As we say goodbye to the year that was and greet the birth of a new year, President’s Young Talents 2018 People’s Choice Award-winner Yanyun Chen’s Flower Flights at Art Porters lends itself to reflections on the past as well as budding thoughts about the path ahead. I attended Chen’s artist talk for the show on 8 December and sat down with her for a more in-depth chat on her flower series and her practice.
Chen’s charcoal flower paintings act as a kind of memento mori; to celebrate life is to also recognise the inevitability of death. By creating a dialogue around the transient nature of life, this sense of impermanence heightens the appreciation of each moment lived in the now. Chen wants to honour this way of thinking in the form of flowers. “When I am drawing, I am being with their bloom while witnessing their passing. The beauty of the bloom is that it will perish and evolve in form into the fruit and the seed. It is almost like the last moment before it passes on its function to something else.”
Chen began her floral journey in January 2014, when she returned from The Florence Academy of Art, Molndal, Sweden. Adjusting to life back in Singapore, she wanted to keep working with the Nitram Fine Art Charcoal she discovered at school. However she was not fond of drawing fruits or bowls and she could not seem to find the right models that fit her budget.
Serendipitously, she bought a bouquet of flowers for her mum’s birthday from local florists Floral Magic. Curious about how the flowers would turn out when rendered in black and white, she made her first charcoal drawing of flowers in Singapore, Flowers I.
From this first foray into rendering flowers in charcoal she realised that, as the flowers used in the arrangement were quite dark, it was difficult to differentiate the tones in the work. She went back to Floral Magic requesting lighter coloured flowers and, over time, would send them “weird sketches with the kind of feelings and compositions I was looking for”, leaving them to surprise her with the choice of flowers in the arrangements. Chen laughs, recalling that Floral Magic would sometimes send flowers that, “wilted fast or were difficult to draw, like the feathery ones which had so much detail. I welcomed the challenge and they would be impressed that I could master each challenge they gave me. What a wonderful, fun relationship!” Over time, Yanyun and Floral Magic developed a beautiful conversation around these flower arrangements and the way they each looked at flowers evolved.
Chen shares that, when she was at art school in Sweden, they would work on drawing a life model over a period of six weeks. Working with one model over an extended period of time allowed her to closely observe subtle changes in the models, from their emotional state to the way the change in weather affected the light falling on their bodies. Drawing parallels to this experience, she views each flower in an arrangement as a separate, individual body, each with its own subtle differences and rate of wilting. All she usually has is a week with the flowers, so she has to work intensely and quickly, working in daylight from 7.00am to 7.00pm. She thinks about how the wilting of one flower affects the way the flower behind it looks, how each flower responds to and turns towards the light.
After Chen completed her first flower series on paper in early 2016, she was slightly at a loss as to how to move forward and considered ending the flower series and moving on to something else. However, after a few collectors and gallerists expressed concerns about collecting works on paper, given the humid weather in Singapore, she decided to embrace the challenge of continuing to work with flowers but rendering them in other media and materials. She began to experiment with wood, canvas and linen, learning how to prepare the materials from scratch. One of her artist friends had met the man who prepares canvases for the famous German painter, Gerhard Richter. Yanyun recalls, “Many years ago, my friend got this man drunk to find out his secret techniques and I was lucky to receive this information.” Because Gerhard Richter’s works require such a smooth surface that the fibres of the canvas are imperceptible, it was a tedious process. While Chen did not replicate his technique fully, she found it very useful in her exploration of how to prepare canvases in various textures.
The first time Chen drew on fabric with charcoal was for her Johannes Brahms Horn Trio series in 2016, commissioned for a performance. While Chen normally prefers to draw in silence, for this series, she listened to the works of Johannes Brahms, in particular, the Horn Trio with its bold, brassy sound, while creating the work – waiting for a particular note to catch her attention before attempting to capture the essence of that note as a stroke of charcoal on linen. (On 15 March 2019, as part of that National University of Singapore (NUS) Arts Festival, Chen will be unveiling new fabric work, having been invited to take part by two musicians, pianist Abigail Sin and violinist Loh Jun Hong, who had seen her 2016 Brahms works.)
The works in Flower Flights are accompanied by calligraphy by Chen’s mother. Chen explains, “All the artworks in this show are from separate flower series. I needed a narrative that expressed the sentiment of witnessing all of the dying flowers I ever drew.” Chen first invited her mother to work with her when, grateful for her cousin’s support for her projects since she was young, she decided to gift him an artwork. Her cousin was close to Chen’s mother and loved xinyao (Singaporean Chinese folk songs). After she finished making the work depicting rare white chrysanthemums (above) she approached Dr. Liang Wen Fu, a pioneer of xinyao, to name the drawing. He immediately titled it Spring Is In The Heart, Four Seasons Blooming in Mandarin. She invited her mother to write the title on her completed drawing, “My mum was nervous as it was her first time using charcoal to write calligraphy, and she practiced so many times before she penned that first stroke.”
Among the calligraphy works is one with a quote from the famous novel, Dream of the Red Chamber, which Chen recalls hearing her mother recite when she was growing up,“It is as if the birds have ravished everything and have flown back into the forest, all that’s left is a clean, white nothingness.” It reminds us to be present in each moment, to be here in each now.
For Chen, the past year has brought the completion of many things that bring her deep satisfaction. She finished her six-year-long dissertation and showed The scars that write us at the Singapore Art Museum (SAM) as part of the President’s Young Talents 2018. She also published a new catalogue, which is available on her website, that compiles essays, poems and all the flower works she has ever drawn, including those that are already in private collections. She looks forward to 2019 and to exploring new ideas “For me, each new series is an adventure where I get to explore and encounter new things. I am excited that there are a lot of possibilities waiting for me in the new year!”
Note: Flower Flights is on at Art Porters till 6 January 2019.