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Yunhan Zhao; Yingqian Cao

Interview with 7sArt: 

Beining Liu, the executive curator of this duo exhibition, conducted an interview with the two artists.


Beining: As a photographer without formal art training, how are you influenced by your girlfriend who is a professional artist?


Yunhan: When I first started dating Yingqian, I studied some art history in order to create some common topics of conversation with her. During my study, I was deeply attracted by the concept of capturing lights in a speedy fashion, which was pioneered by the Impressionists. They used strokes and colors to describe abstract concepts such as “atmospheres”, “emotions” and “feelings” while gradually getting rid of concrete outlines and perspective in drawing. This gave me significant inspiration.


Later Yingqian and I came to the US together for graduate study. Although we both studied in New York State, it was a seven-hour drive between the cities we were in. Every time I visited her in New York City, she showed me her new works. I liked those works but I really didn’t know how to describe my feelings towards them. Therefore, I used metaphors to compare the lines, patterns and colors in her works to “waves”, “light spots”, etc. However, she didn’t like the way I related her works to concrete objects. From there, I started to contemplate the essence within objects without taking the appearance and shape into consideration. Greatly attributed to living by myself while studying in Rochester and the long and gloomy winter there, my inspiration was accumulated through pondering.


After my graduation, we moved in together in New York City. We shared beautiful scenes and moments that we discovered with each other, no matter where we were. Paying attention to the surroundings brought us more interesting feelings and romantic moments, as well as increased loveliness in personality. We both enjoyed doing so, thus I took down moments in life with my camera, which also spontaneously reflected the essence that I’ve always been thinking about.



Beining: In your serial work “The Humanimal Zoo”, animals’ temperament and human’s behavior seem to be unified as if they are playing collectively in a theater show. Do you deliberately leave a stage-like space between you and the objects being shot, and wait for them to behave in a bizarre way?


Yunhan: I avoid any interaction with the objects being shot by keeping a distance from them. The isolation put us into two absolutely separated spaces, where my shooting becomes like peeping at another separated space without interfering them, which retains the objectivity. Both watching a show in a theater and looking at caged animals at a zoo are observing a separated space. The strangeness and the dramatism of the objects would increase in a natural manner when I observe a space that has nothing to do with me.



Beining: Behind the observation, it’s your selection of the scenes based on the scripts you write, if we may deem your work as a stage show. It’s like a recombination of the established scenes with a camera. Can I say that instead of directing the performance, you just select figurants from your personal experience, who haven’t read the scripts, to create a show that has nothing to do with individual actor or actress, but to create one with the same theme relating to figurants’ behaviors in general?


Yunhan: Yes, that’s right. I don’t have a script when shooting and selecting photos into the series. These are just my daily life and experience that I record. However, after the selection process, they unexpectedly show uniformity and integrality. Therefore, I think I do have a script, which is “me”. “The Humanimal Zoo” is my way to observe living beings who can behave with their own thoughts.



Beining: Can you show us one or more than one of your favorite photos and share your thoughts when take them?


Yunhan: As stated previously, I don’t have a theme or script when creating this series of work. So I didn’t really have much thoughts when taking those photos. My shootings are just capturing things that are of interest to me. It is in the selection process that I find out those interesting things attracting me have attributes in common. These common attributes all eventually point at me, reflecting part of “me”. 


It’s like you saw a cheese cake, you decide to take a piece; then you saw a strawberry ice cream, you couldn’t help having some scoops as well; later on, you saw some red velvet cookies, again, you couldn’t control yourself to have some pieces. You didn’t realize while eating, but when you thought about what you just ate, you would realize that all the things you ate were desserts. The reason you like eating desserts would attribute to some of your experience, or part of your personalities.


So let’s get back to your last question, “to create a show that has nothing to do with individual actor or actress”, yes, it has nothing to do with them; “but to create one with the same theme relating to figurants’ behaviors in general”, yes, this theme is “me”. Again, “The Humanimal Zoo” is just a way to statistically archive my observation. If you analyze this statistical archive, you would find its strong correlation with me.


The photo I like the most is this zebra I took back in early 2015. At first, I named it “A Desperate Zebra”. However, later I decided not to use this name since it’s not what it is. The zebra was not desperate, and I was not desperate either. When I took this photo, I indeed didn’t think too much. However, in the selection process, I realized that it looked like me who doesn’t like broadly socializing and overexposing myself. Other photos in this series also follow this similar expression. Thus, I guess this series of work reflects my savoring of solitude. Someone may think it reflects a sense of loneliness, but I think it’s not. It just reflects “me”, while I am not lonely.



Beining: Next let’s talk about the series work “Traces left Behind”. What are the criteria, or should I say, what triggered you to find these traces from the infinitely material world?


Yunhan: This series also derives from my daily observation. But different from the random shootings in “The Humanimal Zoo”, I took “Traces left Behind” with a subject matter. I tried to explore the existence of “Tao” by observing its expressions. “Tao” is a concept in ancient Chinese philosophy, meaning the way that things go, or the law that things obey while existing. Everything in the universe follows the “Tao of Nature”. The nature takes so many actions with its “Tao”, acting as an invisible force to drive and lead the way things move and behave, but it never speaks a word. Even though humans seem to have subjective initiatives to behave by their own will, they still passively follow the “Tao of Nature” just as other things do. The evidences of the existence of Tao can be found by observing the traces that left behind by its actions, which are collectively formed by humans and other objects.


For example, cracks on the street were left by cars, the driver who controlled the cars and gravity which pulled the car down; another example is the patterns left by salts and the salt spreader. The purpose of salt spreading is snow deicing, so there has to be snow, which was brought by coldness and wetness. The salts melted snow and then dissolved into water which was turned from snow. They moved randomly in the water and were eventually dried out by wind and sunshine, forming the patterns.


“Tao” arranges and combines these seemly irrelevant objects together. Even if we are not able to see through the entire process, we can speculate from the traces left behind, by which I was deeply fascinated.



Beining: One more question. In the series work “Rocks and Plants”, we can find three statuses of the nature. The first one is the fragmental nature in artificial environments; the second one is the nature in park-like locations which seems tame and safe; the third one is the nature in relatively wild environments with sporadic human traces. Do you demonstrate these three statuses all at once on purpose? Any special meaning you choose rocks and plants?


Yunhan: The reason I choose plants and rocks is because they are both mysterious and enchanting.


The way the plant attracts me is that although it is full of vitality, it keeps silent and restrains itself, and people hardly notice its constant self-expression. The expression of plant is slow and subtle yet unremitting and powerful. The power comes mostly from the results that humans can observe (what powerful expressions blooming and withering are). Nonetheless, the process towards the results, which normally doesn’t catch humans’ eyes, should be equivalently powerful, or even more powerful. It’s just like an explosion: it almost has already reached the end when the blazes and smog come into sight, whereas the power comes from the inconspicuous process of blowing-up. The quiet expression process of the plant brings tremendous power just like that. 


The rock doesn’t have life, but it is one of the most important mediums on which living beings express themselves. The rock is a silent listener who has existed for hundreds of years. Things confide to rocks and leave traces on them, until the day they decompose into sands.  Although the rock itself doesn’t have spirit and soul, it collects spirits and souls from all the living beings, making it even more mysterious and enchanting.


In general, rocks and plants both demonstrate immaterial nature with a material shape. With regard to the three statuses of nature that you noticed, I didn’t purposely categorize them like that. However, those three statuses all have something to do with human beings, which is exactly the proof that humans have always been fascinated by rocks and plants.



Beining: Thanks for your answers. Next let’s turn to Yingqian Cao’s works. We noticed that your photography works also recorded many textures in the nature, and the same demonstration was also shown in your works on paper such as painting and printmaking. Is there any connection between your photography works and works on paper? 


Yingqian: I use repetitive simple patterns to express abstract concepts in my works on paper. The textures in the nature are very similar to the basic units under my brush and carving knife. Therefore, I simply borrow these “half-finished artworks” from the nature as a form to express my art. Although the form is different than works on paper, the abstract essences are the same. The textures found in the nature, such as the shadows of crisscross branches and ripples on the river surface, can originally bring people a feeling of tranquility.


Most of these textures don’t have clear physical borders. The patterns formed by textures can sometimes be deemed as a whole, and sometimes as a part. Sometimes you wouldn’t even realize when did they fade in and when did they fade out --- the sense of time and space has been weakened. These photos were taken subconsciously. I didn’t deliberately pursue the connection between them and the works on paper but they indeed showed connection. I guess the reason might be that my works on paper have already been influenced by the great nature in a way that I didn’t even have awareness.



Beining: We can see subtly glossy layers on your works on paper which look like paint layers in rough-textured oil paintings, but your works are actually on matte paper. Can you introduce your creation process of your works on paper?


Yingqian: For both of my painting and printmaking works, I repeat and layer a same simple pattern. Just like the paint layers in oil painting works, some of these pattern layers in my works can be seen clearly, but some of them are not able to be tracked. But compared to the paint layers in my other oil painting works, these pattern layers are more delicate and subtler.


The layer textures in my printmaking works are mostly from the complicated printmaking techniques. I used dry-point, etching, soft-ground, aquatint and many other techniques in the plate making process. Before printing I also mounted traditional mulberry paper on different places of the printing paper. These elements all together created a new visual texture.

When it comes to painting, although not all of my paintings are works on paper, and there is quite a lot works are on wood panel, their creation process and materials have similarities. Both my works on paper and works on wood panel layer multiple water-based materials in a certain order. As those materials are all water-based, they show similar natures and can be compatible well with each other, making the layering natural and harmonious.



Beining: Different colors in your works are arranged so subtly that they look nearly like mono-color. Can you talk about how you select colors, and what are your thoughts of the relation between colors and the main elements, which is the repetitive mono-color lines?


Yingqian: For most of the time, I don’t make drafts and select colors before working. Instead, I adjust colors during the working process. On the edge of some works, you can see one or several layers of color that were left by the colors I used before. These traces are evidences of the interaction between me and my works.


Although I’m not averse to vivid colors, I don’t use much of them in my works. Subtle color arrangement requires more attention and careful observation. Between the similar colors that are adjacent to each other, the border is often faded. To me, color sets the tonality of a painting while lines are logic. However, I don’t usually separate two of them because they always work together thus are inseparable.    



Beining: Thanks to both of you for answering these interview questions. We look forward to seeing your works in the exhibition.

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