CA Talk｜Chen Yu: Identity and Theatricality
Media make every day being in the image field,
It’s not a world,
But pretending to be a world.
-Pierre M. Krause, gute unterhaltung
The above quote is in fact a quotation from the German philosopher Pierre M. Krause from Heidegger’s Sein und Zeit, where Heidegger argues that the weightlessness of the media and the virtual world causes the world to lose its factuality. The reason why these two ideas of Heidegger are quoted is that in the artist Chen Yu’s practice, he tries to find certain facts about the real world through the weightlessness of the medium and virtual reality In the process of this practice, he undergoes a transformation regarding identity (self), medium (guest) and theatricality (guide).
Identity is a constant presence in Chen Yu’s works, which encompasses his perception of the identity of the self, experience and the role of the object in the environment. The medium used covers technical media such as photography, 3D modelling, programming, etc, pointing to the images, methods and channels of dissemination of information as media. Theatricality, on the other hand, means that after 2018, Chen Yu began to put subjective expressions and opinions into the “theater” expression in pictures, and involved the relationship between watching and being watched. These three states overlap each other and show a clear and progressive structure.
Artist Chen Yu
Let’s simply sort out Chen Yu’s personal experience. Chen Yu, born in 1990, was originally from Fujian. When he was little, he moved to Henan with his parents’ job changes and spent his whole childhood in Henan. Chen Yu’s father is a designer, born in a scholarly family, and studied calligraphy and traditional Chinese painting since childhood. Influenced by his father, Chen Yu started creation very early (“creation” and “doodling” here are completely different concepts), and under his father’s influence, he applied for the painting major in the Middle School Affiliated to National Academy of Chinese Theatre Arts, and from then on he started his study in Beijing.
After graduating from high school, he enrolled in the architecture program at Gengdan College of Beijing Institute of Technology, not for becoming a professional architect, but for seeking a job related to creativity that would provide a stable income in the future to support him as a creative artist. This was a very pertinent and rational decision. Since his internship at the Architectural Design Institute in 2013, Chen Yu has been practising his creative work on the side. During this period, he moved from Beijing to Taipei, Guangzhou and then back to Beijing to set up his own architectural studio. The work-life-creation has been the main focus of his time and energy, and has influenced him to always take balance as a self-driven and even logical principle in facing his life, his work and the environment he lives in.
From Chen Yu’s experience, it is not difficult to find that “migration” was an important experience that accompanied his whole life experience. In the process of constant migration, belonging and identity identification are two major attributions that directly affect people’s emotions and behaviors besides geography. This is why, before 2017, despite Chen Yu’s many experiments in terms of methods, themes and styles, and his focus has always been as “outward” as possible — focusing on documentary things, trying to express the absurdity of reality through images and photography — he has never actually departed from the search and exploration of “identity/self”, and even such exploration has been unconsciously hidden behind the lens and images by him.
Of course, this stage lasted for three years, and changed with the Chen Yu’s living condition. In 2017, Chen Yu returned to Beijing to settle down. After his work and life began to calm down, his inner destination seemed to stabilize, so his focus began to shift from “external” to “internal”. During this period, he created many symbolic works through different techniques such as negative film, glitch art and montage. The most notable is his practice of using information (social news, political news or inflammatory propaganda advertisements, etc.) as a medium. Obviously, in the works of this stage, the artist puts his individual in the context of the scene to express himself. The expression itself is not explicit, and even has a subjective quality of intervention due to the selective nature of the information intercepted, making it difficult for the viewer to judge the artist’s mood and the point of view he is trying to express in artworks.
In January 2019, following his solo exhibition URBAN GLITCH, Chen Yu’s practice began to reveal its “theatricality” in the construction of virtual scenes, and by July 2019, Chen Yu’s practice had become more and more theatrical. “theatricality — a concept cited by art critic Michael Fried in his 1960s book Art and Objecthood — The presentation is already very visible and increasingly sophisticated. The ‘non-figurative’ nature of the spatial scenes, especially in the works that began in August 2021, including The Vortex, The Trap, The Human Fragment and this year’s The Grey Room, further emphasises the cohesive and symbolic nature of the ‘theatre’. Even when the viewer is confronted with these works, he will still be in the experience of a landscape. The qualities of ‘theatre’ (the stage, the audience, and the spatial/perceptual connection between the audience and the stage scene) provide an appropriate ‘give-way perspective’ at this point, turning the viewer into an audience in the theatre. The spectator becomes the audience in the theatre, thus triggering individual experiential connections.
For example, in The Grey Room, a short video of only 10 seconds, the camera is confined to a fixed corner of a grey room, where an object in the room emits a sound far above the normal decibel level in a cyclical manner, causing a sense of suffocation and anxiety to viewer standing in front of it. Thus, the association begins to extend along with the emotional experience of unease, and the space is thus expanded ……
The following video is from TrevorArt
, to being presented as the subject’s point of view in the middle, and now as a “guide”, turning the point of view into an experience, Chen Yu’s control of “expression” has become more and more precise. Chen Yu’s control of “expression” has clearly become more and more precise; and the “medium” has given way to “presentness” from its initial role as a way and method. Chen Yu’s practise has shifted from the initial expression to one of triggering and exploration. As a result, the viewer begins to notice that what Chen Yu says is becoming more and more concrete, such as the ‘grey room’ and the ‘vortex’ as nouns, but what he wants to express is becoming vaguer and vaguer.
In this issue of “CA TALK”, let’s talk to architect and artist Chen Yu.
CA: Your high school is an art middle school, and your university major is architecture. Did you want to develop in the direction of architect from the beginning?
Chen Yu: I chose architecture purely because architecture is a highly comprehensive and challenging major with multi-disciplinary knowledge, and I want to challenge myself. On the contrary, being a painter has always been my dream, not an artist, but a painter. But later, I found that becoming a pure artist has to face many problems, especially for living and how to establish a connection with society. Being an architect can not only present his ideas about space and light and shadow creation, but also ensure a stable living income.
CA: Before being a full-time architect, have you tried to be a full-time painter?
Chen Yu: Yes, I did. I interned for half a year after finishing college, and then I tried to be a full-time painter. During the time, I found that there were many problems to face, so I decided to continue in another way. Being an architect or a professional painter, both need a sensitive intuition and stay tuned to the environment, otherwise it is easy to have limitations in creation. So starting from 2014, when I started my official work in Guangzhou, I insisted on creating after work every day.
Chen Yu: Drawing or collating and processing the photos taken by the camera. Because I got work to do, camera will be easier for me to record some landscapes or ideas. From 2014 to 2015, I paid lots of attention to documentary. Later, I began to shift the style to absurd and abstract expression. Soon I found that absurdity and abstraction were not enough to express my view, so I began to post-create photos.
CA: You made a lot of attempts in 2015. You used the technique of “negative film”, the theme was broader, and the emotions were intuitive. The works during 2016 -2018 become abstract in style and technique, and there seem to be much to say vaguely, and the feelings tend to stabilise. Did you experience anything at this stage?
Chen Yu: At that time, I just moved back to Beijing from Guangzhou. My state was relatively stable, and my job was regular from nine to five. I had more time to think and read, so I received more information, and it also encourages creative ideas and desire to express.
CA:In the second half of 2018, some sense of storytelling clearly began to emerge in your work, the expressions gradually began to become clearer and more explicit, but a sense of loneliness also began to linger in the images, why?
Chen Yu: I like to observe the behaviour of people around me, which is more infectious than drama in many cases. I used to enjoy recording people in various states with my camera when I was studying. Later, learning architecture, I gradually realized how to think from the perspective of individual to group/environment. I also read some books, such as The Burnout Society and One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society. Influenced by the books, I started to pay attention to the impact of developments such as consumerism and industrialisation on people and society, so I start to reflect on the loneliness that people face in the technological environment.
At that time, I was only interested, and I didn’t form my direction of creation or research, but I was hoping to use this as a starting point to extend my research question. The loneliness may be directly related to my concern for my own identity during that time. Because I’ve been migrating, I come into contact with different people during work, and my identity changes constantly. I’m began to find that people actually change between different roles and identities all the time, and these changes are often determined by the environment or the surrounding people. I’m interested in the relationship and state of people in the social environment, so I tried to use more human elements into my creation.
CA: In fact, from the very beginning, when you started to use photography as a way to document and create, to present, viewing and identity were already there, but they were hidden behind the lens and images. But between 2017 and the end of 2018, and even in early 2019, the question of identity has become an “other people” perspective in your work, where you think about society and the key from your own perspective, but in reality, the “you” in this process is equivalent to a The “you” in this process is equivalent to any individual in a cluster environment.
Chen Yu: Each person is an individual, and society is a group of individuals. In a cluster environment, people should not only learn how to get along with others and the environment, but also learn how to get along with themselves in the cluster. And there is always a balance between individuals and society.
CA: Apart from the obvious symbolic elements at this stage, you used a lot of expressions of “negative film” and “glitch art”. Why? To highlight the absurdity?
Chen Yu: “Negative film” Yes, I hope this technique will present a realistic absurdity. The technique of “glitch art” comes from the daily commute. When I saw the fault of the display screen in the carriage, I suddenly realized that this fault is actually a kind of resistance of the machine to people. The probability of occurrence is small, but it is enough to make people aware of the existence of confrontation. Therefore, I am interested in the logic behind fault art and its aesthetic paradigm. Therefore, in that stage of creation, more attempts were made to damage an image through artificial intervention. At that time, to better present this effect, I also learned programming and computer language.
After 2019, I became familiar with the image processing of programming, but the glitch made the work random and uncontrollable. I always think that the most important thing in a work is to express a clear point of view. However, after the result becomes uncontrollable, it loses the value and significance of exposition. I don’t want to express my emotions unilaterally, so I changed the way of expression and tried to construct a narrative by modeling or taking pictures from the game. At this stage, I am clearly always concerned about people’s loneliness and absurdity in social groups-that kind of absurdity and collective unconsciousness is a very magical realistic behavior.
CA: Is “control” important to you?
Chen Yu: The control of works is important to me. Like writing an article, you must express clearly what you want to say and why you say it. If you can’t control the narrative, the final work may fail to express the creator’s point clearly.
CA: You can create, elaborate, and leave interpretation to the audience. That is to say, you describe this thing, but the viewer can judge what it is.
Chen Yu: Sure, but only if my explanation is clear, instead of talking nonsense without logic.
CA: Are you a person who is afraid of losing self-control?
Chen Yu: I used to, maybe because my job experience in architecture. Everything must be planned, and implemented step by step. But the truth is, things in reality are completely out of control, so you should be ready for changes. Now, I still make plans, and have my own time schedule every day. But I don’t worry about things getting out of control, because the living environment is random and changeable.
CA: So will you have strict plans for creation, such as having a story framework or a script-draft creation step plan, etc.
Chen Yu: Yes. Starting from 2019, every time I create, I write a text frame first, then conceive what elements and scenes to present it, and finally create. I have a notebook which I started to use from April last year, this notebook is to record the textual framework, sketches of my ideas and creations, etc. By April this year, I finished one.
CA: Is this a usual way for architects to work?
Chen Yu: Yes and no. I think the hardest thing is persistence, and so is creation. Maybe there is no inspiration at this moment, but if you keep doing it, one day these persistence will become inspiration.
CA: What kind of existence is political proposition in your creation? A villain against some kind of ideology?
Chen Yu: As a matter of fact, I have been expounding all the time, explaining stories, news and events again by means of images or stories, without expressing my position. I encoded certain political intentions in politics, rights and economy. I try to explore identity through this ideology. Whether it is power or politics, it is somehow related to a role and an identity.
CA: Is this the core of your 3D creation Last Riot?
Chen Yu: It was in fact a “social experiment”, an expression of what public opinion and the public call “truth” in the “post-truth era”. Just like Sigmund Freud (6 May 1856–23 September 1939), if he had not been a Jew but a white man or had some specific social identity and power, his works might not have been burned and he would not have been persecuted so brutally. The Freud Affair in the United States last year was, in fact, of the same nature when viewed through the same lens. When you strip away the appearance, the dress, the identity, we are like the people in the picture, receiving a programmed message, saying what we are programmed to say, and probably doing what we are programmed to do, without even knowing it. To what extent, including those who think they are clear and sober, do they really know what they are doing and why they are doing it?
CA: Actually, this happens all the time, including here and now. When it comes to creation, almost all your creations after 2019 have a doomsday classical texture. Why do you want to create such a ruined, depressed and heavy scene texture?
Chen Yu: This sense of ruin and doom is actually a manifestation of the state of human spirit. It is often after a nuclear explosion or a human war, when there is no way to find out the real life, that is the real “doomsday”. In other words, what causes this despair? The external environment, of course, has its own uncontrollable forces, but the scenario and environment in which each person lives is actually like a choreographed theatre, in which you are alike Truman. There is always drama and acting in people’s life. Don’t you find this sense of absurdity heavy?
CA: So the “theater” in the picture is to reinforce this symbolism and absurdity? Or is there an aesthetic purpose?
Chen Yu: Both, because I studied classical oil painting and Dunhuang frescoes at school. I like the light treatment technique of classical oil painting and the narrative method of Dunhuang frescoes, and I have a sense of access between watching and playing. In addition, I like absurd dramatic literature very much, so I try to construct the narrative in this way.
CA: Is the part with a strong sense of theater made in 3D?
Chen Yu: It’s the effect of photography combined with 3D modeling. In fact, most of the works in the second half of 2018 were made by 3D modeling. I shot some scenes according to the theme in advance, then intercept the required parts or materials for modeling, and finally render them. There are some scenes that can’t be shot on the spot, so I use models to make sets, then scan them in 3D, and then do the modeling, mapping and lighting … In fact, the whole process is very much like a dramatic setting based on technical software.
CA: Do you think this way of creating through 3D modeling is essentially different from photography creation in the post-photography era?
Chen Yu: Every medium has its own limit, and photography art is based on the solidification and flatness of real space, which is its charm. The modelling is a three-dimensional and spatially constructed anthropomorphic image of pixels, a virtual scene that is more real than real, like a flame without temperature. The difference lies in the technical ease of virtual rendering and the data controllability of the image rendering.
CA: As for photography, has anyone influenced you?
Chen Yu: I like Cregory Crewdson and Jeff Wall very much. The first time I saw their works in a magazine’s landscape photography column, I was attracted by the scene effect of the stage. Their use of the light, scene and narrative behind the picture also touched me very much. Inspired by them, I began to think about whether it was possible to present the problems I express in a virtual way.
CA: Last question, you also released NFT works. What do you think of NFT art as a photographic artist?
Chen Yu: At least for now, it’s just a technology to confirm the right of digital creation. There are almost no real artistic logic in production. But in fact, I think art is art, which can be related to finance, but it must have a core value outside the financial logic. Actually, I quite agree with Gombrich’s words: “there really is no such thing as art. there are only artists”.