Yuge Zhou is a Chinese born, Chicago-based artist whose video and installation works portray “urban dispositions” and explore the complex interactions between humans and their environment.
A: Could you expand upon the term “urban dispositions” in terms of what you’re trying to achieve, and why you think it’s important within today’s globalised climate?
YZ: Ancient Greek medicine laid out a theory of four “humors”, which suggests four fundamental body fluids and how they tip a person’s personality in one direction or another. The Greeks knew no body was purely one humor: there are always overlaps and a desire for balance although each body has a leading characteristic. I think Cities have their own humors and leading characteristics too. And the people that inhabit these cities live through them and shape these dispositions in a collective, symbiotic way. Even though everyone is everywhere in our globalised world, there are still inflections that are unique about various cities, inflections that come from histories of immigration and architectural styles and geography and many other factors that are unquantifiable. If globalization implies homogeneity, then acknowledging these dispositions reinforces heterogeneity.
A: Do you think that artists have a sense of ethical responsibility to respond to cultural, social and political issues? Do you think that your works do this?
YZ: I think that art has always been an important force to push culture forward or interrogate its direction. Some artists are doing that by responding to current issues. Others are doing that by producing “timeless” work. Art is always situated within a context and artists are too. Sometimes these contexts are relevant to large numbers of people and sometimes contexts only speak to a few. In short, I think artists are responsible in the same sense that every citizen of the world is responsible.
A: Why do you think people should be aware of their surroundings on a conceptual and aesthetic level?
YZ: Having a sense of critical thought makes one aware of the fragility of their surroundings or the effect a particular set of conditions might have on their well-being. Aesthetic awareness is primal and sensory. It’s linked to pain and pleasure and other very basic feelings. Conceptual awareness is more cerebral and requires work to process and form opinions, perhaps making one more skeptical about one’s own surroundings. Changes to our surroundings might cause anxiety or disorientation or worse. A critical sensitivity can help us understand why we respond to an environment the way we do and how to treat, preserve, sustain or alter environments in a mindful way.
A: Having been born in China and now living in Chicago, how has this sense of movement influenced your understanding of the metropolis?
YZ: Probably like a lot of other people, moving around leaves me with a longing for a sense of community. Every day, we encounter many incomplete narrative fragments. In a metropolis, this is recognised as an integral aspect. In some ways, public space in a metropolis has nothing to do with you. It does not belong to you, and yet everyone belongs to it. And that, I believe, is why cities attract both new inhabitants and tourists. Smaller towns may offer their inhabitants a more apparent sense of rootedness and connectedness – a tribe – but tribes require initiation.
A: How have you been inspired by both cultures and how does this feed into the production of your work?
YZ: First of all, my work is meditative. it’s rooted in Chinese philosophy that seeks to find peace beneath the turbulence of daily life. Second, my aesthetics is influenced by traditional scroll paintings, which always illustrate a compressed narrative, multiple events happening at the same time. Likewise, I use collage techniques to create moving images that progress through time and space and are combined together to create an uncanny perspective that never loses sight of the individual components.
Initially, American cities with their towering structures, noise, activity, as well as their population density and anonymity, inspired me to reinterpret the American scene from the perspective of an outsider. But the longer that I’ve lived here, I have come to appreciate a universal condition pulsing through the cities that ties all humanity together, not separates them, regardless of where they are living. This is what I want to acknowledge, and ultimately, celebrate in my work.
A: You work in many different media including video and installation. How do you begin to approach each work, and how do these relate to each landscape that you’re trying to depict?
YZ: My work is a visual diary and the process of creating it has two aspects. One is traveling to locations and collecting raw footage. Most of the time I go to these places without a particular mission and I’m not seeking out the most photographic view. I obviously am aware of the mythology about the places where I go, but I try to keep an open mind, be spontaneous and allow chance to happen. Second is editing, where I search for themes and events and interesting juxtaposition in the raw footage and assemble them into collages. There is always a rhythm to editing, both intuitive and logical. When I’m putting the elements together, I begin to understand the place better to find the disposition of that specific location. I may repeat this process several times until this piece is resolved. And certain compositions lend themselves to a more installation-based approach while others work better as flat videos.
A: You have exhibited at many international galleries and museums. Which has been your favourite to date, and how do you think it has helped you to develop as an artist?
YZ: I’ve learned from each of the shows I’ve participated in and from the artists I’ve shown with. Sometimes it’s about scale, other times it’s about logistics and flexing the aspects of the pieces to fit lighting conditions or space limitations or sound spill. This is one of the reasons why I enjoy exhibiting the work so much. One show in particular stands out: A group show at Elmhurst Art Museum in Illinois offered almost an entire room to Midtown Flutter in full video relief and sound installation. Not only was the show itself beautifully curated, but the museum was also an ideal setting for a very large incarnation of the piece with a sitting area. Viewers seem to be entranced as they watch the video’s waves of people flow past them.
1. Midtown Flutter. Courtesy of the artist and Vimeo.