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Insights of an Eco Artist

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In conversation: Chen Yang

Joana Alarcão

Delve into the captivating world of Chen Yang, a visionary artist hailing from China's vibrant contemporary art scene. From her formative years at Lu Xun Academy of Fine Arts to her transformative journey at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design in London, Chen's artistic trajectory is a testament to innovation and cultural exploration. Renowned for her multidisciplinary approach and insightful engagement with socio-ecological themes, Chen's work offers a profound reflection on the complexities of our modern world.

3 May 2024

Chen Yang, born in 1997, is a dynamic and innovative artist emerging from China’s vibrant contemporary art scene. Chen embarked on their artistic journey at the prestigious Lu Xun Academy of Fine Arts, honing their craft in Digital Media Arts from 2016, after being nurtured in the academy’s affiliated high school since 2012.

In 2020, Chen's quest for artistic and academic excellence led them to the internationally renowned Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design in London, where they pursued and completed their master’s degree in fine art in 2022. This period marked a significant evolution in Chen's creative approach, allowing them to explore and refine their voice within the global art community. Chen's artistic oeuvre is distinguished by its critical engagement with themes of social environments and the intricate relationships within socio-ecological systems. Their work is a thoughtful inquiry into the complexities of cultural hybridity in contemporary society, navigating the intersections of tradition and modernity with a keen and discerning eye.

Renowned for their versatility and innovative use of mixed media, Chen specializes in digital media art, moving image, as well as painting and sculpture installations. Their creative practice is characterized by a multidisciplinary approach, through which they investigate and articulate the nuanced dialogues between human societies and their habitats.

In 2023, Chen achieved a notable milestone when their work "Three Chairs" was shortlisted for the prestigious Clifford Chance/University of the Arts London Sculpture Award, a testament to their growing influence and recognition in the art world.

This accolade underscores Chen’s capacity to communicate powerful narratives and ideas through their art, marking them as a significant voice among the emerging generation of artists dedicated to examining and reshaping the contours of contemporary culture.

Chen Yang’s work continues to evolve, driven by a relentless curiosity and a commitment to exploring new mediums and expressions. As they navigate the challenges and opportunities of the global art landscape, their contributions offer insightful perspectives on the pressing issues of our time, solidifying their status as a leader and innovator in the field of contemporary art.

Can you start by giving us an overview of your practice and what led you to explore the intersection of art, environmental and social activism? 

My artistic practice primarily revolves around exploring Nihilism, guided by self-observation to convey my perspective on issues and criticisms through art. This method not only allows me to express my viewpoints but also aims to provoke reflection and dialogue among audiences, seeking their feedback and answers to the questions I raise.

This process of self-observation and dialogue is strongly linked to social activism. As societal civilization progresses, my perception and understanding of the same issues continue to evolve, prompting me to reconsider existing social structures and cultural values. Through my art, I not only document this process of change but also strive to influence and participate in these social transformations. I use my art as a tool to stimulate public awareness and drive societal progress.

Can you share with us a pivotal moment or experience from your time at the Lu Xun Academy of Fine Arts that significantly influenced your artistic journey? 

My formative years at the Lu Xun Academy of Fine Arts were truly the beginning of my enlightenment in art. I had been attending the affiliated high school of the Academy since my teenage years, so I was introduced to art at the tender age of 14. The Academy places a strong emphasis on traditional Chinese art forms, including painting and sculpture, which deeply influenced my early artistic development.

It was here that I began to build a foundational understanding of art history, artistic concepts, and the essential skills and techniques needed in the arts. This education allowed me to transform the visions in my mind into tangible artworks through my hands. Continuously painting and honing my observational skills were crucial during my time at the Academy. This rigorous training enabled me to express the issues and perceptions I contemplated more clearly through my work.

This period at the Academy was profoundly impactful; it not only shaped my technical abilities but also deepened my appreciation for the complexity and richness of traditional art. It instilled in me a disciplined approach to artmaking and a respect for the meticulous craftsmanship that traditional art demands. This foundation has been indispensable in my journey as an artist, providing me with the tools to explore and express my artistic vision in diverse and meaningful ways.

Image of an exhibition showing people looking at a painting in tones of red and purple.
Xenophora Pallidula, digital painting by Yang Chen. Image courtesy of Yang Chen.

In your statement, you mentioned that your practice is “a thoughtful inquiry into the complexities of cultural hybridity in contemporary society.” Can you elaborate on this line of thought? 

My exploration into the complexities of cultural hybridity in contemporary society is deeply rooted in my personal experiences of shifting from a lifelong residency in China to embarking on advanced studies in the United Kingdom at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design in 2020. This drastic change in environment exposed me to vastly different cultural dynamics, fundamentally altering my approach and understanding of art communication.

The transition wasn't just about changing locations; it was about immersing myself in a completely different cultural environment. The contrast in thought processes, problem-solving, and understanding of the cultural differences between my Chinese background and the new Western environment I found myself in was stark. Living in London, I experienced first-hand the collision and blending of diverse cultural influences, which significantly influenced my way express the perspective of the art.

My artistic practice shifted from focusing primarily on self-observation to examining the broader societal impacts of cultural intermingling. I delve into how different cultures interpret and react to the same phenomena, often finding that these perspectives are not just different but sometimes directly opposed. This inquiry involves analysing why people from distinct social backgrounds may view the same situation through entirely different views.

I see myself as a cultural mixer, actively engaging with and learning from individuals from a variety of backgrounds. I aim to internalize these diverse cultural elements and use my art to express my unique perspective on the contemporary world’s cultural amalgamation. Through my work, I strive to offer a platform for dialogue and understanding, bridging cultural gaps and enriching the global conversation about identity, belonging, and community in our increasingly interconnected world.

 Image of a sculpture of three wooden chairs
Three Chairs by Yang Chen. Image courtesy of Yang Chen.

One of your projects, Three Chairs, was shortlisted for a prestigious sculpture award in 2023. Can you tell us more about the inspiration behind this piece and its significance within your body of work?

The sculpture award for "Three Chairs" came as a surprise. It was the curator who, having seen my work at the graduation exhibition, contacted me to inform me that I had been shortlisted among the top ten. I feel very lucky. "Three Chairs" is a standalone sculpture within a playground theme and represents my first foray into large-scale, interactive installations. This piece conspicuously features three toilet seats, each facing a different direction. The original version, "Three Chairs 1", was handcrafted from wood. Throughout this practice, I have constantly adjusted the materials, structure, and understanding of the piece.

When creating art, I am conscious that it will be placed in a public space like a gallery or museum. Therefore, I opted to create a space that is the most private yet paradoxically public, observable by everyone. This visibility also articulates my critique of the harms contemporary social media brings to society—an unhealthy evolution. However, the greater inspiration ties back to my family—the triangular relationship formed by my parents and me. I realized that even while living in another country, my connection to my family remains unbreakable. My personality and the very foundations of my self-identity are deeply rooted in my familial environment and my parents' influence. Even now, I often feel the need to expose private spaces to the public, making me recognize that I am not a complete individual on my own. My actions are contingent upon 'motherly' responses.

This dependency began to shift once I moved to a foreign country. My emotions still hinge on others' reactions, and I find myself gauging my every move by observing others. I wanted to express this concept in a playful way, or through a childhood environment—using the innocent perception shaped by external cues in childhood to establish self-worth, to create the absurdity of this piece.

As an artist emerging from China's vibrant contemporary art scene, how do you see your work contributing to the dialogue between Eastern and Western artistic traditions?

Emerging from China's vibrant contemporary art scene, I find my work serves as a bridge contributing to the dialogue between Eastern and Western artistic traditions. The most significant distinction I've observed is that Eastern art, particularly from China, places great emphasis on the technical mastery of painting and sculpture. Every detail must be meticulously crafted, aiming for a final product that is complete, precise, and exquisite. This tradition values the vivid conveyance of themes through classical painting techniques, focusing on the totality and visual presentation of the artwork.

In contrast, Western art has taught me to view art as a form of faith and a repository for spiritual expression. It appreciates the freedom in the creative process, where even a preliminary sketch can be considered a complete piece of art. This approach allows for more spontaneity and values the artist's expression and the conceptual over the purely aesthetic.

Integrating these perspectives, my work attempts to merge the precision and detail-oriented approach of Eastern art with the freedom and conceptual depth of Western traditions. By doing so, I aim to create a unique artistic language that respects and combines the strengths of both traditions. This synthesis not only enriches my artistic practice but also contributes to a broader understanding and appreciation of the diversity within global art practices. It encourages a dialogue that respects traditional techniques while embracing the innovative and often abstract expressions found in contemporary art.

Image of a wooden sculpture of a small playgroud in  a green area
Playground by Yang Chen. Image courtesy of Yang Chen.

What can you tell us about the Playground project? 

In expanding the narrative of the "Playground" project, we can think deeper into how individual self-consciousness is formed through social and cultural interactions by incorporating Lacan's mirror theory. According to Lacan, when infants first see their reflection in a mirror, it marks the beginning of recognizing themselves as a whole entity, which is foundational to their self-awareness. In my artwork, this theory translates into exploring how individuals come to know and define themselves through the societal and cultural environments - the "other" as a mirror.

In the "Playground" series, each project, especially the sculptures with eyes facing different directions or missing eyes, symbolizes the attempt to explore the world from various outside perspectives. The absence of eyes and the diversity of directions reflect the limitations in perspective and cognitive blurring that individuals face while trying to understand their roles and identities within society. These works not only represent the subjective experiences of individuals in social interactions but also reveal how self-concepts are constructed under multiple social and cultural influences.

From a childhood perspective, my work aims to capture the self-image that is gradually shaped and potentially distorted during the socialization process. The use of childhood techniques and vibrant colours visually invokes emotional resonance in the audience and symbolizes innocence and freedom - qualities that are often lost during maturation. The use of wood is not only for its natural and warm texture but also because, as a traditional and durable material, it symbolizes the permanence of time and the solidification of memory.

The recurring presence of triangular symbols in the series is more than just a representation of maternal directives; on a deeper level, it reflects how societal expectations and norms shape our behaviours and thought patterns. Through these triangles, I explore how initial self-awareness is formed under the guidance of parents and society, and how these external directions become internal self-commands over time.

Overall, my "Playground" project is not only an artistic reimagining of childhood memories but also a profound reflection on the formation and evolution of individual self-awareness within social and cultural interactions. This project aims to provoke thoughts in viewers about the relationship between self and society, thereby understanding the complex interactions between personal growth and their social environment.

 a detail of a sculpture of three wooden chairs
Three Chairs by Yang Chen. Image courtesy of Yang Chen.
Can you walk us through your creative process, from conceptualization to execution? How do you know when a piece is complete? 

My creative process might seem a bit unconventional as it often begins with practice, and unconscious expressions in sketches, rather than starting with a concrete concept. I tend to observe and record abstract phenomena first, and then slowly conceptualize these observations. So, it's not entirely about conceptualizing first; I will focus on the practical execution and then conduct a psychological analysis to understand why I am sensitive to these phenomena and why I observe these particular objects.

From there, based on these psychological insights, I research books and references or materials that can deepen my understanding of the observed phenomena. Through this process, theory and practice continually recreate and complete each other. The artwork also becomes clearer and more precise as the practice evolves.

As for when a piece is considered complete, so far, I don't believe I have ever truly finished a piece because, looking back at my previous works, I always find aspects that could evolve further, suggesting ongoing research potential. My views on the same subjects may change as I grow older, so I plan to continue studying the fields that interest me. Perhaps, I will keep reviewing and recreating my past works, continuously enriching, and expanding them as my perspective and skills develop.

Innovation seems to be a central theme in your work. What drives you to constantly explore new mediums and expressions, and how do you see technology shaping the future of art? 

Innovation is indeed central to my artistic journey, largely because my university major was intertwined with digital media arts, which typically involved using cameras, moving images, and digital illustrations to concretize artistic expressions. However, upon my arrival in the UK, I began to move away from these media because they capture pre-existing concrete images, and I found they could not accurately convey the abstract visions in my mind. Therefore, I started experimenting with every medium I was interested in, such as plaster, clay, silicone, wood, marble, iron, plastic, and fabric. Through this exploration, I discovered that each artwork demands a different medium for expression, requiring continuous experimentation to find the most suitable medium. It's like finding the right container; you need containers of different sizes and materials to fully express the varying contents and directions you wish to show your audience.

Technology and digital media art are now global trends because art is a medium of the global cultural conversation. For practical reasons, more artists are changing to digital visual artists, which allows for more stable exhibitions in galleries worldwide. It also facilitates adjustments in artwork's scale and display method based on the architecture and space available. However, this does not mean that traditional art will be replaced—both forms have unique values and appeal.

a digital painting with red and purple tones with geometric patterns
Xenophora Pallidula, digital painting by Yang Chen. Image courtesy of Yang Chen.
What is your opinion about the role of art in today’s contemporary atmosphere? How do you see art contributing to conversations about pressing social and environmental issues?

I believe that art plays a pivotal role in developing contemporary culture and society, especially when artists choose to draw inspiration from themes related to cultural, national politics, and environmental issues. By using art as a medium, artists help raise awareness about the potential dangers present in our society and the negative impacts accompanying human civilisation's progress. Art makes an immeasurable contribution to addressing pressing social and environmental issues, offering exhibitions that provoke self-critique and introspection among the public. 

In terms of environmental advocacy, artists like Olafur Eliasson, with his immersive installations, showcase the impacts of global warming, drawing public attention to climate change. Such works invite audiences to experience the potential realities triggered by climate change, making the abstract threat of climate change more direct and tangible. Through this approach, art not only captivates visually but also stimulates deeper emotional and cognitive engagement with these urgent issues, encouraging views to think deeply and art.

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

I think art is a medium through which we awaken our self-awareness. For me, it serves as a portal to explore deeper understandings of ourselves and our surroundings. Through art, we condition. It challenges us to think, reflect, and often, to art.

My message to readers is to not just view art passively but to engage with it actively. Use it as a tool to discover new perspectives, confront uncomfortable truths, and embrace the diversity of human experience. Let art inspire you to question, to learn, and to grow. Ultimately, let it move you towards greater awareness and understanding, pushing you to participate more fully in the world around you.

Find more about the artist here.

Cover image:

Playground by Yang Chen. Image courtesy of Yang Chen.

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