Theaters for Frankensteins: Yuyang Zhang Interviewed

In the center of a mostly black-and-white collage of photos, images and screenshots, an individual wearing a red scarf kneels before an "Official Ballot Box."
Yuyang Zhang, thirst trap, 2020. Digital collage, dimensions variable.

When I saw Yuyang Zhang’s work at Fuller Rosen in Portland, I was struck by the simultaneous pairing and paring—combinations of historic propaganda posters alongside meme-like Internet visualizations and applications of razor-quick wit through collage techniques. Over the course of studio visits, Yuyang and I discussed the dualisms of politics and humor, personal recollection, and cultural critique embedded within his collages and extending to paintings, which he shrewdly described as spaces akin to “theaters” and also “Frankensteins.” In the following interview, various spectacles and assemblages collide across and through cultural arenas as Yuyang and I stepped to an ever-flowing stream of references.

Laurel V. McLaughlin Thank you for joining me for this conversation, Yuyang. To launch us here, what images do you gravitate towards?

Yuyang Zhang Thank you and Variable West so much for having me. It has been a great joy to share my works and thoughts during our last two studio visits.

In general, I am drawn to images that are quiet and surreal. I also love images that look retro and can spark a sense of nostalgia. Pacifico Silano and Birthe Piontek’s works have been speaking to me a lot lately. 

LVM In our studio visit back in December 2021, you described your practice as “image-based,” working across photography, collage, installation, and sculpture. So, I’m interested in how the images you describe above become embedded in your works?

YZ Images represent my personal perspective as a non-citizen in a foreign country. Images provide a platform or soil in which all other elements can grow and with which they can interact. They are also reference points for both audiences and myself to find connections through the location or the subjects. Images add up to my personal memories while providing references for my other studio practices.

LVM In your exhibition umm, no at Fuller Rosen Gallery last year, you presented a series of collages or “amalgamations of various media including historic Chinese propaganda, photographs, and screenshots of iPhone notifications and banners.” I was struck by the multiplicitous tensions and synergies among the source images. Their relationships to one another felt like what cultural studies scholar Lisa Lowe describes as “unstable and changeable.” She is specifically referring to Asian communities living in diaspora. We’ve discussed a bit how this might resonate with you, so, how does instability function in your images? 

YZ This is a great question, and thank you for introducing me to Lowe’s article. Yes, Lowe’s words and your observation resonate with me. My works speak to the specific cultural hybridity between China and the US in the vast ocean Asian cultures. The instability is self-evident with the irrelevance between the source images, the slipperiness of the contexts of each work, the nature of the medium, and metaphors in relation to the real world. 

My collages tenuously deliver narratives. Moving one element just one inch too much, for instance, nullifies their intent, let alone removing a component out of the equation. This precise act of cutting and layering multiple media creates a controlled environment for relatively free interpretation, destabilizing the possibility of a single reading from each work.Collage also radiates unstable energy. 

I deconstruct original work, take subjects out of their original contexts, then re-site them in new settings, and I do so while hoping they result in a beautiful Frankenstein. These works showcase as many similarities, as ever-present tensions between the two giant cultural and political nation-states.

The words "Face Not Recognize" hover behind and haunt a row of images of a cheerleader, her face smudged out.
Yuyang Zhang, incognito, 2020. Digital collage, dimensions variable.

LVM The works have distinct temporal markers of the present embedded within the form of the images themselves, like iPhone notifications, or references to contemporary selfie-taking, like with thirst trap and incognito (both works 2020), which reference a sexy cis-male body pic that you took of your friend and the (non)recognition of iPhone face scanning, respectively. 

How do you envision your photographic and collage practice acting upon the present? You referred to them as “a mini theater” or an “act of the seen” when we spoke and that stayed with me. Do you see your collage gestures as interventions or a way of empathizing with those living in diaspora, or both?

YZ To answer your first part of the question, each collage is a theatrical act that tries to tell you a freely-interpreted story. This act is made possible through various aspects of looking. There is the act of looking at a huge pile of historic propaganda posters to determine which subject is the most suitable character. There is also the looking at the camera roll with 25,000+ photos to figure out which one(s) can be the perfect stage. And then there’s the looking at my phone to capture the most fitting screenshot to reinforce the script. 

For example, in thirst trap, a woman is cleaning a ballot box in front of layers of images of a cis-male body and the Oregon coast. The piece is accompanied by a notification screenshot reminding me to drink water. thirst trap emphasizes the desire or aspiration toward a privileged life that embraces identity and the agency of voice in critical situations. This emphasis is especially amplified by the fact that a Chinese woman maintains a ballot box, a situation you could only imagine in a different universe. The work also indicates the attention to relevant events as it was made while the 2020 presidential election unfolded, highlighted by the photo of that ballot box that I took near to where I live.

To the second part of the question, I see both. The historical relationship between the US and China means, to put it nicely, ideological, political, and cultural disparities. These disparities have precipitated countless stereotypes and misconceptions about people on either side of the Pacific Ocean. My works are a quest to intervene and poke around these issues through the mixture of familiar and novel elements. 

Then again, all those stereotypes and misconceptions also put a significant amount of burden on people from China, Chinese diasporas, Chinese Americans, or Asian American communities. In a broader sense, it could apply to diasporas of all ethnicities and nations. Often, people from these communities need to decide how much of their original identities they allow themselves to lose to fit into the new culture and society, and people can feel extremely lost in doing so. This cultural hybridity can be beautiful but nerve-racking as one does not know where they actually belong. 

These collages are as much a fusion of media as a fusion of culture and identity. The latter makes people feel grounded yet dislocated at the same time. It certainly makes me feel this way. I often think about how much US pop culture I consume and how I can speak meme more fluidly than English. I am also aware of the fact that my mother tongue is degrading at a concerning velocity due to lack of practice while I still struggle with English from time to time. With these underlying thoughts, I create collages that contain multiple entry points so people, proficient with both cultures, or just one, can understand and relate to them. So yes, it’s about both intervention and empathy.

In the center of an image, reminiscent of color bars, a cartoonish gold coin struts across stage.
Yuyang Zhang, “plz do not comment, violators will be prosecuted,” 2021. Acrylic, ink on canvas, 36 x 36 inches.
A close-up of a cartoonish gold coin, or perhaps the face of a watch, struts across stage.
Yuyang Zhang, “plz do not comment, violators will be prosecuted,” 2021 (detail). Acrylic, ink on canvas, 36 x 36 inches.

LVM This sense of layered time through references compiled from both childhood memories in China and popular US media culture carries through to your new painting works, “plz do not comment, violators will be prosecuted” and a sign (both 2021). Could you describe these works, their layers, and how you envision viewers engaging with them? 

YZ Of course! “plz do not comment” is a large-scale painting of a modified Philips PM5544 TV test card with a communistized Miss Minutes, a mascot from Marvel Studios’s Loki TV show, in the center. The black bars from the original text card are replaced with red banners and characters that translate to the work title. The texts in color boxes successively read: MONITOR THEM, ANTAGONIZE THEM, ALIENATE THEM, STIGMATIZE THEM, SILENCE THEM, AND PRUNE THEM. Texts in the yellow rectangles read: COMPLIANCE WILL BE REWARDED. Between the two yellow rectangles are my fingerprints. 

Much of my artistic inspiration comes from mundane objects, internet memes, and TV shows. This is one example of them. I was watching Loki and was struck by how it portrays a familiar bureaucratic authority with a set design and aesthetics that connect to propaganda. Miss Minutes is a character that feeds the masses authority’s televised propaganda and agenda through her smiley and cheerful face. 

The TV test card was one of the most memorable things when I was a kid. Each Tuesday, the state channels would undergo weekly maintenance and the PM5544 test card would be on. Then all the local TV channels followed suit because Big Brother was doing so. Watching TV has always been a way to escape reality for many. Nevertheless, the media can also be an effective tool for propaganda. The juxtaposition between a Western comic character and a childhood symbol opens the conversation around bureaucracy and propaganda with familiar anchor points. The discussion is further amplified by the fingerprints at the bottom, which serve as a memoir of my constant provision of biometrics to both US and Chinese governments. 

The idea of hiding inconspicuous symbols and messages within mundane objects can also be found in the work a sign. Glyphs of eyes sourced from Instagram iconography and messages hide under a true-to-life size NO TURN ON RED traffic sign. It’s a sign many drivers in Portland, OR, ignore, especially at the intersection where I live. This work invites audiences to pay attention to easily overlooked things by altering the color scheme, orientation, symbols, and the subtle glyphs and messages. The work is finished with a round mirror that greets selfie-takers with another string of messages. The painting engages people through the act of paying attention. The closer you get, the more information you will find. It’s also a nod to the idea of conveying a message evasively and subtly—a tactic people under oppressive authorities often have to adopt.

On a blue traffic sign, the words "No Turn On Red" are distorted to read "der no turn on," just below a small mirror with blue marker that reads "History Repeats Itself While You Are Taking A Selfie"
Yuyang Zhang, a sign, 2021. Acrylic, ink, mirror on canvas, 24 x 30 inches.
In a close-up image of a canvas, lettering in a light blue is barely visible against its dark blue background.
Yuyang Zhang, a sign, 2021 (detail). Acrylic, ink, mirror on canvas, 24 x 30 inches.

LVM The collages and paintings are political and memorial but they also articulate an edge-play with queerness. How do you configure this playfulness?

YZ Thank you for noticing that. My art often greets people with bold colors and occasionally with symbols and subjects that directly refer to queerness. These elements have a twofold meaning. On the one hand, it depicts my journey of slowly getting comfortable with my identity. Making art is as much about finding that universal resonance as it is about being more at peace with who you are. On the other hand, inserting queer elements into propaganda content echoes the yearning of a hypothetical society that welcomes individuals with diverse backgrounds and identities. As we all know, it has not necessarily been a reality. In this sense, playfulness becomes a bold statement for those who have to overcome myriad obstacles.

LVM Part of this playfulness is your pointed use of humor. It’s not an afterthought or flippant; it actually seems to transmit the personal politics that you are exploring. Could you speak more about your use of humor? 

YZ There are several reasons I utilize humor in my works. First of all, I’ve been blessed with a breeze of chaotic energy since 2020 and I can’t keep it flowing through my online persona alone. So, the humor in my work is also a reflection of my state of mind. Secondly, humor, when used mindfully, is an effective attention grabber. The tongue-in-cheek element paves the way for audiences to get close to my works without feeling intimidated. Much of the humor is derived from memes and reaction images. They add an additional layer of relevancy to my works.

I also use dark humor in my works as a way to differ from propagandas that often teem with unnecessary and sugar-coated positivity. There’s a Mandarin term called 丧文化, which is “funeral culture” in word-to-word translation, it means “demotivational culture” in English. You can see it in BoJack Horseman and Joan Cornellá’s works and the character of Stevie Budd from Schitt’s Creek. It is a widely popular subculture among Chinese millennials suffering from tremendous pressure caused by societal and personal life. This generation implements dark and defeating words through memes, literature, and online media to cope with stress. However, state media has deemed such internet culture as a mind opiate and thinks it could erode the nation’s spirit. Thus, actively displaying humor, especially “funeral culture,” is a circumvention of authoritarian toxic positivity.

There’s a saying that the core of comedy is tragedy. The stark contrast between the humor in my works and their dark, real-life metaphors loudly resonate with those words. Circling back to the earlier questions, reducing miseries into laugh-it-off jokes is perhaps one way to cope with all the less ideal situations that burden those living in diasporas who have to make tremendous efforts in order to live an “average life.”

LVM I’m really intrigued by the “funeral culture” and its critical despair and perhaps malaise. It seems to embody the COVID-19 anxiety, but also the dubiousness of what’s to come. You seem to be dwelling on this in your recent show on view at Strange Paradise, and then you are also preparing for another exhibition, could you share what you will be showing? 

YZ Yes, the malaise and dubiousness are very much alive in my current works. The pandemic has disrupted our life on different levels, and we all grappled with considering what could still bring us that one trace of joy or peace. My art endeavor started out with a camera, the lock-down and isolation impelled me to revisit what I had already incorporated into artworks, while looking for new things. I started drawing visual connections with images of different times and locations from my archive. This new practice resulted in works that can be best described as beautifully sad things. In fact, three works of this series are currently in the group show AFTERWORD at Strange Paradise gallery inside Oregon Contemporary, curated by Small Talk Collective. I am also working toward my solo show stupid little life at Blue Sky Gallery this summer, where I will be showing a new collection of collages and a series of photographic diptychs. The show is currently scheduled from August 6–27, 2022, please stay tuned!

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