Hương Ngô (Photographer Paul O’Reilly), ESCAPE. 2004 - 2006. Courtesy of the Artist.
Chandler Allen: You were born in Hong Kong, but have since lived in disparate areas of the world including Vietnam, France, and the American South, where you were raised as a refugee. In effect, your work and your life exist within histories of colonialism and migration. Do you view yourself as not only an artist, but as an ethnographer?
Hương Ngô: I view myself as an observer who draws connections across disciplines of the arts, humanities and sciences. I do, however, consider how a critical gaze at ethnography might help us understand histories of thought and ideologies that have enabled colonialism and spurred migration. Though seemingly disparate, these geographical areas have long been connected, and I am always interested in highlighting surprising or forgotten connections.
CA: In terms of output, your interdisciplinary practice also crosses thresholds. As someone who engages in film, sculpture, performance, and photography, and as an educator of contemporary practice and critical theory at SAIC, your contributions to the field are decisively inclusive. When one disease has isolated individuals and divided nations, do you see your work as having more agency?
HN: I appreciate this phrase, “decisively inclusive.” I also consider descriptions like "rigorously interdisciplinary” and "post-medium" in productively questioning hegemonic origins of medium-specific practices. This body of work (ESCAPE), which I made during the Iraq war when George W. Bush was stoking invalidated claims of biological warfare, has now taken on new meanings and valences with this current COVID-19 pandemic. I have been wrapping my brain around how certain gestures from this project, which were meant to be speculative at the time of making (2004 – 2006), are all the sudden very real. At the time, I was creating this work by intuitively connecting the political theater of the Iraq war and the war on terrorism to a then burgeoning prepper movement. I am sad to see that we are now existing in the world of ESCAPE and we are now the preppers. The emotional landscape of increasing distance and distrust of one another is also real, and that is the site in which I see the potential spaces of agency through reaching out across divides to connect and help one another.
Hương Ngô, ESCAPE. 2004 - 2006. Courtesy of the Artist.
CA: Could an outcome of this pandemic be that creators collaborate more fiercely, and with more political imperative?
HN: Absolutely. We have already seen this happening in the field of science through rapid and generous sharing of data and pockets of DIY movements who have been supporting health care workers by generating PPE. Moreover, activists have mobilized around de-carceration, prison abolition, the release of detained migrants, and organization around labor rights. As Naomi Klein has articulated, the pandemic has unveiled the crisis in which we have all been living where risk has been offloaded to individuals, while profits have gone to select few. Collaboration is a necessity step in questioning the unjust profiteering on resources that should be regarded as common goods.
Hương Ngô, ESCAPE. 2004 - 2006. Courtesy of the Artist.
CA: Have you seen this already happening in the practices of your peers and students?
HN: The academic community has been incredibly generous as we move en masse online. I’ve seen scores of imaginative ideas for creative engagement offered from peers and strangers. As participants, we will have to ensure that these resources and practices are not privatized and commodified to force institutes of higher education to operate on a leaner structure. From my experience thus far, teaching online is not lean. It spreads the commitments of a discrete class session through the entire week, and for many, is compounded by full-time child care and anxiety about the mental and physical health of their families, communities, and students.
Hương Ngô (b.1979 in Hong Kong, China) has lived and worked between the US, Hong Kong, France, and Vietnam. She is currently based in Chicago where she is an Assistant Professor in Contemporary Practices at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Having grown up as a refugee in the American South, she engages histories of colonialism and migration, particularly in relation to language, structures of power, and ideologies. Beginning her studies as a biology major, she received her BFA at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2001 and her MFA at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2004. Her research and the archive-based practice began while a studio fellow at the Whitney Independent Study Program in 2012. She was recently awarded the Fulbright U.S. Scholar Grant in Vietnam to realize a project, begun at the Archives Nationales d’Outre-Mer in France and continued through the Camargo Core Program. Ngô has exhibited at major institutions including The Warmth of Other Suns at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. (2019); Being: New Photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (2018); ALL RISE and The Making of a Fugitive at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago (2017/2016); and Speaking in the Dark at Nhà Sàn Collective in Hanoi, VN (2016). Ngô’s work can be found in the public collections of the MoMA Library, the Walker Art Center, the DePaul Art Museum, the MCA Chicago Rare Book Collection, the Asia Art Archives, the Smith College Museum of Art, and the Tufts University School of the Museum of Fine Arts Tisch Library Special Collections.
Ying Zhu, Defense Line. 2009. Courtesy of the Artist.
Hongzheng Han: The title of your work Defense Line suggests an image of a protective mechanism, however, the work itself is a site-specific installation that is made of eggshells — a material one might not necessarily consider as defensible. The contrast could be a metaphor for this pandemic. Can you explain to us what inspired you to create this piece? Are you working on any other project that might reflect our current sociopolitical climate?
Ying Zhu: About the piece Defense Line, I first created it in grad school. Most of my works are site-sensitive installations, and I’m always drawn to material that has an ephemeral and common quality. I have been intrigued by eggshells because of its contradicting duality. It’s meant to protect and hold life, yet it has to be fragile enough so that life can breakthrough. My studio floor at the time had these cracks between floor tiles, So I thought it’s funny to construct this obviously defenseless defense line. But somehow this exposed fragility really stopped or slowed people down, everyone who noticed it all stopped and were extra careful around it, so it did work as a defense line intellectually. I have made other pieces with eggshells and utilized the natural colors of the two sides to compose images/patterns. All colored sides face the same direction, so as you move back and forth in front of the piece, the images/pattern seems to emerge and fade.
Ying Zhu, Viva Dan. 2010. Courtesy of the Artist.
Ying Zhu, Viva Dan. 2010. Courtesy of the Artist.
YZ: The very root of my work is an understanding of the self in relation to the other and vice versa. My experience as an immigrant has stimulated the searching nature of my work, and inspires me to negotiate with ideas that explore the confluence of cultures and identities. I am interested in the intricate behavior changes while the understood perceptions are challenged, it inspires me to create site-sensitive installations that cause an immediate shifting of senses. By presenting novel environments/scenarios, I hope to intrigue the consciousness of the acts we take for granted. The feeling of being a foreigner is not limited to migration between countries but applies to local and emotional geographies as well.
I emphasize the sophistication in detail, but simplicity in structure. Often utilizing small fragments and repetition to demonstrate a grander gesture, I aim to create tactile visual experiences that engage all senses. Through intuitive manipulations, the material becomes the threshold of my work with its color, texture, and inherent functions. Process and labor are integral, and through repetition that time becomes an object of the work as well. The form dematerializes, and important qualities such as fragility, empathy, and playfulness emerge out of my interpretations of the liminal state.
Ying Zhu (b. 1979 in Lanzhou, China) lives and works in Washington, D.C. Since receiving her MFA from the University of Nebraska in 2010, Zhu has exhibited widely, including the exhibitions Dialogue at Stable Arts in Washington, D.C. (2020); Material Women at the Smith Center in Washington, D.C. (2020); Landing at the Museum of Contemporary Art Taiwan (2015); Magical Thinking at Roots Division in San Francisco, CA (2014); III Moscow Young Art Biennale in Moscow, Russia (2012); and Mind the Gap at the Neukolln Art Festival Nacht Und Nebel in Berlin, Germany (2011).
Guanyu Xu, Parents' Bedroom. 2018. Courtesy of the Artist.
Chandler Allen: You were born and raised in Beijing, China. When you moved to Chicago in 2014, how did your practice change?
Guanyu Xu: I was introduced to interdisciplinary education and critical theory in SAIC. I would say that's when I started to consider my work more "fine art."
CA: Your photographs feel especially relevant now, because they bridge gaps between personal and political, and between two nations demoralized by COVID-19. Do you approach work that was made one year ago differently today? Is the work you are making now impacted by your experience with the pandemic?
GX: Not so much I think. I think in a global level the rise of neo-nationalist is really a problem now. Both the US and China use nationalist sentiment to stabilize their country within, but ignore the actual structural change that's needed. Externally, they point at each other as the enemy, but do not actually conduct a meaningful exchange and acknowledge their own problems. In my practice, I more and more consider two seemingly different societies, but question their similar oppressive systems. I think that's reflected in my work Temporarily Censored Home and Complex Formation.
Guanyu Xu, The Dining Room. 2018. Courtesy of the Artist.
CA: I think it is fair to say that the virus has altered global political governance, demanding rarely seen international cooperation while inducing the kind of nationalism usually reserved for times of war. Officials in our administration, including the President, have made discriminatory statements that disparage the people of China, even calling the disease the "Chinese Virus." What are your thoughts on the attenuated relationship between the U.S. and China?
GX: I'm not a political theorist, but I think personally it's really clear Trump is using the same scapegoating strategy that he used in the 2016 election to divert his own incompetence It's a sad reality that so many people here are still buying into. The lack of public education is really a problem here. Similarly, it's a powerless feeling for me to try to explain to my father or grandpa in Beijing that the wrongdoing of Trump doesn't represent the whole of the US, nor does it justify China to ignore its own censorship on the virus with people who tried to speak up. After all, we are all in this together. The ideology or economy should not come first.
I highly recommend reading iLiana Fokianaki's writing "Narcissistic Authoritarian Statism, Part 1: The Eso and Exo Axis of Contemporary Forms of Power" on e-flux, which I read recently.
Guanyu Xu, Reanimated Bedroom. 2019. Courtesy of the Artist.
Guanyu Xu, Rooms of Convergence. 2018. Courtesy of the Artist.
CA: Much of your work, including the series Temporarily Censored Homes, explores what it means to be not only an Asian man in America, but also a queer man in Asia. By reconstructing the interior spaces of your childhood home in Beijing to incorporate visuals of queer identity, you reclaim your home as a queer space of freedom and rebellion. With tensions in the U.S. rising, and discrimination against peoples of Asian descent pervading, have you considered returning to Beijing? What would that mean for your work and for your life?
GX: I've been living in Chicago for over six years now. That's almost 1/4 of my life. I also received both of my bachelor's and master's degree here and I have a part-time teaching job two hours away from Chicago. That is to say, I commit a lot to this place. Most of my "adult life" is here and I have friends here. Right now, I'm struggling with applying for an O-1 visa, which is an expensive and complicated process. Of course, I have thought about leaving here and going somewhere else, but I don't think that would happen too fast. I'm still interested in making work that's relevant to a particular place. Also, practically speaking, I don't have that mobility to move now.
Guanyu Xu (b. 1993 in Beijing, China) is an interdisciplinary artist who lives and works in Chicago, Illinois. Xu was raised in an apartment on the seventeenth floor of a military-housing complex in Beijing. In 2014, after two years of studying photography at the Beijing Film Academy, Xu transferred overseas, to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago where he received his MFA. His films have been screened at prominent institutions, such as the Aperture Foundation and the International Center for Photography. He has exhibited internationally, including the recent exhibitions A History of Photography at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (2020); SITUATIONS/The Right to Look at the Fotomuseum Winterthur in Winterthur, Switzerland (2020); Misfit: Collage and Queer Practice at the National Art School in Sydney, Australia (2020); and Monitoring at the 36th Kassel Documentary Film and Video Festival in Kassel, Germany (2019). Xu is the recipient of the Fred Endsley Memorial Fellowship, the James Weinstein Memorial Fellowship, and the winner of the Lenscratch Student Prize, the Foam Talent Award, the Lensculture Emerging Talent Award, and the Kodak Film Photo Award. His work is housed in the public collections of the Art Institute of Chicago, the Chicago Artist Archive, the Joan Flasch Artists’ Book Collection, the Museum of Contemporary Photography Chicago, the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, and the Ryerson and Burnham Libraries.
Leonard Suryajaya, Candyman. 2016. Courtesy of the Artist.
Chandler Allen: Perhaps the best way to begin is by talking about Candyman. This particular photograph was important for Han and I as we began the process of organizing the exhibition, acting as a touchstone for the entire project. Can you describe what led you to the photograph?
Leonard Suryajaya: This image was taken in 2016 during the Zika Virus outbreak. I was traveling with my partner to Indonesia to visit my family. It was before we were married and applied for a green card for me to stay in America. With a lot of uncertainties, anxieties and fear, I dreamed of seeing my family and relatives embrace my caucasian American lover. However, with the strict conservatism of the culture and country, I was not able to reveal that I am queer and that he was my partner. To my family he was simply an American friend who was working with me to make art. To make a note on that specific period of time, nothing worked better to illustrate the anxiety than collapsing the uncertainty of the virus and the unspoken homophobia of my background. My goal was to host the conflicts and oppositions while putting forward an image of harmony and caretaking.
Candyman is a great title for its connotation and denotation: my father, the male authority figure in the family/culture, and my partner, a white cis gay American man, in our living room covered with candies. I wanted to put emphasis and draw connections between the implied power that both authority figures carry.
It is also important for me to denote the limitations:
Limitations on my ability to be free and honest about my sexuality/relationship.
Limitations of the strict and conservative culture and home country in acknowledging queerness.
Limitations on the possibility of having a happy family unit.
also, the limitations of our knowledge in how the virus would spread.
Despite all those limitations, I am positive and cautiously optimistic that someday we can all breakthrough those limitations. That's why the element of chaos and harmony is important to me. I look forward to progress, and do not want to shy away from the struggle of the past and current time. and as you know, candies are sweet. I wish my dad could be as sweet as my man. I wish patriarchy could be sweeter. I wish they would not think less of me. And I wish they would not think of queer people as less powerful because we are humans sweet like candies, and not rough like a rock. I also wish they would stop with the notions that queer people are diseased/mentally inferior.
CA: The face-mask is probably the single most recognizable medical device of COVID-19. A testament of how lethal and infectious the disease is, and a symbol of the social distancing we have all implemented into our everyday lives; the face-mask has really become emblematic of the pandemic globally. Has Candyman changed for you? How?
LS: at the time when I made the photograph, the face masks didn't do anything to protect you against the mosquitos that carry the Zika virus. However, it visually represents a heightened and alarmed state. it also represents the common-ness amongst my asian family in wearing masks. it is a device of safety and comfort when they go out or when they choose to. you can call it a fashion statement. so it was an epic/common gesture for us to do in the photoshoot. It is uncanny and strange for me to say that this is exactly the image I would attempt to make today to make sense of what is going on today.
Leonard Suryajaya, American Anthem, 2016. Courtesy of the Artist.
Hongzheng Han: Growing up of Chinese descent in a Buddhist family in Indonesia, you and your family had to disguise your identities in order to survive the genocide. Through this traumatic experience, how do you understand the current cultural climate here in America as the prejudice against the Asian community is surging and in some cases even violent?
LS: I feel like all my life I was prepared for this event. one's anxieties and fears are easier to deal with when they are projected onto another person. it just sucks and unfair to the recipient. I grew up with stories such as my grandfather sailing to flee communism in China in 1920 when he was 9 years old with his father, leaving his mom and sister behind. I also grew up with stories of how my parents had to hide, assimilate, change their identities and names during and after the purge in 1965. I also experienced having to flee to another country for a month when I was 9 with my family, during the 1998 economic collapse in Indonesia. The through-line in these stories is that being a minority is special. it prepares you to face the uncertainties and hard times in life with resilience. Here I am in Chicago right now, creating my own stories to tell.
HH: So, how do you understand the current cultural climate here in America as the prejudice against the Asian community is surging and in some cases even violent?
LS: I don't know. I haven't made up my mind yet. and I have no power in giving you an answer. who are you to ask me such a long question and expect me to have any solution to a problem I have no authority over. what can I say. shit happens. and life is unfair. but I am not gonna stop being resilient in fulfilling what I set out to do in my life. I'm not gonna stop dreaming or throwing out my dreams because shit gets hairy. like what I learn in the art world: hate the gatekeepers but not the destination. that's how I understand the current cultural climate here in America as the prejudice against the Asian community is surging and in some cases even violent.
Leonard Suryajaya, Good Neighbors, 2018. Courtesy of the Artist.
Leonard Suryajaya, I Want to be the Only One to Fuck You Raw, 2014. Courtesy of the Artist.
LS: my work is my reaction to being alive and being in this world. making work is an extension of me. how I process information that I have not understood and questions I have not formed. to answer your question, yes.
HH: Do you think this new normal of social distancing will, in any way, change your method of making art?
LS: no. this is my research period.
Leonard Suryajaya (b. 1988 in Medan, North Sumatra, Indonesia) is an interdisciplinary artist focused in photography who lives and works in Chicago, Illinois. He was raised as an Indonesian citizen of Chinese descent, and educated as a Buddhist in a Muslin-majority country, Suryajaya uses photography to test the boundaries of intimacy, community, and family. He received his BFA from California State University in 2013, his MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2015, and attended the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in 2017. Over the last three years, Suryajaya has exhibited at major institutions worldwide, including the Benaki Museum in Athens, Greece (2018); Mana Contemporary in Miami, FL (2018); Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago, IL (2017); and Photoforum Pasquart in Biel, Switzerland (2017). His work is housed in the permanent collections of the Art Institute of Chicago, the Museum of Contemporary Photography Chicago, the Center for Photography at Woodstock and the Joan Flasch Artist Book Collection.
Tinwai Wong, MAMA. 2019 - 2020. Courtesy of the Artist.
Hongzheng Han: Can you talk a little bit about your work MAMA? Does it have new cultural significance specific to our current turbulent time?
Tinwai Wong: MAMA is a continued performance piece of me saying “mama” along with background
sound. The word "mama" is a universal symbol that can be understood in various representations of emotions and feelings. In terms of this specific era that we are in, I find the contrast between “turbulent” and “quarantine” very powerful. Viewers are welcomed to interpret the performance in any signified meaning as pleased. However, saying out the word “mama” supports me as an individual colliding with the surroundings.
HH: How do you understand the concept of the Asian diaspora?
TW: I focus on the essence of human being itself, which includes the dilemma people face encountering different culture. At the current time, Asian culture is bursting out many beautiful and meaningful sparkles.
HH: Has your artistic career and your academic journey been affected in any way by the pandemic? Are you working on new projects during this time?
TW: Due to the COVID-19, my creative material has been greatly limited, so has my graduate education. However, I’ve been working on several new pieces. For one of the video installations, I’m collaborating with the laundry mat in my block that’s still open for the neighborhood. I am also working on a project about the shutting down of the Chinese takeout restaurants that mainly owned by first-generation Chinese immigrants.
Tinwai Wong (b. 1999 in Beijing, China) is an MFA student at Bard who lives and works between New York and Beijing. Last year, Wang received her BFA from the School of Visual Arts in New York. Recently, her film 30 under 30 was screened at the Dia Art Foundation in New York, and Playdate at Motion Sickness in Cambridge, England.
Damien Ding, Box 1 (Reliquary). 2019. Courtesy of the Artist.
Chandler Allen: You have described your work as exploring conditions typically seen as diametrically opposed. I can see how, in the heightened moments of intimacy often present in your work, uncomfortable paradoxes may rise to the surface. For me, your paintings have tremors, as if an event has just occurred, leaving traces of its activity behind. How do you arrive at these settings and subjects? Do you know the tremors?
Damien Ding: Maybe this can sound a little cliched, but these tremors you are talking about are really why I decided to make art in the first place. Initially, I was set on becoming an Art Historian or an art writer of some sort. The experience that changed that was a chance encounter with a Nepalese religious statuette in the Philadelphia Museum of Fine Arts, where I first experienced such a tremor, or at least one of a large enough magnitude that I remember it. Another similar experience quickly followed a month or so later when I watched Tarkovsky's Andrei Rublev tipsy from some drinks earlier that night. So yeah, I know the tremors, and it stays with me. Funny thing is, I always found that these moments often come by chance–I only had experienced them when I did not look for them. I just know that when the tremors happen, they are often un-speakable ("tremor" is a proximate word at best), and they often happen in moments of heightened narrowness, meaning I am not around other people physically or mentally. That is often how I arrive at my subjects, these images sometimes come late at night when my mind is tired, in moments of spaced-out-ness–sometimes in transportation. They then stay as memories before I draft them out in drawings and paint them. I try not to think too much about the subject of my work besides that, even though the method by which I derive images seems to create a sort of consistency either way. Most of the work comes from designing the image to do that initial memory justice.
Damien Ding, Getting used to heat. 2020. Courtesy of the Artist.
Damien Ding, Anti-stigmata. 2019. Courtesy of the Artist.
CA: Looking around on the street or in my home, it is apparent that we have all become the subjects pictured in your paintings. How does the work change, if it does, when vulnerability and anxiety shift from a personal domain to some collective consciousness?
DD: This is a hard question to answer. While in my work I aim for something that goes beyond the personal, I am wary of drawing from what we often assume to be "common" experiences. This current situation with the pandemic has been really bad for most. Still, from my conversations with fellow artists and other friends, the specifics of everyone's experiences have been pretty varied. However, one thing right now is that we are forced to be a little more introspective or inward-looking than we are used to being. Previously, with the plethora of sensory agents in our lives, I was almost afraid that the mostly quiet works I am making can appear anachronistic. It is interesting how our circumstances can change so quickly. I don't want to say it is helping my work, but it does give the "project" as a whole renewed relevance.
Damien Ding, Last minute late night thoughts. 2019. Courtesy of the Artist.
CA: As a young artist at the start of your career, how do you foresee the pandemic shaping your objectives? What is it like to be an MFA student right now? Does the burden of being alienated push you closer or farther from your work?
DD: As a painter, I am in a relatively privileged position in regards to what is happening right now. While my studio in the university has shut down, I have the latitude to work smaller, so I am able to continue making at home, and being away from the pace of the program has actually helped me reflect more on the work instead of being preoccupied with the optics of being "improving", whatever that means. Some of my friends who work in performance or sculpture has had more difficulty due to the nature of their work. Yet, this pandemic has really highlighted to me how vulnerable artists are to such sudden changes, my colleagues in their second year of the MFA program have had their thesis shows canceled, and I know that similar heartbreaking situations are happening in many other places. But online curatorial initiatives such as this one have also exhibited a kind of resourcefulness and strength of community that I find pretty encouraging as an early-career artist. I think in all the madness there is still room for faith and optimism.
Damien Ding (b. 1992 in Nanping, China) is an MFA student in Painting and Printmaking at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts. He lives and works between New York and Virginia. After moving to the US in 2014, Damien received his BA at Swarthmore College. His paintings and sculptures show how oxymoronic, illogical interactions have the potential to generate experiences of tenderness, fetish, and intimacy.
Zhen Guo, Timeline of Movement. 2010. Courtesy of the Artist.
Hongzheng Han: At this time, how do you manage to continue your art practice?
Zhen Guo: Since most of my work is solitary, I have not had to stop creating artworks. I work both in my New York City apartment, sewing, and preparing soft sculptures as well as in my nearby studio space where I put together the various pieces into the final constructions. I also paint in my studio. The problem has been that many shows and exhibitions or lectures planned worldwide have been canceled or postponed, but I am hopeful that eventually, I will be able to share what I have made.
HH: What does it mean to you to be an Asian artist now as America becomes more hostile?
ZG: I have not experienced any direct prejudice or violence because of this epidemic, but I have heard many stories in the city of people who have. Since my art is an expression of the oppression of the feminine in all cultures, the increased prejudice against Asians and others is no surprise, and it reinforces my desire to express this conflict even more through my art.
HH: How do you position your work Timeline of Movement now as the separate ideologies of East and West are more divisive than ever?
ZG: Timeline of Movement is intended to contrast the Chinese cultural approaches to human movement and the human body with the ones of the West by showing both T’ai C’hi and Western dance/exercise. They blend together and pull apart throughout the film contrasting the two approaches to health but not conflict. I hope this would show that we can be different, but there is no need to compete and conflict.
HH: Are you working on any new projects?
Not at the moment, but I certainly will do so in the future. I have already started to use some Covid19/virus imagery in the new works I am creating now.
HH: I understand that you went to the San Francisco Art Institute. How do you feel about the closing of the institute due to the pandemic?
ZG: San Francisco Art Institute was a sister college to Zhejiang Academy, where I studied and taught. Even though I did not actually study at SFAI (I was at San Francisco Art College), its museum had a close connection with my Chinese studies before I come to the US. It is a wonderful institution, and it will be missed.
Zhen Gou (b. 1955 in Rizhao, Shandong Province, China) is a curator and painter who lives and works in New York. After graduating from the China Academy of Fine Arts, she came to the US in 1986 to study at the San Francisco Art Institute. Guo moved to New York in 1988 to open Guo Zhen Studio, which remains open today. Recent curatorial projects include Existence at the Women’s Art Exhibition in Songyang, PRC (2019) and International Feminist Art Exhibition at the Mexi Emporium in Changsha, PRC (2018). Zhen Guo has exhibited worldwide, with recent exhibitions including Ink and Things at the Wuhan Art Museum in Wuhan, PRC (2019-2020); Through Her Eye at Mana Contemporary Chicago (2018-2019); and Abstract Art Exhibition of China: Chinese Art Seventh Anniversary at the Suzhou Kenda Art Museum in Suzhou, PRC (2017).
Toby Zeng, Minimal Body, 2015 - 2016. Courtesy of the Artist.
Hongzheng Han: How do you see the body and minimalism?
Toby Zeng: Bodies are objects we see every day, but we rarely focus on the small details that make them unique. I use bright colors to emit the emotional energy that compels viewers to inspect every little detail in the photo. My goal is to highlight and preserve the small and unobtrusive sight of the human body.
Toby Zeng, CA987, 2018 - 2020 Courtesy of the Artist.
HH: Due to COVID-19, many Chinese students here in America are facing tremendous difficulties in finding an airplane ticket to go back to China. Even if they arrive in China successfully, they are subject to intensive monitoring. Making matters worse, many are discriminated against as "importing virus." Your work CA987 is a documentation of your transcultural/trans-geographical journey. Can you tell us more about it?
TZ: Air China 987 is the flight number I used to travel back and forth between Beijing and Los Angeles. The experience of being an international student impacts my visual system as a photographer. The way I observe the world is constantly switching between China and the USA. The photos I took in China and the United States were completely built on two different visual systems. My goal is to combine the differences in these two visual systems to form a complete one. Honestly, I am just confused like everyone else. From what I heard, hate crime incidents against Asian Americans were surging across the United States due to the spread of coronavirus. Attacking innocent citizens of any foreign nation is never the right thing to do.
Toby Zeng (b. 1998 in Beijing, China) is a student at New York University. He is a photographer, zine maker, and blogger, living and working on Roosevelt Island. At the age of fourteen, Zeng began taking photographs when he moved to California to attend a small private school in Ojai.
Weina Li, The Butterfly of Styx River. 2020. Courtesy of the Artist.
Hongzheng Han: What does Asian sexuality mean to you?
Weina Li: About Asian sexuality, I don’t have many thoughts but actions. The Butterfly Of Styx River is indeed interconnected with this pandemic in an interesting fashion. I inserted and praised human passion in pursuit of unconventional love this work and my own encounter in pursuing intellectual engagements during this pandemic. I feel as if I am burning through this trying time and now reborn to truly able to see and feel the reality. This piece is no longer a product of imagination; it is possessed with beauty and truth. I believe, times like this are inevitable, but it is our responsibility as artists to find a way to be empowered by struggles and desperation, and I think I am on my way there.
HH: As a prospective graduate student of SVA, are you facing any challenges in terms of starting your artistic/ academic journey?
WL: Not to exaggerate, my entire world is affected by this virus, in and out. When the outbreak first started, I instantly felt the transformation of the climate of the world. I feel as if we are all standing on the tip of a floating iceberg, and we aren’t able to see the underlying truth but the provincial surface. When I realized that even though the world is now in the haze, we are still trying to find a solution, and I am deeply inspired by this sentiment. I lit up a fire inside me and try to rekindle what I have learned and cumulated throughout the years to reevaluate the way I understand myself. I gave up on many projects that I started preparing before this epidemic, including some on-going works; instead, I diverted my energy to receive and understand new information, even the ones that I wasn’t able to bear. In a time of solitude and self-evolving, I have been having great difficulties in producing new work. Fortunately, I have finally able to come up with some new ideas today.
Weina Li (b. 1994 in Beijing, China) is an MFA student at the School of Visual Arts living and working in New York. She graduated with a BA from the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, California in 2018, Li’s practice combines both fashion and fine art in an unconventional read of human sexuality and love. Her solo exhibitions include The Butterfly Of Styx River at Chinatown Soup in New York, NY (2020), and A Piece Of Red Cloth at 688 Sutter Gallery in San Francisco, CA (2018).
Siyuan Tan, No Connection. 2020. Courtesy of the Artist.
Hongzheng Han: How many planned exhibitions of yours have been canceled due to the pandemic? How do you think this will impact your artistic endeavor and your career trajectory?
Siyuan Tan: So far, I already have five exhibitions been canceled because of this virus. Two group exhibitions in Beijing; one solo exhibition in Seoul, Korea, one in Ann Arbor, and another public art project in Chicago. This pandemic has created a tremendous impact on me, first of all, with all the canceled programs, I have lost my income sources, no exhibition means no sales and no revenue. This is a disastrous situation for a young fulltime artist. Besides financial instability, I am also facing huge limitations in terms of creating new pieces. I tried to make some new changes in how I conduct my sculptural practices, and this requires a large studio space, but now with the social distancing, a lot of my large-scale works are put on hold. I got some new ideas, but they can only be put into practice after this outbreak.
HH: What’s the cultural significance of Mahjong shown in your work No Connection, and how does it relate to the pandemic?
ST: The history of Mahjong can be traced back to the Qing dynasty, now it has become an international table game. It is literally the testament of cultural exchange and globalization. It is not only entertaining, but it also suggests a spirit of collectiveness, collaboration, and cooperation. This game requires divisions of labor, and one must link all the tiles together to win. However, the COVID-19 has affected that cooperation and trust between countries and their people. Now the reality has become a vicious game with no altruism. Another take on the work No Connection is a rather obvious interpretation that suggests a current struggle of being an artist. The bird of the tile in the first painting can be understood as the artist, and the three stripes tile suggest the collector/ consumer. What we are missing now is a two stripes tile to connect this game together, and the missing piece is galleries or museums. Without the intermediary, we can never win this game.
Siyuan Tan, It Began to Rot Around the Wound. 2019. Courtesy of the Artist.
HH: What does the rotten apple signify in It Began to Rot Around The Wound?
ST: My original concept for this piece was a criticism of capitalism. This incomplete and rotten apple not only resembles the logo of one of the most successful tech companies Apple, at the same time, it symbolizes the crumbling structure of extreme consumerism derived from a capitalist society. Though presented as rotten, I still cast the apple in bronze, which means it will remain as its current stage without any further deterioration. Again, here I am trying to suggest the undying nature of capitalism, no matter how detrimental it can be, people long for it and help to sustain it. With the recent pandemic, I had a new revelation about this piece. The apple symbolizes New York City, but our city is now wounded. Though scared and worried, I am still hopeful that this big apple will never really rot as it is made of solid dreams of thousands.
Siyuan Tan (b. 1984 in Fuxin, China) is a multimedia artist who lives and works in Brooklyn, New York. Tan graduated with an MFA from the Savannah College of Art and Design in 2018. His work is humorous, almost sarcastic, and plays with sociopolitical and cultural icons from the East and the West. Tan has exhibited at Fou Gallery, Artosino Gallery, and Trois Gallery. Recent museum exhibitions include Wall Power at the Beijing Times Art Museum in Beijing, China (2019); Kunst im Dialog / Migration, stichting at White Cube Global Village in Landshut, Germany (2018); and Siyuan Tan: Sacred Guidance at Gao Di Center of Contemporary Art in Shenyang, China, (2015).