In conversation: Chen Gao
Meet Chen Gao, an interdisciplinary artist and designer based in Detroit and Chicago. With her work spanning across free drawing, photography, writing, installation, and performance, she explores the concept of ideal freedom and the power of unconsciousness and dreams. Gao's art is not just a form, but an atmosphere that conveys a sense of void.
Insights of an Eco Artist Team
18 de abril de 2023
Making work is a way of finding myself. I couldn't stop making it because I couldn't live without it. My work is all about the emotional life of being. I like to work with my intuition first and then discover the hidden traces behind it. Instincts never hide what they did and think, which it is more sincere than mine. Collaboration between the material and myself happens when we make work together. Materials have their personality. I tend to feel the material first, become familiar with them, then finally work with them to make the work.
I am always wondering about the reason each thing happened. Unknowns give me fear, so I need to find the truth behind them. The world of life always has two sides on a scale, a free kingdom or a constrained space... I'm constantly swinging back and forth between these two sides. I feel like I'm standing on the edge of the boundary. They are infinite. There are so many unknowns waiting for me to explore. They contain and aspires me to move forward but also increase my fear. I am not creating a form but finding a sense of belonging in these voids.
Is it black, white, or what else?
Can you tell us more about your background and what inspired you to pursue a career in art and design?
Hello folks! This is Chen Gao. I come from China, currently based in the Detroit and Chicago metropolitan area in the US. I graduated from Cranbrook Academy of Art, Michigan, US, and now teach graphic design art at the School of Art + Design at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. I am an interdisciplinary artist and designer. My work has taken many shapes, including free drawing, film photography, poetic writing, installation, and performance, which explores the fantasy of ideal freedom that is extracted from the real world and asserts the power of unconsciousness and dreams.
My work has been celebrated in several exhibitions and (group) projects nationally and internationally, including the Library Mural Project at the Toledo Museum of Art Reference Library and An Inspired Age at the Toledo Museum of Art. I was selected to exhibit work in VAN GOGH Art Gallery in Madrid, Spain, Holy Art Gallery in London, and the Jackson Junge Gallery in Chicago. I am interested in continuing my professional studio practice in association with art education.
Making work is a way of finding myself. As I am on the way to discovering, I feel more and more confident, which encourages me to continue my interests in the field. For the first twenty years of my life, I didn’t find any sense of self and wasn’t trying to work hard to do anything. Until I heard from my undergraduate mentor Barry Whittaker several years ago, “Try to apply everything you have learned to your academic or professional goal. The more you try, the more you will accomplish...” Maybe because my English was not good at the time, and I could not understand all the words from professors in class, I needed to follow every single thing I heard in class in case I missed any important information. After that, I followed everything that I could do and started to gain small achievements one by one, gradually finding my interests like now. Although I still have much to learn, I can feel a sense of self now!
Your work explores the fantasy of ideal freedom and the power of unconsciousness and dreams. Can you share with us how you developed this concept and how it influences your creative process?
I would say I wasn't aware I was doing this kind of work in the past. I was first involved in Cranbrook Academy Art, a complete self-directed and independent program focusing on studio-based experiences. There is no curriculum, but I have to do work. I got messed up initially because I didn't know what I would do, and everyone's work was FANTASTIC. Until I heard "the first is the best," I had to make work without thinking that much because of time limits. After that, I found myself enjoying the experimentation and intended to adapt further to my studio practice.
As we always hear from Forrest Gump, "Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're going to get." I enjoy the unforeseen as I enjoy discovering myself from the hidden subconscious. I am getting to know myself more and more. I believe everything occurs for a specific reason. I feel my subconscious is more accurate than my thoughts. I tried to open my mind and welcome possibilities; I can see more "opportunities" stopping by.
How do you balance your role as a teacher of graphic design at the School of Art + Design at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign with your professional studio practice?
The main thing I did was separate my working space (teaching) and studio practice space. I reserved some time in my school’s office during the workdays, where I did most of my teaching preparations. After work, I can switch to my studio practice to chill and work at home. By doing this, I can immerse myself more in both sides of teaching and studio practice simultaneously. Although teaching and studio practice seem like two different areas, I began to see overlaps between the two, which also helped me to investigate my teaching interests deeper. Switching myself to different modes helps me to generate more ideas.
You work with various mediums, such as free drawing, film photography, poetic writing, installation, and performance. Can you tell us which medium you enjoy working with the most and why?
Yes, I have been working on different mediums and materials. Making work for me is a way of finding myself. It is a continuous journey that is always in process. The works I make are the “by-products” that show my emotions through different times, and actually, they can be in any form or material. It changes depending on my feelings.
I have been working on an ongoing project with charcoal drawings which I continuously draw day by day. It would probably show it as installations that discover the relationship between me, time, and space. I enjoy making drawings daily more because they can depict how my emotions change. I also like to work with different mediums, revealing the “process” itself. Hopefully, this project will be ready in the next few months.
I also intend to work with more natural materials. In my work with them, I feel meditative. They are who they are without much distortion. I also want to be like them. I work with them, but I’m trying to preserve myself.
One of your submitted projects is called Persona. What can you tell us about the inspiration behind this installation?
Persona is a performative installation. I performed as myself and my shadow winding threads around the space, showing the process of being lost in the endless boundary. To follow up continuous interest from my previous works. Although, it is more about a sense of discovery. Since then, I have been thinking about the relationship between me and my shadow and collaborating with different people for different projects to discover self-awareness. By that time, I am eager to show more about myself and find deeper connections with people and the environment.
So after that, I was trying to think about what was lacking from my previous works. They have discovered a lot about my instincts and emotions but not much about the process and movements which are important to me, instead of showing the “finished product.” Then the idea of winding the thread (performance) in the natural environment comes up. Whether I wind the thread in that space or not, threads perform themselves.
Your work has been exhibited nationally and internationally. Can you tell us about a specific exhibition or project that was particularly meaningful to you and why?
The story begins at the end of my first performance, “Persona.” A little boy approached me and asked, “Can I play with you?” “Sure, yes.” “Can I play with the ball?” “Yes” Then I gave the ball to him. A group of kids joined as well. They threw the ball in chaos. I was trying to help them pick up the ball and throw it back to them. The kids were so happy. They played with the yarn ball, threw it back and forth, and ran around the space I built. The little boy came to me again and asked can I xxxxxxx? I couldn't hear very clearly, but I said yes! Then I saw that he started to deconstruct my work. There was a moment when my work was almost totally deconstructed. I yelled to the little boy without any control. “I said you can play with it, but I didn’t say you can destroy it!” I walked back to the tree, sat down, and then cried.
I told the story to Ryan and Melissa (my friends) that night. I thought I was ready for anything, but I was not. I wasn’t prepared for innocents. I felt terrible about yelling at the little kid. I felt sad about the tree. I blamed myself... We cried so hard for the tree. I wasn’t trying to feel the tree and ask for their permission if they wanted to work with me. The tree listens and always stands by me anytime, but I…
We stared at each other, cried, unable to stop…
To be Free is a collaboration with Rence Xu in which you created a performance video of three objects near the sea floating with tide changes and waves at different times of the day. What was the work's conceptual investigation?
As you can probably feel from the name “To be Free,” it’s more toward playing. We didn’t have any specific plans before playing (performance) and also didn’t talk about each other's feelings or ideas that much while making the work. Everything comes naturally while we are working. Follow with emotion and enjoy the time of making. Not thinking, just playing. I know it’s weird to state, right? The more we think it’s more about the friendship and experience of being able to get together to make work during the pandemic. Because of real-life constraints during that time, it became more precious to make some time just to chill and be free. We don’t know about our future, we don’t know when is the time to work together. No matter what happens next. Upon those unknown possibilities, we just want to enjoy playing during that moment, at least from my point of perspective.
You mentioned that the unknowns give you fear but also inspire you to move forward. Can you tell us about a time when you faced a challenge in your creative practice and how you overcame it?
Some people like to plan before they make it, and others start to make it anyway. I have tried both. Initially, I intended to make a plan before making work. But running out of great ideas, at first sight, is easy for me. To generate a great idea is like trying to find something that does not exist in real work. Making plans also makes me feel anxious.
After that, I tried to change different ways of working. I can still “plan” something in a more general direction before making it, but I do not plan for each little detail. In that way, I am able to start to make it very quickly. There is no good or bad, right or wrong. Just go with it. After I compromised with my “bad” ideas, the creation process moved forward smoothly.
Fear is given to me mentally because of how I feel about unknowns and fears, which also inspired me to make work. I feel I am standing on the edge of the boundary with curiosity. Too many unknowns give me anxiety; a modest fear encourages me to move forward. The contradiction of in-between drives me to make work. Finding a more comfortable way to work can sustain me/us, to continue.
How has your art evolved over time, and where do you see it heading in the future?
My work follows my instinct and emotions, which is more intangible. I always like to sit in front of my work, just looking, being absent from my mind. By feeling them, those hidden traces in my deep subconscious start to build connections. They are like neurons. Once they connected, more and more traces would be created together, forming a web. I didn’t plan for specifics in the future as a long-term goal, but I would say to spend more time in studio practice and make more work. In the short term, I am working on an ongoing project which is a series of charcoal drawings. I draw in a daily routine to explore how my emotion evolves through different times and spaces. Hopefully, I can turn it into the installation(s) at different places.
Lastly, is there any artist, podcast, book, or platform you would like to recommend?
I really enjoy poetic writings which revoke my imaginations. Here are some books I enjoy reading: 100 Whites by Kenya Hara, The Poetics of Space by Gaston Bachelard, and Invisible Cities by Calvino, Italo.
Chen Gao is an interdisciplinary artist and designer based in Detroit and Chicago Metropolitan Area, USA. She received her MFA degree in 2D Design at Cranbrook Academy of Art. Gao is currently teaching graphic design at the School of Art + Design at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Her work has taken many shapes, including free drawing, film photography, poetic writing, installation, and performance. She explores the fantasy of ideal freedom that extracts from the real world and asserts the power of unconsciousness and dreams. This is all about her emotional life of being. She is not creating a form but building an atmosphere to convey a sense of void. Gao’s work has been celebrated in several exhibitions and (group) projects nationally and internationally, including the Library Mural Project at Toledo Museum of Art Reference Library and An Inspired Age at Toledo Museum of Art. She was selected to exhibit work in VAN GOGH Art Gallery in Madrid, Spain, Holy Art Gallery in London, and the Jackson Junge Gallery in Chicago. Gao is interested in continuing her professional studio practice in association with art education.