Marrying contemporary chaos with the imagery found on his phone screen, Yuyang Zhang (he/him) is an image-maker with a distinct “tongue-in-cheek” point of view. Yuyang’s inspiration and imagery comes far and wide: Chinese propaganda posters, Marvel’s television series WandaVision, iPhone emojis, or his love of sports cars. In this interview, we talk about his image making process and the launch of exhibition stupid little life at Blue Sky Gallery.
Can you tell me about who you are as an artist?
I started out primarily as a street photographer. Then once I went to graduate school, I shifted from photography to installation and collages. Through that I started utilizing found images and using those in my practice.
How did that shift in the media you use happen?
I was spending a lot of time in the studio, and learning a lot about critical theory. That definitely started the shift. I was slowly pushing myself with experimentation, trials and error, and playing with materials. That’s how I moved from pure photography to “image-making.”
How do you choose between the media you use: digital collage and physical painting?
In my practice I don’t necessarily plan what will occur. It’s all very much at the moment. My digital collages do more with my photography or found photos I source or are in my archives. If the work or scenario I have in mind is more photo heavy it is more likely that they’ll be collages.
There’s definitely a sense of play/tongue-in-cheek found throughout your work. Why is that important to you?
I think there are layers in being “tongue-in-cheek” or using dark humor. How I see it, when there’s an issue it’s simple to do a direct critique. Direct criticism also ends up being suppressed by authorities in scenarios where there is a very authoritarian state where criticism is nonexistent. Dark humor is a last “bastion” to talk about issues in an evasive way while still being profound.
Personally, that way of thinking is part of who I am or at least how I want to present myself. My artistic journey and persona wants that comedic element to be injected into my art. I want my art to be an extension of my life or at least the online persona I present.
Can you talk to me about two of your pieces: moma and (you) deserve it
moma is part of my collage series. My collage series is created using propaganda posters, screenshots of phone notifications, and my personal photo archive. I combine them all together to create alternative narratives.
This work is derived from a memory of a grad school trip to New York. One day we went to MoMA and I took a photo of Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans. This piece is essentially a recreation of my cohort and I at that moment.
Why did you replace the Campbell’s Soup cans with Lady Gaga Chromatica Oreos?
The work is a homage to Andy Warhol. He’s such an influential artist to society and LGBTQ+ artists as well. I was trying to think of what would be an iconic product that would create a sensation especially to LGBTQ+ people. A product with an “icon” status and symbolic of consumerism. I decided to use the Oreos as a replacement for the soup cans into a contemporary setting and for a new specific audience.
It definitely caught my eye. Especially with the online craze of everyone I knew on Twitter wanting to find some and try them out.
Can you tell me about (you) deserve it?
For (you) deserve it, it was inspired by one of my dreams during my visa process. The process wasn’t smooth, so I had these dreams where my application wasn’t accepted and I had to be deported back to China.
I was on a plane and the plane took off and crashed immediately after take off and burst into flames. I was able to see both the interior and exterior of the plane burning. When I woke up I immediately did a digital drawing of this work on my iPad, and then transferred it to a large canvas.
It took on this perspective of a viewer looking out to see their own plane on fire and bending towards itself. I ended up adding in the Chinese characters which translates to “you deserve it” in a negative connotation. A common occurrence for people in the Chinese diaspora is the scrutinization by people back in China. Like if something bad happens to us in a foreign country, it’s this idea of “why would you leave the country? This is what happens when you do.”
You just had an exhibition that opened, stupid little life. What’s your show about?
Absolutely! It is a show that incorporates digital collages, photographic diptychs/triptychs, and a big installation piece at Blue Sky Gallery. This show encapsulates ideas of the Chinese diaspora: working in a foreign country while finding identity in a new country, and trying to preserve cultural authenticity.
Themes I was thinking about include cultural hybridity, online presentation being the two geopolitical superpowers, and my personal journey/mindscape during the last two years of getting my visa. The show summarizes this journey of trying to be enough and having to cope with a nerve wracking reality while crafting alternative scenarios in a dark humor sense of way.