Q: You were initially trained in oil painting. Have any of your works incorporated this training?
A: No, there’s a system difference. I was born in China in 1986, and I think in China the art college, the profession, the different departments, the system, was imitated from Soviet Russia. So we didn’t have a fine arts department. But everybody knew that if you wanted to do fine arts, you go to the oil painting. And the oil painting has a different studio, so you have the traditional studio, you have the multimedia studios, so I went to sort of like contemporary painting. But you can do anything — they are quite open-minded.
Q: It must have been incredible to be allowed to do anything you wanted.
A: This is like today — you can do everything if you want, but the problem is you can do everything but that doesn’t mean you do everything that’s good. I think we have so many choices now, more than ever. I’m not calling it a problem. This is not a problem, but it’s a question — when you have so many different choices, what should you do?
Q: What makes your art so interdisciplinary? Do you enjoy being called an interdisciplinary artist?
A: They always call me an interdisciplinary artist. They even call me the gay artist from China. I think [they call me interdisciplinary] because my references are from other disciplines, and I have interests in literature, history and politics. But everyone should have this attitude — everybody has ideas about different things. And for me, I’m very interested in how art history and literature are formulated and can be illuminated or discussed. I’m very interested in the narrative. I think many people call me interdisciplinary because of my interest in the narrative.
Q: How have your projects explored the concept of the narrative?
A: Many of my works have the titles of novels. The working process is very similar to writing a novel. You have to make different structures, and different centerpieces and different chapters, even though you use objects. I think the system for me is more like writing, and I think my job is based on a very narrative way [of thinking] — I have many stories, fantasies really, in my mind, everyday.
Q: On your website, it says your works circulate around themes such as negativity, resistance and order. Are these large themes you feel everyone is tackling, or are these more specific things you try to address in every project?
A: Both, I think. Of course that’s like your core, your interests, but it doesn’t mean with every project you have to scare the people with how profound you are. I think being interesting is just as important.
Q: Do you try to make your work profound? Do you try to make a statement, or just try to make something?
A: Am I profound? [laughs] I look like I’m not. I think usually every artist wants to call himself profound. He wants to be serious.
Q: Has the content of your work evolved over the years?
A: Of course, I have very specific interests about large themes that everybody has, like death, life, to be or not to be. But there are still some other things I’m concentrating on, like how you develop your artistic language.
Q: And what is artistic language?
A: The artistic language is invisible. It’s like the bookshelf of a writer, it’s all your references and fundamentals about your aesthetics.
Q: What is the creative process for you? How do you go from initial idea to execution?
A: That’s a long process, because I’m working with museums, curators and my assistant with our study. Really every project takes a long time, more than you expect, sometimes years. It’s a very long journey from the initial to the end. You have to deny yourself, again and again, and you have to make yourself excited again and again.
Q: How does the process of beginning a project work?
A: It’s magic. [laughs] No, most of the time the curator has known your work for a long while, and they know your practice, and they have special interests and special curatorial ideas. Or there is a project where they think you could be matched. Or sometimes you talk and tell them what you have been researching and what you have been doing. But most people think artists have inspirations. That’s not what artists are really working with. You cannot believe the inspirations — all the day you can have so many inspirations, but you cannot work on those inspirations. It’s amateur, or it cannot be trusted.
Q: What’s different between an inspiration and something that becomes a work or installation?
A: Inspirations happen all the time. It’s like the noise, though sometimes I’m working on an installation where the inspiration came two years ago — it’s not recent. So I grab it back. Like I said, it’s still a very long process because sometimes you have the inspirations, but you don’t know how to operate on your inspirations. So you have to hold onto it for a while, and you have to wait for that moment, where the moment has so many circumstances you have to consider, even the location has to be specific.
Q: Did you know when you were young that you wanted to be an artist?
A: Oh, when I was very, very young. I know that I have so many interests, but I think this is the greatest profession you could have. So whenever people tell me how difficult it is to be an artist, I don’t care, I just want to be an artist. People always say there is so little chance to be recognized, but I don’t believe it. I don’t want to listen, so I’m very naive.
Q: How have you gained recognition, then? What are you doing that other artists aren’t doing?
A: I think a reason could be that I work on a transcontinental system. I was born in China and I completed all my education and preparations in China, and I came to the states in 2014. But even before that, I had shows that took place in different countries all the time. Maybe.
Q: How do you make sure your art isn’t lost in translation?
A: It’s not about the language. Even if I’m talking in Chinese, ambiguities always surround my ideas. You have to deal with it all the time. And artists, people call artists the most misunderstood. My question is, really, do you think that things can be translated? Something cannot be, ever. I’m not just talking from Chinese to English, from every different language. It’s difficult, and you have to deal with it.
Q: If there’s one main point people could take away from your projects, what would you want it to be?
A: You mean like give a hashtag for my work? I think now we are living the hashtag world, people always want to simplify.
Q: I hadn’t thought of it like that. But if people had to tweet your work, how would they hashtag it?
A: I would have so many hashtags, but I don’t think it’s allowed. Of course everyone wants to be understood comprehensively and to be profound, but I can’t control what people say.
Q: Is there anything else you’d like to tell me?
A: Yan Xing, comma, an artist, period.