than the mediums or the visual forms I adopted in the first place. How many disciplines touch upon this issue in our social and public peripheries? How do these different mechanisms operate separately while creating one entwined layer of simultaneous experience? How do we place ourselves, our memory, history, sensibility, and longing when faced by one phenomenon not necessarily coherent in different narratives? Can we make it better?…This process help me to contextualize my place in the public realm involved in the issues, which also prompted me to solve the issue as both a social researcher and an artist. 

Since college, I have become especially interested in relations of global trade and how they manifest in urban localities and cultures. While I studied topics such as Environmental Economics at Smith, which taught me to visualize economics through simulation models, photography has enabled me to embrace a more intuitive and poetic strategy to understanding these global dynamics of migration, trade and environment at a personal scale. One theme I have been continuously exploring is the cultural identity of the diasporic community in the U.S. I have used the Chinatowns in different cities, places where I find fragments of culture and identification, to visualize the contemporary urban struggle and reconnect myself as a part of this memory with both insiders and outsiders. My ongoing project, New Chinatown Archive, a collection of conversations, photographs, and observational notes since 2017, turns this investigative eye to the social histories and economic rationales hidden underneath the hustle and bustle of the streets. Through face-to-face conversations with and photographic documentations of residents from different generations and backgrounds, I have sought intersections of culture, information, and memory that break the passage of time and transition of locations. In these half-curated and half-candid photographs of shifting social landscapes, I negotiate my displaced perspective as a knowledgeable tourist — a ‘native’ observing a diaspora — who reads and speaks the same language yet belongs to different immigrant history.

Fish Tank from New Chinatown Archive, Archival Print,  2018

Another project I have completed recently is Chinatown Inclusion Act. In the U.S., which today has become the country with the highest level of displacement, the Chinese constituted the first minority excluded from immigration formally and explicitly under the 1882 Exclusion Act. The formation of Chinatowns took place as a sphere of self-protection from external prejudice. From a refuge of repressed labors, to a tourist destination, a food town, and today’s transitional zone under the intertwined waves of immigration politics, tourism, trade relations and cultural self-fashioning, Chinatown is now a melting pot of familiarity and strangeness as a diasporic battleground. The Chinatown Inclusion Act is a group of actions to justify and disseminate the history and identity of this cultural territory. I had used Harvard GSD as a testing ground on December 4th 2019, by designing a “utopian” version of the original poster from the Chinese Exclusion Act. In completing this goal, I issued Chinatown passports for strangers and granted them with obligations and responsibilities upon passing an exam, to help recognize the dignity of Chinatown people and to raise consciousness and communications between outsiders and insiders.

Chinatown Inclusion Act, Chinatown, Chinatown Citizenship Exam, Chinatown Residents Food Memory Bags, 2019

How do you keep yourself creative?

We live in a time of unbelievable technology advancement, which enables artists to restructure the way we think and the way we perceive, creating a highly diverse range of forms and visions we could not imagine months ago. For me, creativity does not mean the most up-to-date method in work, but the interdisciplinary approaches and cross-pollinating bits of knowledge generated in my actions. Moreover, I try to achieve this “creativity” by investigating different tactics, methods, and interventions that could be engaged in my artistic practices.

Dots and Shades, Digital Collage, 2019

More info: This is a scroll of abstract dots and shades, corresponding to the NDVI data that shows the effort of combating desertification in Mu Us Desert, Kubuqi Desert, Taklamakan Desert, which are the regions with extremely high levels of desertification in the world. 

What do you find the most challenging in pursuing an artistic career?

It is very challenging to balance a radical eye as a visual artist and an empathic mindset as a member of the society.

What are you working on right now?

I am doing an artist-in-residency program at the Swatch Art Peace Hotel in Shanghai from October to January. Under the unprecedented crisis brought by COVID-19 in 2020, I am interested in post-quarantine life in China and exploring how the pandemic-driven shift to self-isolation and working from home has re-defined the boundary between the public and the private, between the social interactions and isolations, between the comfort zone and being in danger for the residents. I am also asking myself: How is it possible to dwell in a city like Shanghai, where the physical boundary is creeping into a larger land while simultaneously creating more leftover spaces within the streets, architectures, and communities? How do we elegantly dwell under the conditions, contradictions, and complexities generated by the post-pandemic life and expanding cities? In this, I conduct case-study research and create photography, video, and installations to form my views and answers to these questions.

Untitled from The Blueprint. City constructions in diazotypes, 12 x 16 inch, 2020
36 Weather, a photo album of 36 random spots on the earth

More info: During the timing of territorial STAY-AT-HOME order in 2020, I designed a moving blob which is able to detect local weather and transform based on the current temperature, wind speed, and precipitation possibility. Here is its photo album of traveling to 36 random spots on earth.

Do you have any advice to share with others?

I would love to share a quote from artist Krzysztof Wodiczko, who is also my professor at Harvard, “Pessimistic in mind, optimistic at will”.

text & photo courtesy of Yu Yan

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