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Insights of an Eco Artist

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In conversation: Boyuan Wang

Joana Alarcão

Meet Wang Boyuan, the London and China-based artist whose work delves into the realms of absurdity and fantasy. With a background in printmaking, moving image, and drawing, Boyuan challenges norms and provokes critical thought on identity, sexuality, and societal constraints. The artist's imaginative creations disrupt conventional perspectives and explore the coexistence of possibilities and desires. From androgynous worm-like beings to scenes of vigour in corporate settings, Boyuan's art invites us to ponder our place in a world filled with anomalies and paradoxes.

26 April 2024

Drawn to anomalies and absurdity, my works employ imagination and humour to reflect and rethink identity, sexuality, social constraints, and underlying ideologies. Through my work, I aim to disrupt conventional perspectives and provoke critical reflection on entrenched mindsets such as anthropocentrism, elitism, and beauty standards. I engage in reflection and challenge normality through various mediums, including drawing, moving image, installation, and writing. 

In my current works, I depict myself as an androgynous worm with bobbies and willy, having distinctive features, and experiencing diverse environments, exploring my possibilities, desires and how I coexist with others. Sometimes, I exude vigour and vitality in an office with a glossy hairstyle, having meetings with others. on other occasions, I may be dressed in a veil, walking in the underground station. There is an instance where I am completely isolated and paralysed on a bed, with only a glowing flower growing from a tumour, overseeing me in the air. During the funeral of a feather, I lower my head to show my condolences, surrounded by funeral ceremonies and rituals.

Can you start by giving us an overview of your practice and what steps you took to become the artist you are today?

My practice is deeply drawn to absurdity and anomalies. I use humour and imagination to reflect on identity, sexuality, social constraints, underlying ideologies, etc. I rethink conventional perspectives and entrenched mindsets through different materials such as woodcuts, moving images, drawings, etc. The concepts that I consider include anthropocentrism, elitism, beauty standards, gender stereotypes, etc.

I started drawing when I was a kid and was intrigued by comics and manga when I was in middle school. It still has a large impact on me. I studied traditional drawing techniques and went to an art school in Beijing for my bachelor's degree. This period helped me build my skills and techniques, and I also got the chance to experiment with different materials. During my BA, I mostly worked with printmaking and gained sensitivity in spotting the attributes of different materials and how to utilise them. Then, I studied at the Royal College of Art in the UK. This was the first time I lived abroad, and this experience widely broadened my horizons. I experienced many cultural shocks and eventually became more aware of my identity and how drastically different mindsets can be between different cultures.

In your statement, you mentioned that your “works employ imagination and humour to reflect and rethink identity, sexuality, social constraints, and underlying ideologies.” Can you elaborate on this line of thought?

I believe that imagination is crucial as our society and physical world have limitations and constraints. Imagination provides a space to experiment with different ideas freely, which can be instructive and bring new possibilities. In my series of self-portraits, I imagine myself as an androgynous worm with various personalities residing in different environments. This exploration helps me delve into my sexuality, identity, and the depths of humanity. By freeing myself from biological and physical realities, I gain a new perspective on the world.

Humor also plays a significant role in my practice. Humor often arises in critical moments when social dynamics are challenged. Through irony, solid social hierarchies like patriarchy and elitism can be destabilised. Humor can also help people release tension and stress. In my work, I depict many eccentric characters who behave naturally and freely by farting, picking their nose, and living life unconventionally. They symbolise breaking free from the overwhelming societal constraints imposed on us.

Furthermore, humour often emerges in incongruous situations where something deviates from the norm. In my work "Testing Ground," one of the imaginary beings named Fab Foot — a foot with a penis high heel, proudly showcasing its blend of feminine and masculine beauty. While humour can be controversial, it prompts us to reconsider our past beliefs and their rationality. I use humour as a tool to push the boundaries of different mindsets and to alleviate tension and stress.

Ilustration showing diverse creatures
Testing Ground by Boyuan Wang. Image courtesy of Boyuan Wang.

Your practice challenges traditional mindsets such as anthropocentrism, elitism, and beauty standards. How do you navigate the balance between provocation and reflection in your art?

At times, my works may appear provocative because I challenge certain mindsets and ideologies after thorough research and consideration, or at least I choose to be skeptical about them. For instance, in my work "Testing Ground," the hybrid creature with a polar bear head and jellyfish body was inspired by the widespread phrase "Save the Planet." After watching a documentary on global warming and its impact on different species, I found it fascinating how human existence can inadvertently benefit certain species, such as increasing the jellyfish population while decreasing that of polar bears. This realisation made me question the arrogance and anthropocentrism behind the notion of "saving the planet" as the Earth has its own self-regulating system. Instead, we should focus on saving ourselves.

In my piece "Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder," I reflect on beauty standards by using a thermal camera to capture the process of applying makeup. The thermal camera captures infrared light that differs from human vision, rendering my gender ambiguous and making the makeup invisible on my face. This perspective challenges the conventional notions of beauty standards and prompts viewers to reconsider their meaning from a different angle.

In "Brave New Work," I created a series of literacy cards that explain seemingly positive words with negative words, such as equating development with selfishness. It exposes the core of elitism built on inequality, where the success of one often comes at the expense of others' suffering. By presenting these opposing words together, I aim to shed light on their darker implications. While I may not hold strong opinions on every ideology, I strive to analyse and question them from various perspectives.

Illustration of a black and white maze
Brave New World (Maze) by Boyuan Wang. Image courtesy of Boyuan Wang.

Your depiction of yourself as an androgynous worm with distinct features is quite striking. Could you elaborate on the symbolism behind this choice and its connection to your exploration of identity?

This androgynous worm in my self-portrait series is derived from my work Testing Ground, a collection of 70 different imaginary creatures, each inspired by unique ideas. For example, the infinite loop created with a chain of penises symbolises the entrenched patriarchy, while others draw inspiration from my personal experiences. One such character is the androgynous worm, which resonates deeply with me. This character served as the focal point for a series of self-portraits where I envisioned myself as this androgynous worm inhabiting diverse environments and having various identities.

This character holds significant meaning for me. Firstly, as a worm, it may seem insignificant or even worthless, yet it possesses inherent value. Worms play a vital role as decomposers in ecosystems, thriving on the waste of others and serving as essential components of the environment. They embody filth but are indispensable to ecosystem functioning. Secondly, I appreciate organisms that exhibit diverse ways of living and reproductive systems. By imagining myself in such a context, I aim to challenge norms and stereotypes related to gender and sexuality. 

Additionally, by depicting sexual organs explicitly, I seek to liberate myself from societal constraints surrounding sexuality. Sexuality is a natural aspect of human existence and should not be shamed or taboo.

In my piece "Self-portrait - Mitsu," I express my desire to embody an androgynous worm lounging in a flower bed, adorned in Lolita fashion, relishing the life of a teenage girl who enjoys all things cute. This work reflects my exploration of identity, gender expression, and societal norms through the lens of whimsical and imaginative storytelling.

drawing in tones of grey of a worm
Self portrait-Mitsu by Boyuan Wang. Image courtesy of Boyuan Wang.

How do you approach the representation of different environments and emotional states in your art?

Human behaviour can vary significantly across different spaces and environments. Our actions differ in private, public, and various settings. In my work "Self-portrait - Caroline's Dinner Party," I portray myself standing before a silky curtain, adorned with luxurious jewellery, expressing contempt behind a chandelier. I imagine myself in an upscale setting surrounded by fancy objects, flaunting wealth and status.

Exploring emotions is a crucial aspect of my self-discovery. I often delve into my desires, documenting my feelings in writing. These emotional explorations may encompass moments of joy and excitement as well as periods of sadness and despair. In my piece "Party in the Wee Hour," I capture diverse facets of myself just before bedtime. Different versions of me emerge, engaging in discussions and interactions that reveal my fears, grief, despair, and moments of joy. This work serves as a reflection of the complexity and depth of human emotions and experiences within the context of personal exploration and introspection.

A drawing of an office scene with several creatures
Self-portrait - Office Hour by Boyuan Wang. Image courtesy of Boyuan Wang.

Can you talk about your submitted work, “Self-portrait - Office Hour”?

Office Hour is part of a series of self-portraits featuring an imaginary version of myself - an androgynous worm placed in various environments and surrounded by different materials. In 'Office Hour,' I imagined myself in a business meeting with a group of eccentric creatures. There's a worm with numerous pits lying on the table with a puddle of tears, a careless creature picking its nose with its eyes rolling, and more. Each creature attaches a dark ball to their body, akin to wearing a uniform, symbolising their belonging to the team despite being fundamentally different beings. They choose to standardise themselves to foster a sense of unity and belonging.

As for me, I envision myself as a white-collar businessman working in an office with glass walls, surrounded by skyscrapers in the downtown city. In this setting, I feel utterly normal and successful, exuding vigour and vitality. The smoothness of my life brings me more happiness than anyone else. Nobody judges me for being different; I'm just an average middle-class working man leading a well-ordered life filled with enjoyment and satisfaction.

Can you share more about your process of creating art across various mediums, from drawing to installation to writing? How do you decide which medium best suits a particular idea or concept?

Writing serves as the cornerstone of my artistic practice, with many of my ideas evolving through reflection and elaboration in words. In my self-portrait series, I delved into psychology and various archetypes of individuals. I wrote short biographies for different versions of myself, delving into the essence of their characteristics. This process enabled me to uncover suitable metaphors and deepen my understanding of humanity.

I believe that different materials possess unique attributes, and I strive to leverage them in my work. My sensitivity towards material characteristics developed through studying printmaking. For instance, woodcut printmaking holds significant cultural significance in China, having been extensively utilised for propaganda in the last century. I incorporated this element into my work "Brave New World - Literacy Cards," where I created cards using negative words to elucidate positive concepts such as 'happiness is indulgence,' 'safety is surveillance,' and 'creating is destroying.' These cards serve as reminders of the hidden dangers underlying seemingly beautiful and pervasive ideas. Additionally, woodcut printing has taught me the power of limitation, demonstrating that impactful creations can arise from using only black and white.

The choice of the medium plays a crucial role in art, as it not only conveys meaning but also embodies a message in itself. The medium becomes an integral part of the artistic expression, shaping the narrative and enhancing the overall impact of the artwork.

Cards in black and white
Brave New World (Bilingual Literacy Card) by Boyuan Wang. Image courtesy of Boyuan Wang.
Your international exhibitions span from China to London to Manchester. How does the cultural context of each location influence your artistic expression, if at all?

Living abroad has been a profound source of inspiration for me. Growing up in China and going overseas after completing my BA, the experience of immersing myself in a different culture and language has had a transformative impact on my artistic journey. The diversity of opinions, preferences, tastes, and values among people from various backgrounds fascinated me, highlighting the richness of human diversity.

As a Chinese artist creating work in China, it was natural to draw upon cultural resources and utilise the Chinese language in my art effortlessly. However, upon relocating to the UK, everything changed dramatically. I felt like a complete newborn, struggling with the English language and finding it challenging to grasp the values of the Western world. Transitioning from being part of the majority to becoming a minority, I became more attuned to issues of inequality and the value of underrepresented voices.  

The experience of living abroad has created a sense of isolation from my homeland and this new environment. However, this detachment from either place has lightened my world, it offers me a unique perspective. The limbo state allows me to objectively reflect on and scrutinise the various mindsets I was accustomed to from the past, as well as those associated with the new experiences. I got the chance to freely explore concepts of identity, sexuality, emotion, and desire. 

drawing of a worm in a dinner party
Self portrait-Caroline's dinner party by Boyuan Wang. Image courtesy of Boyuan Wang.

As an artist who challenges anthropocentrism and beauty standards, how do you see your role in promoting critical reflection and societal change through your art?

Initially, I created artwork to explore my thoughts and limitations. The more I create and contemplate, the more I realise that I am interconnected with the world around me. Through the process of analysing and expressing oneself, one can forge connections to the broader world. Each individual is a part of society, no one is really isolated. My role is to offer a personal perspective through my art, which serves as a representation of a particular way of thinking. These perspectives may not align with mainstream or conventional views, but they possess their own intrinsic value.

Artists translate their thoughts into visual form through their art. In my work, I aim to critique mainstream ideologies and remain mindful of the diverse perspectives held by individuals. As interdependent beings, we rely on each other for survival and cannot thrive in isolation. It is crucial to steer clear of excessive self-obsession. By being conscious of this tendency towards self-obsession, we can navigate a path that values both personal expression and collective understanding.

What message or call to action would you like to leave our readers with?

I believe that everyone is a part of a bigger system, and our interdependence is crucial for thriving through collaboration and support. It is important for individuals to embrace their true selves, practice mindfulness, and show respect towards others. The world needs balance and harmony to properly function. We should remain cautious of unquestioned authority and prevailing ideologies, seek to understand diverse perspectives and acknowledge our limitations. My hope is for us to construct a world characterised by kindness and inclusivity.

Find more about the artist here.

Cover image:

SEE IT, SAY IT, SORTED by Boyuan Wang. Image courtesy of Boyuan Wang.

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