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Between Cats, Charcoal, and Falsehoods: An Interview with Yanyun Chen

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It’s not every day that you see charcoal drawings as exquisite as those by visual artist Yanyun Chen, especially in light of the fact that this medium has only been used historically for sketches and outlines. A loyalist to the medium ever since training at the Florence Academy of Art in Sweden, Yanyun’s charcoal drawings are full of botanical forms and human bodies, which serve as investigations into concepts of autofiction, falsehoods, and the ways we construct our identities. Her other works, which take the form of new media and installation, are similarly conceptually charged.

Maybe it’s no surprise that the artist taps into so many mediums and trains of thought considering how she holds a PhD in Philosophy, Art, and Critical Thought from the European Graduate School, on top of a background in communications and animation.  

Yanyun will be opening her studio to the public this Saturday, 13 November, as part of Grey Projects’ Walk Walk Don’t Run programme. This event will be an opportunity for the public to learn more about her multi-faceted artistic practice and chat about the interdisciplinary ideas that fuel it. I chat with Yanyun about her experiences getting a studio space (and her cat’s involvement in that!); what an average day in her studio is like; her unyielding love for charcoal and the ways her roles as educator and mentor enrich her practice.

Whats your studio space like and whats your story behind getting it? 

Currently, I stay by myself in a studio apartment that had also been my work studio for the past four years or so. My cat is white and my practice is in charcoal, so it’s been four years of him being covered in charcoal dust! As my work got bigger and projects came in more regularly, I began to feel the need to separate my living space and my art space as they were becoming too intertwined.

Yanyun’s cat all covered in charcoal dust! Image courtesy of the artist.

My current studio space is in the industrial estate of Bukit Batok. It’s bigger than my home and I don’t have to vacuum my house or wash my poor cat — who is sick of me now! —  too much anymore.

Another concern I had was the ability to host guests, especially when it’s art- or work-related. I’m a private person when it comes to living so I didn’t have many public visits when I worked from home. Now with a studio, events like Walk Walk Don’t Run make sense and I can tap into such opportunities.

How do you make the studio conducive for your work?

When I was working from home, I had to keep my place really clean to prevent charcoal dust from getting everywhere. I brought this habit with me to my new studio when I moved in in July 2021. Many of my close friends were confused by how clean my studio is because they expected it to be covered in charcoal dust! I can only work in spaces that are very clean and have bare white walls; that’s how I’ve always been.

What are some of your favourite things about your studio?

My studio is on the 27th floor so the view is fantastic. There is so much daylight, which is the first thing I look for in a workspace. I need lots and lots of it, so it was difficult finding a place with enough to work.

My set-ups are also tied to how the lighting is positioned. I don’t like to use artificial light, so I work with light that changes all day — even when drawing still life works. The quality of light changes when it rains too and I love the challenge that these changes provide.

What does a day in the studio look like for you?

I always wish I had more time to spend in the studio. Usually, I’d spend four or five hours in the studio at once. It involves me working on something intensely and then lying down on the floor to space out for a bit, and then continuing to work hard on it again. I always need to get caffeine at some point!

What can audiences expect to see when they come to visit you during Walk Walk Don’t Run, and what do you think audiences can gain from the visit?

Well, you get to see my view! It’s pretty awesome. Walk Walk Don’t Run isn’t so far away so I expect my projects will be in progress. I actually don’t know where they will be at that point — there will be drawings and some kind of video work-in-progress. Visitors can come to say hi, see my progress and chit-chat!

How important is it for your audiences to learn about your processes, rather than just seeing finished artworks at an exhibition?

Personally, this isn’t very important to me. In my case, aside from my work, my studio is very blank. There’s actually nothing to see. I spend a lot of time in my head making and conceptualising the work. Usually, by the time I start working, the thought process is complete. If viewers really wanted to see my process, they’d have to get into my head.

The reason I do this is because it costs so much to have a physical studio practice, on top of other aspects like time and materials as well. Abandoning works is just too expensive and not very sustainable. I have a full-time job and other commitments so time is the most expensive thing to me. I end up conceptualising my work in transit or even while waiting for my coffee. I sort out my thought process in these moments!

I remember the first time I saw some of your charcoal still life works and was taken aback by how painterly they looked. Is there a reason why you have stuck to charcoal as your primary medium throughout your practice? What qualities does charcoal provide you that other mediums, such as paint or film, don’t?

I simply fell in love with it. The atelier I spent time at, the Florence Academy of Art in Sweden, adopted a practice from the French-Italian classical painting schools, where you learn first how to draw in carbon (pencil), then charcoal, then paint.

One of the things that intrigues me about charcoal is how rough it is as a medium, even though the extreme precision that you can get out of it is surprising. There’s also the idea that charcoal works are sketches and aren’t considered finished works in classical tradition. Conceptually, completing the work in charcoal responds to the question of when do you really finish an artwork.

Yanyun’s charcoal on paper work Life is Elsewhere 24 as part of a performance-installation series she presented at Biome, the STPI – Creative Workshop & Gallery Annual Friends Fundraiser 2020.

My works include two types of forms: botanical and human. By drawing botanical forms on paper with charcoal, I’m essentially drawing plants on plants with plants — I find this fun! This layering remains interesting to me and so I kept pursuing it. There’s so much to explore; that’s also why I haven’t switched to another medium.

I notice that your oeuvre is split into two categories: On Bodies and On Constructs. Could you tell us more about this distinction, and how did you decide on pursuing these two lines of thought in your practice?

Stories of a woman and her dowry (2019) is an installation consisting of four chapters based on the roles a woman was expected to play within the Chinese-Hainanese-Cantonese milieu of her family. It was exhibited at Grey Projects from March to April 2019, and later at ArtScience Museum from November 2019 to August 2020. Image courtesy of the artist.

It took me a very long time to realise what exactly I do. My thoughts tend to come later. There are two trajectories I always pursue and only recently realised that they are two facets of the same thing. I’m interested in the body — my own in particular — but also in the histories and stories that bodies carry while having a physical form. Many of my works, such as Stories of a woman and her dowry (2019), have to do with auto-fictional stories of my family and my heritage.

A work from Flower Flights, a series that is part of On Constructs. Image courtesy of the artist. 

On Constructs is a set of works that asks existential questions on the construction of our identities and perceptions of self in the world. Something that spurred me to consider these ideas more deeply was the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation (POFMA) bill, which was passed in May 2019.

I read through the bill and had a strong reaction when I learnt that a minister would be the one to decide if something is true or false. I thought this was similar to the Liar’s Paradox, where a statement is possibly both true and false at the same time. How is one person able to determine whether a statement is true or not, when statements can inherently hold two contradictory possibilities at the same time? This is something I consider a lot in On Constructs, while False Truths sits within it as a potential thought. 

One of my favourite works of yours is the video made as part of your False Truths series, where you created computer-generated models of your flowers using artificial intelligence (AI) technology. You also expressed an interest in AI and its relationship to our bodies in a video interview from when you won the IMPART Awards in 2019. How do you see yourself incorporating such technologies into your practice?

The False Truths series presented by Art Porters Gallery, at S.E.A Focus Art Fair in 2020. Here, Yanyun depicted artificial flowers alongside real ones, encouraging viewers to consider how difficult it is to separate fact from fiction. Image courtesy of the artist.

False Truths came from the inability to distinguish and determine if what we see is true or false. These drawings were based on a mix of real and fake flowers. Firstly, I incorporated artificial flowers in my drawings. We then fed these flower drawings into an AI style transfer algorithm, then applied the algorithm to 3D flowers to create digital works that resemble my drawings. Lastly, we created CGI flowers to mimic a universe of my flowers in motion. 

That’s where I am in terms of AI… I don’t know how I might use it in the future but I predict that it will come within the trajectory of thinking about how one constructs an identity as technology develops.

Aside from producing art, youre also a lecturer and capstone supervisor. What does teaching and mentoring, especially in the realms of art and knowledge production, mean to you? Do these aspects of your life bleed into your art practice and if so, how?

Let me answer this in two ways. Firstly, I’m a studio artist so I’m a bit of a hermit. If I was left alone, I’d stay at home and you’d never see me again! On the other hand, I’m aware that I need to meet people in order to have stories to tell. Being in the role of a teacher lets you work with students in short spurts and helps with this.

With the idea of capstone processes and mentoring, I’m involved with lots of projects but living through them vicariously. While I don’t think I know the answers to what students are trying to say, I can help them build connections and trains of thought.

This builds up experience and gives me lots to work with. I work with students who have yet to experience the pressures of the art industry and they can work however they want. Seeing such naivety — and I don’t mean this in a bad way at all as it’s very precious — energises me, as this is something you can lose after working for a while. No matter what a practitioner does, whether you’re working a job related to your art or not, I think that it’s most important to section your time for you to develop experiences that feed your practice.

I do know artists who only make art, but even then they are also parents, partners or cat mummies like me! The way we harness experience and the way we make sense of it is crucial.

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Continue the conversation about charcoal with Yanyun Chen at Grey Project’s open studio event, Walk Walk Don’t Run. It runs for one final Saturday (13 November 2021). To find out more, click here: https://www.greyprojects.org/walk-walk-dont-run

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Check out Yanyun’s works (and view) when she opens her studio on 13 November as part of Grey Project’s Walk Walk Don’t Run programme!
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