OFF THE COST



YUYANG ZHANG

Published on March 30, 2021 by Brittany Vega

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Born in Wuhan, China, Yuyang Zhang [he/him] is an interdisciplinary artist currently living in Portland, Oregon. His works often revolve around topics related to automotive culture, personal and cultural identity, and social and political issues.

By implementing personal aesthetics, Zhang's photographic works repaint mundane life into mesmerizing and otherworldly scenes. As a millennial who spent too much time doomscrolling, he also pokes around contemporary issues by implementing internet culture and comedy elements into his collages and paintings. Zhang's immense passion for cars and his experience as a queer person in the car community inspired his sculptural expedition with automotive parts. His artistic practices engage critical thinking that weaves through different mediums and modes of making.

Zhang received a BS in Hospitality and Tourism Management from Purdue University and an MFA in Visual Studies from Pacific Northwest College of Art. He has exhibited nationally and internationally, including Portland, Oregon; Shenzhen, China; and Berlin, Germany. Zhang has also featured in multiple publications, including AINT-BAD, The Hand, and My Vision Only: A Monologue of Mobile Photography [只属于我的视界:手机摄影自白书].



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Brittany Vega: First, how are you? And how do you feel about your art practice in the midst of this year?

Yuyang Zhang: First of all, thank you for having me for this interview. It's been a wild year and I've been kinda on an emotional roller coaster from the COVID outbreak in my hometown to witness the horrible racial injustice. Now I'm still in the process of sorting out my status after graduation and time at the gallery. Otherwise, I am healthy and well, thanks for asking! Hope you are doing good as well, Brittany.

Pandemic and quarantine have undoubtedly changed the way of my art practice. It's a mode of looking inward and thinking outside of the box. I've spent more time thinking about my past works and figuring out what I can pick out and develop based upon those projects while injecting personal connections. Then I have tried new practices that push beyond my usual photography works.


BV: Is there a renewed relationship now with your older work? And with how you utilize photography?

YZ: Yes, my gallery has provided tremendous support and has decided to sponsor my visa. Although it is still up to the immigration office's call to the final decision, I am grateful enough for those who have helped me in this process.

In a short story, I started making digital collages with found images and my photographs. It came to my realization that photos can serve as an element that helps construct new narratives, instead of being an end result with constraints in a rectangular format.




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BV: I’m so happy to hear that! Walk us through the digital collages. What types of images are you using? What elements of your own photographs are you combining with them?

YZ: Thank you, Brittany, finger crossed! Sure, the collages' general direction is to stitch numerous elements from images and photographs of different eras seamlessly. To determine the theme of a piece, I primarily look for but not limit to these three objects: human figures in old Chinese propaganda posters, commercials that mostly relate to the automotive industries, and screenshots of the universe center of contemporary human interactions, and by that I mean phones and stuff. My photos now take the back seat to serve as an adhesive to bond every element so they get along with each other visually. I usually start out by digging picturesque landscapes but can end up with any photos that can create harmony with the rest of the piece. Photos sometimes are also purely documentary so I could cut and paste subjects that are needed for the final piece. Although photography is not the leading character of these recent works. I still think a lot about its minimalistic composition and pastel color palette because they speak about my artistic aesthetic. This is the identity I wanted to preserve in my artmaking.


BV: Are you maintaining some semblance to the original propaganda posters? How does the image function for you now after being modified?

YZ: Not necessarily, but I believe that people can easily trace these human figures back to their origin even without the original context. Because that's just how powerful and iconic they are, thus the semblance will always be self-evident with or without my interference. However, I do see how they can still be relevant today. By removing the more substantial political content of the time, the figures become more flexible subjects exposed to new interpretations. My photos and phone notifications are not only the breadcrumbs of my personal life but also the epitome of our contemporary life. They serve as the atom sphere for the propaganda figures to breathe and participate in topics nowadays. In general, they function as a deconstruction of the past as a reconstruction of the current.


BV: You’re also getting at a sort of snappy humor that’s quick and congruent with how language (textual and visual) is used online and in social media. How do you feel about that sort of tone and delivery of information in the work?

YZ: In some way, 2020 may or may not have blessed me with a breeze of chaotic energy, and I'd very much like to keep it flowing not only in my online persona but also in my works. This experimentation of injecting dark humor also has to with relevancy. I can use my art to speak to our material mental life's actual state through a sarcastic tone. In turn, these internet derived languages and visual elements allow the subjects and figures in the works to be relatable to the audience.

Besides, making a propaganda-ish work that conveys a harsh and sarcastic message instead of an uplifting and motivational one responds to a society that is overflowing with unnecessary and sugar-coated positivities. There's a Mandarin term called "丧文化," which says "funeral culture" in word-to-word translation, but actually means "demotivational culture" in English. You can articulate the term in BoJack Horseman, Joan Cornellá's works, and Stevie Budd. It is a widely popular subculture among millennials who are suffering from tremendous pressure caused by workspace, society, family, and personal life. People are implementing dark and defeating words through memes, literals, and media to cope with the pressure. However, the state media has deemed such internet culture as mind opium and thought it could erode the nation's spirit. As a result, the state cultural committee is shadowbanning entertainment and other media content containing demotivational elements.

When a society tricks us into thinking that only being motivational and uplifting can guarantee success while the reality is not, then why should we still believe this pyramid scheme? Some people use a negative approach to combat a negative situation and I use my works to channel that energy. Suppose traditional propaganda posters are all about absolute positive messages and uplifting energy. In that case, mine are the anti-propaganda that disclose the reality masked by humor and sarcasm.




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BV: These pieces have mostly been posted online on Instagram, no? Perhaps this year’s freeze of physical shows has impacted that. How would these ultimately exist for you?

YZ: Yes, I post most new works on Instagram and selected works on my website. This challenging year has reshaped my mode of making more or less. But ultimately, I'd like to see these collages printed on some kind of paper that reminisce the feel of old posters. I recently started working on a painting series and picking up some old photo prints. There is something charming about working with physical pieces.




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BV: What does your day-to-day routine or studio practice look like?

YZ: Due to the personal situation, currently I am privileged to enjoy a more flexible schedule to work in the studio. The practice starts with scrolling the phone. I gather inspiration from daily news, tweets, and memes. Then I will mood board those with the collection of propaganda posters I found online and my own photographs. Finally, everything will be cooked on my computer if the mood is right.

I usually work in the very early morning. It's when I feel mostly sharp. And I enjoy the feeling of hustling while the city is still asleep (I am a raccoon, aren't I?). That said, I do spread out my energy across the day and different projects. I am not professionally trained in any medium, even photography. Small doses of creative practices allow me, first, to lower the chance of error and not get overwhelmed by projects' workload. Secondly, I can jump between projects if I get bored with one. Revisiting is also an essential part of my studio practice. I often come back to works to add or revise small things based on how I feel about them. So the works I posted online are still 99% finished, so expect variation when they are on a wall.

In between studio sessions, cooking, working out, watching dramas, saving my plants from dying, and listening to sad music have kept me busy.



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BV: What other mediums do you explore? And are there certain freedoms or limitations within your practice as you continue to be your own teacher?

YZ: I am trying some canvas paintings, and my latest project is a series of emoji paintings with twisted connotations. Photography is still one of my leading practices as it serves a purpose for other projects and itself. I think the most pressing limitation is the lingering visa status. It does put some of my sculptural practice on hold, and I truly wish to get back on it once things are more settled. Besides, as a Chinese artist, there's always that invisible line that limits one's available subjects and works topics. Oftentimes I do feel like I am treading on thin ice when I was making certain works. So far so good, but my fingers are always crossed.

BV: Can you expand on “twisted connotations”? Is there a finished painting in this series you can describe?

YZ: Sure thing. "Twisted" may sound negative, so it's probably more appropriate to say unexpected connotation. In this new series, I'm creating pseudo propagandas but in a witty manner. An emoji is painted in a format that resembles Maoist propaganda posters. This emoji is accompanied by a Mandarin term that may suggest the emoji's meaning in Chinese, except it doesn't. In fact, the Mandarin term depicts how this emoji is widely used on the internet by millennials or gen-z.

For example, the work below is a smiley face with hearts. Its original intent was to express affectionate feelings like being in love or feeling blessed. However, I have seen it mostly in conjunction with tweets, comments, and posts that describe utterly screwed-up personal experiences. Most of them would be described as mental breakdown moments by the queer and gen-z community. Hence the Mandarin term in this piece translates to "meltdown" in English.

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I am interested in how the same demotivational energy that often appears in the collage works flow in these paintings. It also echoes the idea of our and younger generations' online act of masking terrible situations with something that appears otherwise. In real life, we might say "I'm fine" or "it's good," behind the screen, we all post funny memes and harmless emojis with smiley faces. Occasionally some emoji paintings react to what was happening on the news cycle while I was making them. This series is also an attempt to dismantle Chinese propaganda's historical meaning and its seriousness with the chaotic internet energy.

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BV: As an artist, do you feel like this visual language you’re using tied to current online expression offers some sort of protection? Versus, let’s say, art that is a very blatant “f*ck you” type of political criticism.

YZ: This is an excellent question, thank you, Brittany. In the short term, I agree that these internet cultured infused visual languages are offering a moderate amount of protection for a Chinese artist. The exciting part about the internet culture is how adaptive and fluid it is. It can respond to a social or political issue with either a subtle "fork you" or a straightforward "F*** YOU" depending on the situation. As for me, it's the former case. I don't have a full idea about how much protection I can have or how long I can have this protection for. I could, or perhaps I should stop risking at some point. But again, I'd probably regret more if I wasted this critical power of art while I am still lucky enough to have it.

BV: Is there anything new coming up for you that readers can know about?

YZ: Yes! First, my solo exhibition is happening this April at Fuller Rosen Gallery. It will feature collages and paintings we discussed in this interview. It is a big honor to have works featured in a gallery that is run by two amazing human beings. So I am excited to invite readers to see them in person as long as they feel safe and comfortable. Besides, Blue Sky Gallery’s 2021 PNW Photography Drawers Program will also host my works in the upcoming April. I encourage you all to safely visit the gallery as well.

Finally, thank you for your time to do this interview.

Also, thank you for your time reading this interview.



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IMAGE LIST


1. scam likely, 2020

2. show less, 2020

3. check iolization, 2020

4. you are on mute, 2020

5. figure worship, 2020

6. red alert 4, 2021

7. fishy, 2021

8. 💔, 2019

9. monstera trophy, 2019

10. heart of glass, 2021

11. “meltdown”, 2020

12. “four seasons”, 2020

13. duo, 2021

14. love triangles, 2020

15. a promo for the upcoming exhibition



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