雅 YA on Keeping a Journal, Examining the Soul of the Human Condition and The Simple Essence of Things
雅 Ya (Tan Ya) works on translating her everyday observations and reflections of the human condition and her own human experience, into creations she could narrate from a first person’s point of view.
We caught up with the artist before she left for London to pursue further studies. Her excitement about the future was evident, we spoke to the multi-hyphenate about everything she’s achieved so far over bubble tea. Her accolades are impeccable — Ya has exhibited internationally and frequently works across disciplines. We talk to her about the films and works she’s been inspired by, and some of the creative projects she’s worked on so far.
I love that film, it's so good! It's so calm, and I love really zen stuff. I have something for Japanese aesthetics, and the Japanese way of getting at the essence of things. That's why I love it.
In the films, the main character experiences a certain dissonance with city-living, which is a theme frequently explored in your work as well. How does your relationship with your place of residence, be it your house, neighbourhood or country, relate to the way you conduct your practice?
First things first, I always feel displaced, even though I am a Singaporean living in Singapore. I think that is because of my heritage as a mixed Chinese — I don't really look Chinese Chinese. I remember clearly that this sense displacement begun when I was really young. I was in my Chinese class, and everyone was a “real" looking Chinese, and there I was with my tanned skin. I remember teachers always asking, “Are you in the right class? The Malay class is over there" or “The Indian class is over there". So I've always felt displaced, but I’ve now started to embrace it. I feel unique, because I'm always getting attention. I don't really crave for the attention because often it comes in the form of, “Whoa, you can really speak good Chinese!" I try to embrace it in a positive way.
After graduating from Lasalle, I was figuring things out and went freelance for awhile. I worked in Korea and Japan for a period of time, and also went to Australia and Thailand. I always feel like a nomad. I love experiencing cultures, and places that are different or are very transitional. As a person of displacement myself, and there is a transitional quality about my person as well. I love to travel, to explore, and to walk. I'm really active and I can't really sit still, so I move about.
Having chanced upon Little Forest in about 2015, I felt a resonance to it. The film tells the story of going back to the basics of creation and understanding. I remember one scene in which the main character created Nutella from scratch, after she moved back to staying in the countryside from the city life. She used a Nutella recipe that was passed down from her mum. When she was living in the city, she found Nutella in convenience stores and supermarkets. They had the same taste as the Nutella her mum made. In the city everything was unoriginal, but convenient. Everything was quality checked, ready-made, ready to be consumed. When the character compared the differences between making Nutella and buying Nutella, I found that resonating with me as well. I'm not the kind of person who likes consuming things without understanding what is going into it. The character in the film went on to replicate her mum's recipe, measuring out ingredients to suit her taste. Rather than have the perfect, quality-checked product on the rack, the character just creates food that is true to herself. The kind of cooking practiced in this film taught me a lot about how I could put ingredients into my own life and make it taste great on my own terms. Similarly in my own practice, I just create works that are me.
I create my works based on my observations of other people — just like how in the film the character learns the recipe by observing her mum. I really love the human condition, so I think I draw from that quite often. I observe it to find a “recipe", creating a work from that. When I started An Everyday Thought Series last June, I wanted to understand the human condition through the perspective of my everyday life. I wanted to bring these explorations into my home, and to turn them into something relatable. An Everyday Thought Series is still ongoing, and it functions like a diary for me. It helps me to understand the human condition, and also documents my own personal growth. I'm learning different things every single day, and I enjoy working with that.
Journaling is often a very personal and intimate process, and this is reflected in your use of self-portraits. How has your relationship with yourself, your body and your thoughts, changed? This is particularly as you progress from working alone in your own space in An Everyday Thought Series, to working outside and in collaboration with others in Letters To You?
If you are a creative or a person who makes art, your personal experiences are often vivid and evident in your works. I’ve definitely seen my own progress and have noticed changes in my physical appearance through all this self documentation. Previously I wore coloured contacts, and I was known for my big grey eyes. Later I started to understand the concept of Orientalism, and became aware about western notions of Asian beauty. These ideas helped me to think more clearly about how I presented myself, and my image shifted as a result. I always see my work as a physical image of who I was at that point in time. Right now, I've started to embrace my big black eyes. I think that's a very visible change of who I am as a subject in my work.
I adore Cindy Sherman and her works, and I think the working process I’m describing is similar to hers. What I see in her work is that she reconfigures herself, reimage herself and personalize herself. She treats herself as a soul that controls her body, rather than just a body with all its restrictions. I really connect with that. I see people as souls that are fluid in nature, and you see this in my works as well as I manipulate and edit my own body. People always tell me that my works have this Junji Ito feel to them, or a Cindy Sherman feel. I don't really directly reference these artists, but if you really love their works, some part of it will stick to you in whatever you do.
From An Everyday Thought Series to Letters To You, all of these works are derived from my sketchbook. How it happens is that I usually write down the things that I see around me. When I get home after my work, I think to myself, “I'm going to create now." So I set up my tripod and place myself in scenes that ensure what I imagined in my sketchbook comes to life in the composition that I am making.
As for journaling, I have had a practice of journaling since I was in Lasalle. I had a big breakup in 2017, and I wanted to monitor and re-centre my thoughts. I felt like I lost a lot of myself in that relationship, and I just wanted to feel like myself once again. I didn’t want to dismiss all of it as history. I wanted to treat it as if it were a lesson on life. I wanted closure, and the baby steps I took towards that understanding are recorded in pages. The first episode of Letters to You draws from that, and it is about me letting go of things. I casted a muse who really resonated with the message and we delivered this magic together. The first episode screened in San Francisco and Perth, and I'm really glad for that. I’m still waiting to release episodes two and three.
For me, just creating stuff on my laptop or drawing is an intimate and important process for my art. I don't think I have strayed from that. I create with the intention to understand myself through these works. I would never make works just to please others or for external validation. When I first went back on Instagram in 2017 after a hiatus from social media, I had no intention to make it big with my art. I was just creating stuff. I do my thing, and I’m humbled that some people have noticed me. It’s humbling to know that people resonate with my works, and that they think my works have value. Even though my works can get really dark, I think they open doors for discussion about the negative aspects of the human condition as well. My works encapsulate a time in my life for me, so it makes me happy to know that people connect with those messages too.
Your relationship to your art is something that is very much in the pursuit of self-understanding. You have recently released a series titled 他/她, and have done interviews about your intersexuality and coming to terms with that aspect of your identity. Tell us more about how you’ve worked with such a deeply personal topic at different points in your life.
I knew about my intersexuality when I was seventeen years old. In my twenties, I was really confident about it and started sharing openly about it. But then I took a break from social media. When I came back, I wanted to be like Sia — never showing my face and only showing my art. This is perhaps also because I was a model then, and people knew how I looked like. I didn’t want the focus to be on myself but on my work, so I did not show my face. My face popped up on my account after a year, and people remembered me from my modelling work before. Now, however, they also know of me as a creative and artist. I remember thinking to myself, “Okay, let's just roll with that.” I only started modelling again in Shawna Wu’s show, Drip. ii. Singapore, in December 2018. I'm glad that people still know me and remember how I look, because I always think of myself as being quite small. I have never felt myself to be this very big figure.
In the artists' discussion at the exhibition SAFESPACE(S), I shared about how I think of everyone as a Nyan Cat. I fart my own rainbow. Of course everyone can see it, but I’m not doing it to show off. I’m just being myself. I don't necessarily have to be labelled as being intersex in order to be connected or respectful to the LGBT community. I think that I just have to embrace all of who am I, and be happy and contented with that. If people find themselves resonating with my works in the course of doing so, that's great.
I did an interview recently with a magazine, and was asked about how my intersexuality formulates part of my work. I don't know how to respond to that. I don't see works as having tags or labels. As human beings, we are all fluid and I see people as souls. It doesn't make sense to me any other way. I don't think being intersex has allowed me to create all of this work. That's a perspective that I don't want to be boxed into. I think that me being intersex doesn't mean that I feel things differently to you, or to anyone else. This is biological, and it doesn't affect who I am as a person.
Having said that, I think acknowledging my intersexuality has allowed me to relearn, modify and recalibrate myself and everything I do in life. It has helped me evolve from seeing things in orthodox, one-sided or conventional perspectives. I want to approach questions from different angles, and to feel things in different ways. This is all carried into my art as well. I try to redefine what the human condition is by redefining the very representation of different human beings. I'm going to be signed to an agency in London, and there's talk about how being intersex, especially as a person of colour, will affect me as a model. I think now people value it, especially because there is a tendency to see these identities as something “trendy”. For me, I just hope that my works can speak for themselves.
On that note of having works speak for themselves, let's talk about another work that you've picked out. The Bicycle Wheel by Marcel Duchamp is arguably the very first example of conceptual art, whereby the most valued aspect of an artwork is its idea. In comparison, another work you chose — Composition with Large Red Plane, Yellow, Black, Grey and Blue by Piet Mondrian — is of the formalist school, and discusses art in its purely formal aspects. How do you negotiate between different schools of thought within your practice, and how have you drawn upon them to create a mode of making that works for you?
When I first encountered Duchamp’s work, I resonated with his idea of approaching materials from a different angle and pushing the boundaries of what they could potentially be used for. I love his idea of reconstruction, and I adore Duchamp. When I feel something deeply, I cry. I'm a very emotional person. If I see something that I really like, I will cry. There is a school of understanding that posits that everything is formless and immaterial in this world, and that the formless holds more value than the moulded. The commercial or corporate world tells us that everything can be price-tagged, and I want to move myself away from that. When Duchamp uses a wheel in this work, the functionality of the wheel is removed. It creates a new function in an immaterial sense, and I like that. When I see works that allow me to see the immaterial value, it opens my eyes, and floods me with tears. Marcel Duchamp's work and his ideas have really inspired me, but I don’t translate it wholesale into my own work. I particularly like his ideas of deconstruction, and I can see it in this particular work. That is why I chose it.
For Piet Mondrian's work, I love how he grabs hold of the idea of abstraction. He really goes to the essence of things — understanding how particular representations encapsulate moods and emotions. All the colours that he uses are very primary and his compositions are reflective of life in New York City. It's very raw, very well calibrated and very simple. His works also give me a sense of calmness. I love his use of colours. Through his works, I started to see the role that colour plays in creating frameworks and conveying thought. Prior to this, I was working in black and white and in monochrome. I didn't really understand how colour could remodel or reshape things. It was only after awhile that I realised how colour could create intentions or moods, and so I incorporated it into my art. Piet Mondrian, for me, exemplifies that in a minimal way.
When I look at your photography work, what immediately jumps out for me is also your use of colour. There's a very soft and illuminated quality, but they are also bold and striking. Beyond creating stylistically recognizable works, what about this visual language makes it a powerful or effective tool for you?
When I first started making works for my An Everyday Thought Series, I had no direction. I colour graded in a way that felt befitting to how I wanted to present it. I go with the flow when I create these works. I never know what the outcome is going to be like, but I do know that I want to keep ideas of being very soft, muted, ethereal, yet strikingly bold. Those are the words I would use to describe my works. I just create on the spot and on the go. I like this idea of being ethereal, and I have a thing for renaissance art. It really comes from a desire for making things timeless.
I am also a recognised VSCO creator. In late 2017 VSCO hosted an exhibition at the International Centre of Photography titled ID Projected, and they invited me to be one of the artists. I presented my works in New York City, and that was my first big break in the international platform. When I started my An Everyday Thought Series in June 2018, I subsequently became known as a surreal artist. It bewilders me that my works are often labelled as surreal, because for me, this is my reality. I love deconstructing and reimagining the visual. I'm just glad to be called an artist, but being a surrealist artist — that's a bit too bold a name. I look up to all the modern surrealist artists, and I don't pitch myself as being on the same level as them. They’re all giants, and I'm just a small little creative. To be honest, I never even saw myself as an artist. It's really humbling that people see me that way, and I think of it as a blessing. I never set out to be an artist, but I think my art background perhaps shows an artistic imprint on everything that I do.
What do you see to be the difference between what you call an artist and a creative?
People always think of a creative as being linked to an influencer. People often call themselves “social media creatives", so it comes with a certain vibe. I do think the term “creative" has been diluted, and it has become a new term within this demographic. I call myself a creative, because I don’t think I can hold what comes with being an artist. I see the people that I look up to as great artists. I’m not sure that I’ll ever be as good as them, so I would hesitate to put myself on the same level. The term “creative” also directly references the idea of creation, and I vibe with that. I'm pretty simple when I choose things for myself, and “artist” is just too big of a word to carry for me in my heart.
Personally, I think it completely defeats the purpose of making work if your mentality is that you’re just creating stuff in order to be known as an artist. Others might think of me as an artist, but it’s not something I tell or call myself. I don't want do that because I just want to be fluid when I make my work. It’s really simple, and I want to keep it that way. There are people who like my work, and I like them too. I want to keep it that way.
It's really interesting to me then that many of the works you've chosen for this conversation are renown as great works of art.
I always look up to these great artists, because to me they are the fathers or mothers of creativity and they encapsulate a point of time in human history with their work. Every movement starts from a certain point in politics, and this time is captured in their works with their personal touch. I really admire these artists, and I think that's why I don't put myself out there as an artist yet. My works are not very politically driven. They are just based on my observations of the human condition, and I'm happy with that.
One of these great works of art that you've chosen is the Mona Lisa, which is one of, if not the most, famous paintings in the world. She's known for many reasons, including her mysterious smile, the way her eyes follow viewers around, and the dramatic history of the painting. What in particular is compelling to you about the Mona Lisa?
I love the spirit behind it when you first see it. As you said, I’m intrigued by her smile. Is it really a smile? Her posture is also so rehearsed and well put together. She feels like a muse of her time to me. Particularly because of my work as a model, I know that models sometimes lose their own personality when modelling. From my own experience, I know that it can strip you of everything and cover over everything that's really you. In comparison, a muse’s personality and personhood is really important. In the Mona Lisa, the sitter is clearly posing. Yet you can really see the emotions from her face being captured. The distinction of being a model or a muse is so blurred in this portrait. I still can't decide whether I see her as a model or muse, and I don't even know if the idea of a model existed then. However I know that if you're being put there and you’re sitting in a pose, then you are basically a model. In this portrait, I do see parts of her personality and that was perplexing to me. I like how the lines blur in this work.
When I work collaboratively and when I shoot people, I always want their personality and their story captured in the image. I don't want to just impose styles on them, and cover all of them up in order to fit a brief. I think that's how I work for myself as well. I don't want to conceal too much of myself, and I want to just show who I am. For example, I am a muse to myself in my An Everyday Thought Series. In that way, when I look back at my works, I'm able to pick out who I was at that point, and see how things have changed.
This ambiguity you picked out from the Mona Lisa is also central to another work you chose, which is the Drawing No. 2, an illustration in The Little Prince. In the illustration, the first picture is only made to be understandable through the accompanying text. Many of your works, especially in An Everyday Thought Series, also contain text which read like captions to the image. How do you see this relationship between image and text?
Whenever I have my sketchbook with me, I don't just draw. I usually also annotate. I have a thing for words, and to me, words are images which carry meaning. Sometimes I write a word down in my sketchbook when I overhear a fragment of someone else's conversation, even though I don’t know what the conversation is about. The conversations in An Everyday Thought Series expand on these notes, and on particular observations that I’ve made. I love the idea of dialogues. I don't believe in just making a statement. I believe in questions and providing answers which show different sides, or very simple answers that can expand the mind in different ways. I just love conversations, and it is as simple as that.
I read The Little Prince when I was very young, and at that point in time, I didn't see any deeper meaning to it. This is a book that offers different insights to the human condition as you read it at different stages of your life. For me, this is my holy bible. Reading it again now, I'm struck by how reading the same page strikes me differently every time. The Little Prince is so simple but so true, and it encapsulates so much of what the human condition is or could be. Drawing No. 2 looks like a hat at first but is later revealed to be a snake gobbling up an elephant. It's all about taking different viewpoints. All of the works I selected for our conversation reflect how I work and create. Drawing No. 2 encapsulates how I view things, not as just a body but a soul. I’m interested in uncovering what's underneath the surface.
You spoke about restructuring conversations as inspiration, and renegotiating simple sentences into deeper understandings at different stages in life. This kind of reconfiguration is something which is very present in the visual language of your work. An Everyday Thought Series often presents a very surreal, slightly unsettling image. A recurring visual theme is the rearrangement of body parts, often facial features. Tell us about why you frequently return to the body, especially its fragmentation, as a subject of your manipulation of expectations and reality.
The human condition is expressed through a human body. I see things as simple as that. I see things as very fluid, which is why I manipulate how it looks like to fit compositions. One of the very first works I put up from An Everyday Thought Series was of me in a basin, and I placed my eyes in my mouth. I am incredibly fascinated by eyes, and this is not just because I have huge eyes. Whenever I look at someone's eyes, it is as if I am looking into a window.
I approach my works in an almost child-like manner. What if the eyes are put over the ears? What if the nose is gone? How would people look like if they had no eyes? If my eyes were in my mouth, would I be able to see or would I be mute? These are questions a child would ask, but I feel happy and liberated when I create this way. The reason why I create works is because of this sense of liberation. I want to be thinking outside the box. I want to see my face in a different perspective, and not as the face that I see every day.
Manipulating my body and incorporating it into the objects around me has also allowed me to be one with my surroundings. I enjoy slotting myself into various contexts, and including conversations at the bottom of the image as subtitles. I am a strong believer in recycling ideas. Ideas have always been recycled, and they can be recycled. It is through your expression that you can make it your own. For example, I presented a work at the exhibition SAFESPACE(S) where my nose and lips were placed where lift buttons should be. The work was a comment on how people in the corporate world often enjoy poking their nose into other people's businesses. I injected a little humour into it, and took it very literally. If one presses the nose like a lift button, and the lift goes up. The concept and message of this work already exists, but it was my expression of these ideas that made this work my own. I enjoy visually manipulating stuff to make things my own. That is the power of creation for me — understanding things on my own terms, making them my own, and then sharing that understanding.