Light / Dark mode

An Afternoon with a Tinkerer: Artist Yang Jie on his Kinetic Sculptures

Entering Yang Jie’s studio, one is greeted by the sight of teacup upon teacup, each a different design but all in possession of its own spoon, tinkling away in rotation as if animated by an omnipotent force. 

Upon closer inspection, the mechanical components become evident – metal chains and hooks move like clockwork, in time with whirring motors. There’s a magic to their motions, and I find myself grinning like a kid at these delightful contraptions.

The artist himself is as affable as his works.

Yang Jie in his studio, seated at a table he built himself from scratch.
Yang Jie in his studio, seated at a table he built himself from scratch.

Seated at a table that he built himself from scratch and sipping an iced kopi from a nearby coffee shop, he shares jovially on his background as a trained engineer, before pivoting to a degree in sculpting. This duality is evinced in his creative process – it is one that is deeply rooted in trial-and-error through prototyping, or what he conversationally refers to as “tinkering”. Each resultant artwork is a mini mechanical sculpture, whimsical and uncanny in its movements.

We spent an afternoon together, and in the course of our meeting I was struck by Yang Jie’s curiosity and can-do spirit. In artmaking, Yang Jie eschews the tried-and-true in favour of discovery, and the polished and purchased in favour of found objects brought together by hand. He finds fascination and joy in what is often overlooked and through the repetitive gestures of his kinetic sculptures, viewers too are invited to still our wandering minds.

The use of found objects in art-making is a concept with historical roots. Regionally, prominent historical movements such as Indonesia’s New Art Movement, also known as the Gerakan Seni Rupa Baru (GSRB) have pushed the boundaries of what we consider to be “fine art,” questioning whether non- traditional mediums of expression could better convey socio-political messages in artworks. (For a more comprehensive look at the use of readymades in art, check out our primer here.) Yang Jie’s kinetic sculptures join an exciting body of work both locally and regionally. 

Read on for my conversation with him as he shares his artmaking approach and tells me about his upcoming solo exhibition, Half-Baked Ideas and a Dozen Cups of Tea.

I hear that you’re a self-identified “tinkerer” – what does that mean to you?

I like to throw together components and fiddle with the mechanical aspects – like kids playing masak-masak (Malay for the children’s game of make-believe cooking). Tinkering, to me, is a mad scientist approach to seeing what comes out of an experiment – that “Igor, it’s alive!” moment. It’s a process of discovery and refinement of movements that I enjoy or find interesting. 

For Moving Mountains, for example, I wanted to capture a scene on the train, witnessing mountains “moving” in the distance.

Moving Mountains. Image courtesy of the artist.
Moving Mountains. Image courtesy of the artist.

There’s a difference in the speed at which nearer objects [seem to] move compared to objects farther away. That variation in perspective is what intrigues me, and I tried to replicate that movement in my kinetic sculpture.

You have many teacup sculptures here! Could you tell us more about them?

You know how sights, sounds and smells can remind you of certain memories and places? This series replicates the sounds of a coffee shop – to me, that’s the sound of home. In the morning, we Singaporeans love to go to a coffee shop to have a drink and listen to the uncles talk about their day. 

Sensory Anchors at the Esplanade.

My first attempt at these teacups was for a show at the Esplanade a few years ago, titled Sensory Anchors. I just threw together a motor and cups! The current iterations are much more polished and refined – they’re my attempts to resolve some of the construction issues of the old pieces. They’re all different, if you pay attention. This one here plays three different rhythms and tones, and is activated by touch. That one is activated by a motion sensor. 

Activated by motion, a kinetic sculpture comes to life when someone enters the space. Image courtesy of the artist.
Activated by motion, a kinetic sculpture comes to life when someone enters the space. Image courtesy of the artist.

Cohesively, I’m creating an installation of coffee- and tea-based objects that move and interact with you when you enter the space.

All these cups were actually donated to me by friends, because they know I do kintsugi (the Japanese art of repairing broken ceramics with gold and lacquer). There was a period of time when these traditional coffee cups were in fashion. Now people are moving towards handmade ceramics and it’s a shame that these are being thrown away. 

Are the other components recycled too?

Yes, most are found or donated objects from my dumpster diving. (Pointing at various objects in the workshop) This is a stew pot paddle, used by hawkers when they cook curry – I salvaged it from the trash at a coffee shop which got rid of their old utensils.

These kinetic sculptures are made with recycled wood and found objects.
These kinetic sculptures are made with recycled wood and found objects.

The backings of these teacup sculptures are made from old pallet wood, which I sanded it down and treated – now it looks really good. It’s just a matter of whether we’re willing to put in the energy and time to do these things.

Why do you put in the energy and time?

Sayang (colloquial Malay for “what a pity”) what, all this wood. (Laughs) Also as a tinkerer, it’s important for me to have a variety of materials on hand, so that it’s easy for me to bring my ideas to life when the impulse arises. Art shows often generate so much waste, and it’s good that groups like Art Don’t Throw exist. Things would all end up in the incinerator otherwise – now they have life beyond the trash bin.

Automatic Teatime: Chicken Cup. Image courtesy of the artist.
Automatic Teatime: Chicken Cup. Image courtesy of the artist.

Can you explain the title of your show, Half Baked Ideas and Twelve Cups of Tea?

The whole process of art-making for me begins with trying out many little funny ideas that I have, throwing them together and refining them. In Singapore, you’re often expected to have your idea fully formed before you start making the artwork. That’s how grants work – you have to submit your proposal 6 months ahead of time, and that’s very difficult to reconcile with my process as a tinkerer. For this show, I wanted to start from a practice standpoint and allow a critical understanding of the work to develop in the process of making. That’s where the term “half-baked ideas” comes about, while “twelve cups of tea” are the total number of cups featured in this exhibition.

What’s next for you?

I’m doing a show at Hock Siong next year for Singapore Art Week, where I’ll be making cups that squabble amongst themselves. (Laughs) Like in Beauty and the Beast, you know. Old things always have a history of how they were used, and traces of the people who used them. I’d like to bring that out in the ways they move and behave, to excavate these memories – [it’s] proof that they were loved.


Yang Jie’s upcoming solo exhibition, “Half-Baked Ideas and a Dozen Cups of Tea”, opens at Mr Lim’s Shop of Visual Treasures on 12 October, till 22 October 2023.

Read more about Mr Lim’s Shop of Visual Treasures here!

Featured image: Afternoon Teabreak by Yang Jie. Image courtesy of the artist.

Support our work on Patreon