Jay Yan is a young artist based in Los Angeles who, after graduating from the UCLA’s Design | Media Art department, in few years managed to have a discreet international reputation and impress one of the most influential chinese contemporary art collector in the world.
Jay once said to me: “in order to be a good artist you need to have good ideas and be able to further ideas from others, so the art world can get an idea of what you’re talking about”. While this is true for the art world in general, is so even more if we look at Jay’s works. With a repertoire spanning conceptual self-referential works and playful large-scale interactive projections, his pieces are always full of references and ideas winking to the contemporary art scene, and his bold and engaging interactive works are often clever commentaries on the way we approach interactive art, implicitly criticizing the banality of many oversimplified interactive media pieces.
The theme of re-appropriation – “stealing” if we will – is recurrent in Jay’s work and it’s intertwined with his personal history, being brought up in a Chinese family. In his performance Art of Stealing Art (2008), he produced and sold bootlegged copied of artist videos in front of the gallery where the same videos where exhibited, crafting the covers in porn DVDs style, exactly as you could find on the streets of Shanghai.
With this work he raised questions about copyright and authorship in the context of Chinese contemporary art, which, beside few “big stars” of the international art world, in his own country still face problems related to the authenticity and originality of what “Chinese art” is.
Another remarkable feature of Jay is his sharp irony: in one of his last projects, he’s trying to get his hands on a replica of the gun that shot Andy Warhol (the original is locked up at Riker Island in New York) to make a short line of electronic toy guns that you can point at an art work and listen to the recorded voice of Andy Warhol telling you whether it’s art or not. This is also a kind of a homage to Xiao Lu’s performance during the China \ Avant Garde show, in which the artist shoot at one of her work.
It’s exactly this cocktail of clever irony and deep understanding of the cultural context in which he operates that makes him one of the most interesting young artist of the west coast. Furthermore, Jay is also in a favorable position since he has an american passport and in the same time making contemporary chinese art. Let’s see what he has to say about the two sides of the medal.
Mattia Casalegno: In almost any work of yours there are references to other artists or to historical masterpieces of art. Why is so important for you to use such references? And why in general is so important in the world of art to reference other artists?
Jiacong Yan: It makes people who understand the references feel smart ! No seriously, references create a context for ideas. for example, the color red means completely different things in chinese art than it does in america. So the references to other artists I put into my work is used not only to add layers of depth but also a setting for what the work is about. To be able to express a new idea, it is important to understand the place where the idea comes from.
Mattia Casalegno: One of your pieces that intrigued me the most is Cutting Board (2005): two monitors, one in front of each other, display two butchers playing a game of chess over a real board made of meat. This is one of your most hermetic and surreal work. Where did the idea came from?
Jiacong Yan: I made this piece after seeing Bill Viola’s works. I thought it would be interesting to play with something that never decays and something that decays so quickly. Video installations like Viola’s work seems to go on forever. Each time the same and never changing like a statue. The meat sculpture evolves over time and begins to smells and glisten in the light. I enjoy this juxtaposition between eternity and ephemerality.
The chess game between the butchers is a celebration of the possibility this beauty of ingenuity could exist somewhere. The piece is also about how some relationships fall apart. Two people getting together to presumably to make the “board” and as the game goes on, the relationship decays
Mattia Casalegno: Somewhere you said about interactivity and media art: “options makes it a tool, no options makes it a statement.” . I think is a good point and a proper introduction at your approach to the field. A lot of your works seem ironic commentaries on the dynamics and functions of interactive works: you use the “topoi” of some “classic” interactive art – gestural interaction, face recognition, videoprojections, using them not as mere technologic tricks but always as devices to tell something deeper about the human nature and our relationship with new media.
Ad example in Throw Your Hands Up (2007) you plugged the video feed of a camera used in an interactive installation and displayed it on a tv monitor in a contiguous gallery, re-contextualizing the whole experience and focusing on the abstract gesture of the people trying to interact, more than on the result of the interaction itself. Why did you do that? Is there a way for interactive works to make statements or they are intrinsically just tools?
Jiacong Yan: I did this because people interact with an interactive piece in very similar ways. Everyone just wave their arms up in the air. By removing the context of an interactive installation, you see how similar and ridiculous these movements are. The audience watching the video feed become researchers watching monkeys in their natural habitats. But this piece is also a direct ridicule of the thousands of “mirror” pieces similar to the works of Daniel Rozin.
It was once said during a discussion about interactivity that interactivity is the medium, a reference to Marshall McLuhan. This is the basic problem with most interactive works. We used to think the message is part of the medium, but it’s the medium that is part of the message. The interactivity needs to part of the message and not the message.
Mattia Casalegno: Raised in the US by a chinese family, you are positioned in an interesting intersection between chinese and american cultures: lately your work has been noted by Guan Yi, one of the most influential curator of contemporary art in China, and you often travel there to show your works. What’s your take on chinese contemporary art in general?
Jiacong Yan: I’m very glad I grew up in the US. It has allowed me to analyze American society with a Chinese eye and chinese society with an American eye. I believe in a global movement that is art. I know more about what kinda art is being made from Berlin to Beijing than I do down the street in Los Angeles. I think chinese artists need to conceptually advance this movement rather than repeating similar themes. I don’t think Chinese contemporary art pushes the boundaries of the global question that is art enough. I wonder how many chinese artists know who Joseph Kosuth is.
Mattia Casalegno: In 13 Hidden Shames (2008) you take a simple gesture as the leaving of cigarettes butts on streets as a metaphor of a prominent aspect of Chinese society. Could you elaborate more about that ?
Jiacong Yan: I think China has become a country of passing blame. In chinese culture, the greatest fear is to “lose face” or become publicly embarrassed over a mistake. The corrupt politicians blame the guy who came before or the industrialist who pollutes says everyone else does this so it’s ok for me to do it. This, of course, happens in every country, but it is so endemic in chinese culture that it has become an art form that people master. The tragedy is, in this type of system, a small mistake becomes ever more increasing because people feel justified.
I came upon this when traveling in the Yunnan region of Southern China. The cigarettes were on the tile roof next to a lonely balcony inside a buddhist temple. I noticed that tourists were sneaking a cigarette break there because smoking was not allowed in the temple. Of course every person who sneaked up there must litter their cigarette somewhere. In this beautiful discovered sculpture, you can clearly see a historic progression as the cigarettes build up. One person disposes of their secret and everyone else hides their shame in with the others.
Mattia Casalegno: In your series of Videogames Landscapes, you decontextualized the tradition of chinese paintings with elements of famous videogames. This project is a melancholic and clever commentary of the raving gaming culture emerging among younger chinese generations. Why did you used the metaphor of the chinese landscape?
Jiacong Yan: I was looking at a generic chinese landscape painting in my parent’s house. I began to think about the places these paintings are based on and how they don’t exist anymore. Rampant tourism and pollution have destroyed many famous landscapes that painters have depicted over the centuries. These paintings are now fantasy landscapes of another time. I also thought about the kinds of landscapes the new generation of Chinese visit. They are not the mountains of Gui Ling but the mountains of Super Mario. So why not just paint video game landscapes since they are more important than these places that no longer exist.
Mattia Casalegno: Let’s came back at the Chinese contemporary art scene again. Looking at the careers of acclaimed artists as Ai Wei Wei or Zhang Huan, it seems that to became a renowned chinese artist you have to go out of China. Is this still the case with the younger generations or something is changing?
Jiacong Yan: Perspective is why so many great Chinese artists have a connection to the West. They can critique Chinese culture without being blindly prideful. Another chinese collector said to me “there are 10 good artists in Beijing, maybe 5 in Shanghai”. I think this is due to most conceptual artists from the 80s left after the events of China/avant-garde 1989. I find many young chinese artists lack teeth in their work. How can you critique society if you are taught never to critique it.
I don’t know yet if this popularity for chinese contemporary art is good for the young generation. I specifically limit myself from that world because you lose perspective about your work. Also, it’s very hard to get away from the name Ai Wei Wei. Everyone seems to think you are trying to be him. The global chinese obsession is so great that I had a show in Europe where I told them I was from the US, but they put China instead. Even in this interview, China China China!