speaking to multi-disciplinary chinese art star yi zhou
Famous for her collaborations with fashion houses and her genre-bending 3D animations, we speak to the artist about compiling a biography of her work to date.
She was the first artist to front a campaign for a major beauty brand, and has famously worked with fashion houses from Chanel to Diane Von Furstenberg, but a new book explores the life of the Chinese artist through the images she's created. From the Chinese Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, to working with Pharrell, Jackie Chan, Nicola Formichetti and Ennio Morricone, Yi Zhou's work takes on the weird and warped forms of 3D landscapes and surrealistic images. We caught up with her to talk about avoiding Chinese clichés, looking back on her career so far and why the future of art is digital.
You studied economics at university, at what point did you decide to focus on art?
I decided to become an artist in I think about 2002. I took a video camera and learned Final Cut and just started shooting people that inspired me in Paris: dancers, rappers, old people. The short film was selected for Plage Orange in Cannes. From that experience of shooting and editing, putting together sound, images, and moving image, I thought that it would be a good chance for me to be able to develop my work as a visual artist.
Who were your art heroes at the time?
People like Giuseppe Penone who goes and makes sculptures in the middle of nature, things that really touch you. I believe in nature and things that are beyond our grasp, things that I think will last in time. I think we have to search for the invisible, for signs and symbols from the universe.
You are very international, growing up in Rome to Chinese parents, and studying in London; do these things relate in your work?
In my work, I don't like to have Chinese elements. There are many people that add some Chinese clichés to their work and call it 'the Chinese touch'. I have always been against that. I think a culture is much more profound and rooted inside of us. I think it's much more subtle. It becomes part of your own DNA, in a way. You make your own thing out of a culture, what you have learned, what you have seen and what you have felt.
What was it like compiling your biography for the book?
Everything seems like it was just yesterday. But whilst looking back, I felt that everything I did when I was young was totally driven by passion and instinct. But today when I do something, I'm much more thoughtful about what I want to say and what I want to express. I would like to be able to find that instinct again, forget about everything and to be able to start over.
Did you notice how your work had developed over time?
I think it took me a couple of years, from 2002 until 2009 or 2010, to fully realise who I am, what I want to express and what I could give to the world. I think when you first start, especially at that very, very young age, you doubt what you can do and who you are. It's interesting to see this doubt grow and mature together with you. That's the most beautiful part, that sort of innocence of not knowing what you're doing, but you're still doing it because you have that passion and drive. To me, that's the most precious thing. And today, I'm more self-confident and more aware about what I can do, I think that I miss that way of looking at the world, as if you were walking halfway in the darkness and you were still trying to find your way out, but you see a light somewhere, you know? It's like a moment in my short film The Ear. I captured a moment in 3D where the viewer is walking down the stairs at one beat per minute and then you see a door. There's a light. There's a hope. You can get out of this tunnel, but you don't know if you'll make it there.
Your work covers different media, was this always the way you worked?
You know, I just had an interesting talk with Christopher Phillips from the International Centre of Photography in New York, and we came to the conclusion that nowadays you no longer categorise yourself as an artist who's a photographer or a painter or a sculptor, you just make images. You share your work on social media, on your smartphones. I don't think specifically, that I need to define myself by any particular medium. But I think the medium should serve the artist, whatever medium it is, to better express whatever he or she wants to express at that specific moment.
How would you describe the form and style of your work then?
I think my work always changes because instead of doing traditional artworks like a painter or a sculptor or something, I group all these mediums together, most of all moving image. If I'm doing a sculpture, I become, in that moment, a sculptor. Or, if I'm making a video, I become a video artist in that specific moment. When I'm doing a cross collaboration with a brand and designing a clothing line, as I did for Iceberg or EachxOther, I become a fashion designer. At the moment the creative process is done, I become myself again. So, it's just metamorphosing yourself into that specific role. Right now, for example, I am in pre-production on my first feature film, so I feel like I am entering into the role of a film director.
How do you choose which brands to collaborate with?
The brands I work with are, I think, accidental in a way because I believe that we are meant to have a sort of relationship with the people and institutions that come our way and a kind of chemistry develops over time. I've been collaborating with Chanel since 2009 and we do a lot of projects together, such as the social media collaborations for the Chanel No. 5 perfume that took place in Paris and The Little Black Jacket. I just think it's very organic and Chanel have chosen to support my work and development, not just by dressing me, but also by being a part of my life. I'm really grateful to them.
Does your interest in fashion come from the same place as your interest in art? How related are the two for you?
They both come from my parents, especially my father. When I lived in Rome when I was little, we used to go on the weekends to shop and look at the windows. He taught me what luxury is by looking at the windows at Ferragamo and Bulgari. When I was a kid, you don't know what it is, so you learn just by looking and experiencing and wearing some of the brands as well.
Your work is very much about the digital, would you say that the digital is the future of art?
The future of art is definitely digital. I think we're going to enter a digital era and galleries and museums will have to adapt to this fast changing pattern and model for art.
Text Felix Petty
Photography courtesy Yi Zhou Studio