chinese multimedia artist yi zhou discusses her roman adventure

As a new exhibition of her work opens at Rome’s Museum of Contemporary Art, we catch up with Yi Zhu to talk about nostalgia and virtual reality.

by Felix Petty
21 October 2016, 3:33pm

There are few things Yi Zhou hasn't turned her hand to. She's made her name in the art world with a series of genre-bending works of surreal 3D animation, but she's also collaborated with fashion houses, fronted beauty campaigns, and represented China at the Venice Biennale. Now she's returning to the city she grew up in, Rome, for a new exhibition at MACRO that turns Italian history into a stunning array of virtual reality installations — and transforms Yi Zhou herself into a poem-reciting hologram.

Rome was your home for much of your life. Was it nice to go back there to do this exhibition? Do you miss it?
It is an honor to be in the city where I grew up and spent my childhood and teenage years. I do miss Rome when I'm in China or LA, where I do most of my work now, because Italians have a flavor for the tasteful side of life and laughter, and everywhere you lay your eyes there is so much history, even though there's not enough manpower to preserve and dig into history's traces. It's the opposite to some countries, where there are less treasures, but the very few are highlighted to the max. I miss Italian gelato, lights of the monuments by night, and the Italian music of Ennio Morricone, with whom I have collaborated several times for my videos, some also exhibited at the MACRO. But I'm so happy to be exhibiting for the first time in the Italian capital and have such a museum-scale show curated by Venice Biennale.

Some of the works in the exhibition are tributes to the city. What was it like to work on? Does it make you feel nostalgic?
I was in Rome six months ago when I started working on the show, and by walking around the city, so many details struck me, so many elements seemed to become alive, so I decided to make an homage to the city and turn them into single elements made in virtual reality and reassemble them into a new video entitled Abstract Rome where you could see these single elements under a new light and under a new context.

What drew you to virtual reality for this exhibition? Was it something you'd been interested in for a while?
I first came to VR thanks to Sundance a few months ago, I never thought I would venture into such a unknown field, but Sundance showed me that actually it's a future medium that we all might end up using in our daily life, and that it's not that scary to approach or to experience. I was so impressed and inspired, I immediately wanted to create something for my exhibition in Rome.

You've always been interested in using digital mediums, did VR feel like a natural step?
I believe my work should be for everyone, not constrained to museum walls or galleries or fairs, it is free for people to see and experience even if they are sitting at home. So VR is the next step to bring such closeness between the audience and the artwork. I believe artworks should be able to be shrunk, implode and explode, unfold at any time and anywhere.

One of the works features you as a hologram reading a poem. The mixture of poetry, a very old medium of art, and VR, a very new one, is an interesting one.
I was inspired after meeting Al Pacino and Barry Navidi, thanks to Susan and Harold Becker. We are working on some new Al Pacino film projects, and he asked me to watch Salome, I was intrigued and fascinated by the usage of film in a theatrical context.

So I designed a special capsule landscape for my new artwork, and the poem is inspired by Al Pacino's one-man shows and confront the idea of time and feelings as a hologram, in a holographic environment. The poem talks about love, separation and time. Issues that matter in real life as well as in VR, can love and feelings exist in a data world? Can the notion of separation exist in VR?

This clash is mirrored, in a way, in the way you combine Roman ruins and digital images. Would you say this is a similar thread that runs through your work?
Yes, the idea of transporting the reader into a new dimension is my trademark. I don't like the expected; I like the unknown factor that new technologies allow you to explore, you have to always push your boundaries.

"Fragments of Rome, past, future, parallel worlds" runs from October 21 to November 27, 2016, at MACRO.


Text Felix Petty
Images taken from Abstract Rome VR video

virtual reality
Yi Zhou
rome’s museum of contemporary art