Yefeng Wang is a new media artist who actively pursues his artistic career in both East and West, and continues to think and work critically across media including Experimental 3D rendering and animation, video installation, virtual reality, and 3D printing. He left China for the United States after completing his BFA at Shanghai University, and received his MFA in Art and Technology Studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2011. In 2013 he began teaching and building the Digital Media Art program at Rhode Island College as an Assistant Professor. Yefeng is currently based in Providence, RI and New York, and constantly travels back and forth between the United States and his hometown, Shanghai.
His piece, The Drifting Stages, explores the harshness of the immigrant narrative through a unique and often uncomfortable aesthetic. The result is an extreme viewing experience, and the DigA team wanted to know more.
We chatted with Wang (also known as Frank) about his unorthodox work and his creative process. You can view the piece here and other work on his website.
The Drifting Stages, 2016
DigA: Your piece is confusing, jarring, and at the same time exceptionally mesmerizing. Can you begin with explaining the intentionality behind Drifting Stages and what you aimed to articulate through this piece?
YW: This project is related to my experience in the US. I first came to the US from China about 9 years ago, then began studying and working here. During the process, I have been moving about once a year. A constant relocation and the remote distance from my homeland and family brings a feeling of an ongoing instability, an increasingly obscure notion of home, and a strong sense of solitude, which relates to the title, The Drifting Stages.
In the project I show a lot of collected objects, memories, and impressions. I consider some of them “unintentional collections”. It includes the goods I had to buy every time when relocating. They fulfill the necessity of a so-called satisfying life. I don’t know how significant they are to me as a person, but they do feel convenient and overwhelming at the same time. I’m amazed how fast this “unintentional collection” grows over the years.
The project shows crowded and fragmented scenes which are over-loaded by this “unintentional collection.” I realize that the images are absurd, and look confusing, jarring, and mesmerizing as you described; however, I don’t believe I push myself to create utmost weirdness or grotesque. To me it is more like an objective accumulation of what I experience during this still on-going sojourn in America.
Installation shot of The Drifting Stages, Between Art Lab, Shanghai, China, 2016
DigA: You explain that The Drifting Stages possesses a “dramatic visual environment”; a drama that is accentuated in the piece’s paradoxically disarming and mesmerizing strobe effects and visuals. Can you speak more on this drama and how you intend it to affect the viewer’s visual experience?
YW: Yes, there is an adequate amount of paradox in my works. I don’t think I am a very quick paced person but many images I create look rather “overheated.” When I show this work as a video installation, I usually place comfortable couches directly in front of the image, to offer the viewer a forcedly straight sight to the strobe effect (as how Alex was placed to the Ludovico equipment in “Clockwork Orange”). I wish for The Drifting Stages depicts our constant failure of trying to escape from this over-speeding world. I think I can show this predicament by imposing some physical uncomfortableness to whoever is watching.
The strobe is originally inspired by an uncanny incident that happened in Japan in 1997. TV Tokyo was featuring an episode of the Pokémon animation, which in it has a very intense and continuous dual-color flickering effect. It is a common technology at the time to flicker highly saturated colors rapidly to create intense visual effect of explosion. As a result, one of the episodes (the “Porygon,”) made more than 600 Japanese kids sick, so they had to be sent to hospitals. The effect caused their physical illness such as headache, blindness, vomiting, convulsion, etc. I am very interested in this incident because a flat visual effect played on televisions can cause physical pain to people in the end. To me it is also a historic sign of how our world and visual culture has been transformed.
DigA: Your piece thoroughly examines consumption and its often zealous and grotesque nature. There is a lack of distinction between “meat” (the “meat” of an animal which is consumable) and “flesh” which is specifically human and inherently sacred. Why this lack of distinction? Furthermore, do you believe this representation influence how viewers perceive the human body?
YW:I don’t know if I have an answer of how this influences the viewer’s perception on human body. In my artwork, I don’t always intend to find consensus between me and the viewer, I want to find my own language and contemplation that are significant to me, and I hope the viewers find theirs as well. Here, the significant element to me is that they are all digital bodies exist in a mathematical binary system. They propose questions such as if they are consuming or being consumed, real or not real. To me, these are all increasingly blurred boundaries.
Installation shot of The Drifting Stages, Between Art Lab, Shanghai, China, 2016
DigA: The life cycle of human consumption and its final destination (the bathroom and more specifically the toilet) are featured heavily in this piece. However there is a clash between the disgusting blood inundated bathroom and the sudsy cleanliness of the background sound. Can you explain the intentionality behind this incongruence?
YW: As you said it is a cycle, and we are all a part of it. It is not only the microscopic cycle reflected in bathrooms, but also the macroscopic cycle of how we are placed in this world that we will never be able to escape. An observation fascinated me when I show this project at different places. While every adult suggests that the fluid in the images is blood or polluted water, most of the kids think it is fruit juice or melted chocolate. I think it really shows how we project ourselves in the world as individuals. To me, the 3-D liquid stands for a fluid and uncertain nature of my sojourns.
Installation shot of The Drifting Stages, Governors Island Art Fair 2016, NY, USA, 2016
DigA: Though the work concentrates on several gruesome elements, there are details of the work’s unique aesthetic that are whimsical and out of place (i.e. the wallpaper from Andy’s room in Toy Story). How do these American artifacts influence your work?
YW: A lot. They started influencing me even before I left China, it is inevitable.
DigA: The girls, who are holding meat grinders, provide interesting commentary. They are faceless commercialized forms of the female body clad in Hooters tee shirts and thigh high socks. Can you speak more on the decision to portray women in forms constantly consumed by mass media and its audience?
YW: The female bodies in the scene derive from my memory of the first Hooters chain restaurant I saw in Shanghai. When Hooters was first introduced to China around 10 years ago (roughly the same time I left China to America), it was packaged and advertised as “a healthy restaurant that promotes positive life-styles and family gatherings.” Of course, this notion was undoubtedly subverted after I came to America. Very quickly, I learned in reality it is an iconic “Breastaurant” chain that uses entertainment, beer and unhealthy grilled food, and service with sexual implications as selling-points. I am fascinated by this effort to varnish and distort the true nature of an entity in consumerism in different context. I also use baby heads in my works since they are commonly perceived as representation of innocence and cuteness. But these characteristics are replaced by a neurosis that is rather challenging to watch in my images. I found such contradictions always exist in my work, perhaps because they are just as ubiquitous in my surroundings.