Multimedia Artist Yang Chen: Respecting the Magic Moment
By Genie Davis
Multimedia artist Yang Chen has learned to “respect the magic moment” when it comes to the creation of her art. And while her educational background is rooted in ceramics, she relates that her personal interests cover a wide range of art, media, and philosophy, all of which she brought into play along with ceramics during her recent residency at California State University Long Beach.
At another residency at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art last year, she only had access to simple printmaking facilities. “I didn’t have much space or materials, but going to the museum all the time afforded me incredible inspiration. It also reminded me of what kind of artist I really want to be. I studied String Theory and then created a silkscreen artist book initiating investigations about different cultures.”
Regardless of the medium she employs, Chen looks for that illusive but powerful magic in her art, which “only happens during the process of work. That moment is always the part that makes work truly interesting and unpredictable. I don’t like to settle with one idea or a specific plan,” she says.
During her time in Long Beach, she used the idea of ceramic “boxes” and created an installation project titled Anywhere, Somewhere, Nowhere. “I treated the idea of a ceramic box like sculpture, with painting, drawing, prints, and photography contained in it. And so, the ceramics themselves became more about multimedia for me. Playing with light and shadow was also in some of my original planning, but I wasn’t sure how to implement it until I was finally installing my work.”
She relates that the “drawing and texture on my ceramics was inspired by the landscape and feeling from when I was on a flight to Los Angeles. I had read the book Amerique by Jean Baudrillard a few years ago, and I got a strong sense of the postmodern and particular features of Los Angeles; however, this was my first time in LA.”
She recorded a video of the flight to potentially project as a part of her installation, but ultimately felt that it did not work in the space or for the project as a whole. What did work was found materials – all sourced from around the Long Beach campus and exhibition space itself.
“I like using the materials that I find. I don’t like repeating myself, so I enjoy including environmentally specific materials.”
Chen is adamant that she doesn’t like to over-explain her work to viewers. “I want my work to be ambiguous, poetic and somehow absurd,” she explains. “However, I consider myself to actually be pretty formalist in my artistic approach. I want the color, the form of the sculpture, and composition of the installation to be well-considered. In Long Beach, I grouped the boxes together as if forming a number of larger pieces. I wanted to use wooden wheels – part of a water pipe – and some wooden structures because I like that they have a sense of motion and rotation and that it seems unsettled and dangerous.”
Chen says the found construction materials seemed overtly industrial, but nonetheless, she felt that the language of those materials provided, in a formal way, many connections with her boxes. For example “the holes on the ladder, the crack of the metal bar, the yellow surface of the wood — were having a conversation with the raw clay surface. I wanted the color, line, surface, and form related to my ceramic work as well.” While this was not her first time using found materials in her art, Chen notes that this time the materials served as geometric forms. “The forms that I found, and used, were the wheel, a grey cabinet, and a grey ladder. They allowed me to experiment with my boxes in many different assembled possibilities.”
Chen feels that the installation process she experienced changed the way she saw her work, causing her to create almost a new piece as she set up her art. “I wanted the viewer to explore the spatial detail and information of and on each box. For some of them, I focused on lighting, some on shadows, and some on the difference between inside and outside. Some boxes are colored with under-glaze and have contrasted drawings.”
She was inspired, she says, by The Book of Changes, also known as the I Ching, the ancient Chinese divination text. “The I Ching uses a type of divination called cleromancy, which produces apparently random numbers. Six numbers between 6 and 9 are turned into a hexagram, which can then be looked up in the I Ching book, arranged in an order known as the King Wen sequence. I got to know The Book of Changes back in middle school, and I am continually inspired from it.”
She notes that one cultural difference between Eastern and Western culture is how people know and treat nature. Her integration of concepts from the I Ching in her artwork represents that difference, in part.
“The hexagram of I Ching is the high generalization of natural beings and the rules of the world. In the beginning, I wanted to make 64 boxes of each hexagram, each of them an abstract expression of different divinations.” Instead, she layered her boxes with images from her travels, and created a world in which reality and her own inner vision blended together to shape an entirely new place.
Chen has moved a great deal, 30 times in fact during one year. But she’s found even the taxing nature of making these moves in a short period of time helped her to create her exhibition in Long Beach. “I was inspired by the time I was working in my storage unit and building all the wood crates and boxes that I needed. I felt most of the time that my sculpture was being made and placed inside boxes; it’s like my works have to have something to hide inside. Most of my works are super fragile and have spiky and/or organic shapes, which have high contrast with the boxes they inhabit. I suddenly thought why not just make those boxes with small pieces inside as my installation.”
With that in mind, she worked on the idea of creating a universe from her boxes. “The boxes also kind of acted as my diary during the summer. The boxes contain all of my struggles and the emotional connections I have with my home and my past. One of the pieces has the blurred image of my parent’s marriage photo layered with the emergency exit sign of a train.”
But while she may depict the past, Chen is already looking toward the future, planning art that will allow “time and experience to go back and forth.”
“I wish I could do 64 of the diagrams of The Book of Changes, but it’s not something I can finish in 2 and a half months,” she explains. Next up, she’ll be completing a fall residency at the Gimhae Museum in Korea.
And, Chen hopes to return to Long Beach if her visa is approved. “I would like to place my work outside with landscapes or street sites. I can picture my boxes outside, being inserted into different environments, like houses or like strange tiny universes, which invite viewers to explore another world.” She would like to add an audio component to her work as well.
Her bigger overall plan is to make art based from others’ experiences. “Being in Long Beach, I met many people with multi-cultural backgrounds, people who have moved from different places, and I want to show how that feels and how it changes people’s lives to be in a different place. I started this series from very personal emotion, but I think it’s really very universal. All these relocations, cultural exchanges, …they have changed our sensation of the contemporary world.”
Creating powerfully imaginative work that transports viewers, brings them a sense of wonder, of home, of leaving and returning – and transcends location and time – Chen may work in ceramics, but she also works in the pure joyous magic of her art making.