Yang on Romancing the Viewer, Creating Intimacy, and Falling In Love with New York City

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Slow Conversations
from the 08/2018 Issue

Filed under: fine art, installations, painting
Continuing on our earlier posts, we'll be speaking to the artists who were a part of The Deepest Blue.

Yang is an artist, photographer and producer based in Singapore. With her background in film, Yang is a multi-disciplinary artist who creates immersive, multi-sensory experiences.  She draws influences from pop culture and is obsessed with the human condition. Story-telling remains the crux of her works where each piece of art and each installation serves to connect at a deeper level - one human to another.
We met with her at her studio and bar, 21 Moonstone, and amongst other things, speak to her about her love for works by Hockney, Rauschenberg, Orchard, Hopper and Katz. Yang works comfortably in a variety of settings, and her passion for both her art and the pursuit of authenticity were just a few of the things we talked about in this quick chat.

¹ Painting with Grey Wing, Robert Rauschenberg
Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, 1959

² Love Painting, David Hockney
Private Collection, 1960

³ Seven A.M., Edward Hopper
Private Collection, 1948

⁴ Ada on Blue, Alex Katz
Whitney Museum of American Art, 1959
Tell me more about why you chose these works — what drew you towards choosing them for this interview?

These works are really my favourite. I have books on them, I've seen exhibitions with them in it — but why I picked them, I'm not sure. Maybe if I go into each one we can see an overarching theme, because right now, I can't see a commonality linking them altogether.

With Edward Hopper, I've always loved his pieces. You can spot them from a mile away because his style is so strong. There's a sense of stillness in it because the images are so haunting. When I'm looking at them, so many questions are created in my mind — why is this place empty? It isn't derelict or abandoned, so where did the people in the image go? Was there somebody here? Even when he does depict human subjects, they're all so still. He doesn't inject an opinion into the paintings, but it isn't unfeeling. He creates a world in your mind because of all of these questions you're asking. I'm really drawn to that narrative that he creates.

With Robert Rauschenberg, I actually didn't know who he was and hadn’t seen his works before. But when I was in New York, a friend brought me to his retrospective, Among Friends, at the MoMA last year. He said I had to see them. This work was part of the Abstract series at the beginning of the exhibition, and they are huge. Within this exhibition, there was also an installation of his that was just mud bubbling away. He was really prolific, and one of my favourites in that show was a collaged piece with a word spelt something like “TRRRCRRAATCHURBUP” printed boldly across. The artist described this as the way his friends mimicked a bird’s call. It was so cute. I just burst out laughing after reading that wall text. The overall energy and movement within his works really drew me in. These works feel so charged, almost as if I'm running through it. They also have a real sense of maturity about them. They manage to bear the weight of authority but still remain fun.

Ada on Blue by Alex Katz is in the Whitney Museum of America Art. It hangs amongst many other portraits in their permanent collection. It's not large, it's quite a small sketch. When I saw it, what drew me to it was how cute and candid it was. It's not hyper realistic and it's not a photograph. It feels as if he was trying to remember his sitter quickly, almost afraid that he would forget. I love his works for their colours, their compositions and their clean lines. His works never feel overdone — they always feel like they're just nice. He somehow manages to insert himself into his works such that he doesn't lose himself either in his technique or his medium. He is there, capturing a moment, which what I think that I would want to be as an artist as well. Another work of his that I’m drawn to is a full-length painting of a lady in red. The cropped composition of the painting is tight, quite like an Instagram story, but he really captured the image of the person really well

I saw David Hockney's Love Painting as part of his retrospective at The Met. I remember walking into the exhibition and there were just these large blue words: "David Hockney" pasted across the entrance. The Love Painting series were in a room at the start, before his larger more popular portraits were made. I could have chosen one of his later portraits for this conversation, and some of his later works look similar to [Alex] Katz' portraits too. Everyone was crowding around those later portraits but I thought these showed a different side to the Hockney we all know. I felt like these paintings were him — they were a way of knowing him intimately. Looking at them, it almost feels like if the room quietened down. These paintings really represent a different side of Hockney. They don't feature his signature clean lines and blue tones. In fact, the strokes are dirty and messy. But I imagine these to really embody his practice. I don't really know why these are called Love Paintings either. I wonder if the name takes from him painting about love, or if it is a homage to his love for painting. But here, you can really feel him.

I came across Danielle Orchard's work by chance when I was gallery hopping with a friend in New York. The gallery was in Chinatown and I was just drawn in by these beautiful greens, beautiful yellows, and beautiful blues. But we were on our way to somewhere else, so we couldn’t stop. After we were done for the day, I begged my friend to take me back. I was like, "Please take me back to the gallery with all the pretty colours." That was how I described it, and he was like, "Ok, I know which one it is." When I got there, I couldn't stop snapping photographs. Not because I wanted to Instagram them or anything, but I was just so drawn to her use of colours and I wanted to keep these for studies later on. Instead of brown or black, the pupils of the figures she paints are always this striking mint colour. All her paintings also feature girls holding a cigarette, or a glass of wine. I really related to that. If you scroll through my phone camera roll, you'll see that it is full of pictures from that visit. I was taking close ups, viewing the works from a distance, and capturing all the details of the work.

November 9 (Requiem), Danielle Orchard
Jack Hanley Gallery, 2017
Just hearing you speak about these works — correct me if I'm wrong, but you seem to be drawn to imagined worlds and stories, both of which I know are important to your works.

Yeah, storytelling is really important for me. Everything starts from a story.

I’m also constantly aware of how privileged I am to be creating as an artist. People come around to see my art and they don’t have to. They don’t need to! Yet when they do I feel so privileged. 

I feel like the time that I have with them is sacred, although sacred feels like a big word. I hope my works make them feel something.

Because of that, it actually doesn’t matter to me whether people like my work. Once I create something and I put it out there, I know that people will look at it through the lens of their backgrounds and identity, and that's fine. What really hurts is when someone just walks right by your artwork without even giving it so much as a glance. So I don't mind if viewers hate or love my artwork — any opinion would be better than indifference.
Intimacy seems to also be key in some of these works you've chosen for our conversation. Is intimacy, either in creating a viewing an environment or telling an authentic story, something you work towards achieving in your works?

Maybe it was how I was brought up, but I always had this concept of creating for an audience of one. It definitely comes from my religious family background in terms of the concept of evangelism — reaching out to one soul at a time. I still feel like my job as an artist is done as long as I touch even just one person with my work, though I'm not here to convert anyone! I want to make works that make people happy. I know that makes me sound like a people pleaser, and maybe I am, but I think that making works that people can relate to isn't a bad thing. In fact, I don’t make high prices or having big prestigious shows a priority in my art making process. I just want my work to touch people.

I think a huge part about my practice is romance. I’m a Cancer, so I’m a hopeless romantic. I just want to hug everyone.

I used to want to snuff out that side of myself, but recently a friend, Nicholas, saw my works and described them as jiwang. Jiwang is a Malay word that encapsulates sentimental emotions of romance, nostalgia and longing. I really related to that description, and I’ve been trying to own that romance in my works now. It is a part of me, and I don’t deny it. I love love. But at the same time, I don’t love it in the sense of a dreamscape. True love is when you see all of someone’s flaws and love them anyway.

I know that finding my identity as an artist is a journey, but it’s still difficult for me to wrap my head around. I definitely don’t want to be stagnant either, but I do want my works to develop into its own style and identity. The journey might go on forever though. I might be constantly searching for my identity. That’s something I’m still struggling with, but I’m slowly getting better at.

Red Coat, Alex Katz
Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), 1983
You also have a unique relationship with New York. You've been to the city a couple of times now — has your relationship with the city changed from when you first visited?

I was 18 when I first visited New York. At the time, I was working on a project, Singapore Day for Makansutra, actually. The initial plan did not include me going to New York. However, my colleague who was meant to go on the trip had her visa denied, so my boss asked me if I would like to take her place. I had watched The Devil Wears Prada so many times and I love that movie so much. I actually watch it every time I'm ill — it's my go-to film for comfort. When she asked if I was keen, I was desperately trying to keep it together. Before we left for New York, my boss asked me what I wanted to do when I got there. I said, “I just want to buy a cup of Starbucks and walk down the streets really fast”.  I wanted to live that experience, even if I didn’t know where I was going.

The first time I was there I just breathed the city. I went to Times Square, which I know many people avoid going to. But on my first trip to New York, I made my way to Times Square. I was overwhelmed by its bright lights, shoals of tourists, relentless NYPD patrols, and the M&Ms World. I just died. Like if you go to Times Square now there’ll probably be a tombstone for me that reads "R.I.P. Yang". 

I don't know how better to describe it, but I could feel dreams suspended in the air. I had never seen billboards so big and buildings so tall.

After that trip, I started university. I didn't go back to New York for the four years I was in university because life got in the way. But I hadn't forgot the feeling of being in the big city. After finishing up university, I booked a trip to New York on a whim with my friend, Narelle. The both of us were sat in the Starbucks at Fullerton, and we just decided to go. We booked tickets to leave in about one to two weeks. It was so spontaneous — we were just two broke students who hopped on the cheapest flight possible, and booked ourselves into an Airbnb in the Bronx. In fact, the airline lost Narelle's suitcase, and we only arrived at our apartment at 11pm.

During our first couple of days in New York, we went to Grand Central station. The station is right in the middle of New York City, and we went up to the street level. We just stood there and took it all in — just two girls looking out at the city. I still remember Narelle grabbing my arm because in that moment, we were both so overwhelmed by the buzz of the city. Maybe we were a little dramatic, but it felt so real. You see the city in photographs and in films, and you read about it in books too, but it never makes sense until you see it in real life. For example, I sometimes read about things like going two blocks down. What do you mean two blocks down? In the Singaporean context, that just wouldn't work. But when I was standing there, I saw how the city was planned and it made absolute sense. Everything was neatly subdivided into blocks.  Of course the books talk about walking round the block. Well, obviously. I melted right there and then again. That’s my second tombstone in New York City — “R.I.P. Yang and Narelle" — at the Grand Central Station.
It's really interesting that you have such a strong relationship to a physical space. So often people who live in cities hold physical spaces quite lightly because they come and they go.

My relationship with New York City has to be a two-way street. It can't just be me forcing or barging my way through. After my first few trips to New York, I also wanted to expose myself to the uglier parts of the city: including the racism, and the harassment (we were harassed so often). I wanted to avoid romanticising the city and to see it for what it was. I wanted to love it in spite of these imperfections.

More recently, I’ve been working on a series of works that document my conversations with the city. I'm experimenting with shapes that show the profile of two people talking to each other, with the numbers "651" accompanying it.

As much as I love the city, I wanted to know that there would be a place there for me. I go back every three to four months, for at least two weeks every time, and each time my conviction just gets stronger. I really think there is a space in New York City for me. I'm speaking in terms of things like identity, culture, and friendships — I really think I could belong, and work there as an artist.
The Runaway Bride, Tan Yang Er
Most of the works you’ve chosen for our conversation are paintings. You’re a prolific artist when it comes to paintings, but more recently, you’ve worked with fabrics, clay and other materials, especially in relation to your latest piece for The Deepest Blue. How do you choose which medium to work in when you create your works?

The choice always comes down to the question: which medium tells the story best?

Sometimes the medium is dictated by the brief. For example, my piece, Family Portrait, with Kult required me to incorporate a toy into my work. But in other cases, such as my piece for The Deepest Blue, I chose fabric and clay because I felt that they would convey the story best.
That’s really interesting because, when I think about you and your practice, I think of your paintings. I feel like that’s you without a brief just doing your own thing.

I've never actually displayed or exhibited my paintings publicly before, so that means the image must have really stuck with you.

Often when I’m painting, I’m just crying. You can almost say it functions like therapy, but I know how people sometimes respond to such sentiments. If I'm just creating works as therapy, then does it still count as art? Does it make me an artist? But I really feel strongly when I create and for the works I create.

When I was in university, I once did a piece of film criticism on Memoirs Of A Geisha for a class. I loved the film, although its white-washing is incredibly problematic. That same day, I made a painting based on the film. It was on a small, flat canvas - not even a stretched canvas, and I just painted. The next morning when I woke up and saw the painting again, I hated it. I just left it on the floor. But when my Mum saw the painting, she loved it. I personally thought it looked like a 山水画 (Chinese landscape painting of mountains and rivers) — so obiang (old-fashioned). But she really enjoyed it. Later, when my brother saw it, he loved the painting as well. I was going to throw it out, but I kept it, and I actually still live with it today. It serves as a reminder that people can sometimes see something in my work that they love, even if I hate what I've created. It wasn’t even a case of my family mollycoddling me, because that's not what they do. They're really straightforward with their opinions, so hearing that they liked that painting really meant a lot.
Tell us more about your experiences working with art direction and commercial clients. How do you balance that with your fine arts pursuits?

I sometimes feel like what I do is a walking paradox. I work with commercial partners, but also do the fine arts at the same time. On a practical level, the commercial stuff pays. It helps me afford my paints and materials. But I have done art installations for free as well. An older mentor once told me that it was our version of serving the country, something akin to National Service. I enjoy giving back to the community, even if it's out of my own pocket. But straddling all of these things at the same time can be challenging.

I've been reading up on KAWS and his practice recently. He definitely can be classified as a fine artist, and his works are represented by various galleries and are bought by avid collectors. Yet at the same time, he also works with big corporate brands such as Uniqlo. What intrigues me is how he inserts his own unique identity into every partnership he enters. With the Uniqlo collaboration, you could tell that all of the Uniqlo-branded t-shirts were designed by KAWS. What makes a successful partnership definitely comes down both to the brand and the artists aligning themselves up with each other.

When I work with brands or paying clients, I see these projects as opportunities. And I mean this in the most positive sense of the word.

When these commercial clients set me a brief, I see them as a chance to think about or to approach an issue in a new way.

Sometimes, these ways are not options that I would have otherwise considered. I find the balance between nailing the brief and maintaining my identity as an artist interesting.

What gets me fucking annoyed, though, is when clients show me a particular artist’s work, and ask if I know someone based locally who can paint like that. Often, these artworks are done by artists based overseas. My first thought always goes along the lines of, "Well if you don’t have enough money to hire that artist then why should another Singaporean artist give you the time of day?" People can just be fucking lazy! At the same time, I know they don't mean to say such things — they just don’t know how hurtful it can be to an artist. I understand when people want to create overall moods for their space, either as interior decorators or curators, but to ask that someone replicate another’s work is just really lazy. I find that a much better way of doing this is by having a conversation with the artist about the mood that one wants to create. By considering what the artist has done before, it makes it a more engaging and productive conversation about whether his or her work would be a good fit for the goal at hand.
That makes complete sense. Is the comfort that comes with the frank, personal relationships you share with either your collaborators or clients really important to you?

Yeah. I posted this really long post on Instagram just yesterday about things that I've learnt on the job. It was a really lengthy post, but I don't care even if people don't read it. I use my Instagram like my blog, so I just wanted to write it down somewhere.

I talked about working with The [Sam] Willows, and how enjoyable it has been to work with close friends on shoots. I've only ever shot close friends or professional models. With professional models, it's really easy because they know which poses work best. But I find the personal touch really important to getting the right shot that accurately portrays my subject. I really aim to pick up their energy and just let that flow throughout the session.

Interacting with the people I photograph has taught me so much, and I want to be able to empathise with my subjects in order to capture an image that is true to who they are as human beings.

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