• Intimate Spaces

    Date posted: September 16, 2009 Author: jolanta
    Leah Oates: Each artist’s path is different and unique. How and when did you become and know you were an artist?
    Yeni Mao:
    You’re born an artist like you are born gay.

    Yeni Mao, interviewed by Leah Oates


    Leah Oates: Each artist’s path is different and unique. How and when did you become and know you were an artist?

    Yeni Mao: You’re born an artist like you are born gay. The expression and shaping of it doesn’t come until well after puberty. Being an artist as a teenager was really a social status—punk rock, multiculturalism, Boy George, and George Michael—questioning establishment was a natural part of the social fabric I came up in. I think all those things channeled into the label “artist.”  It was a great thing when I realized being an artist was also a vocation that could come along with expensive diplomas.

    LO: What are the core themes you are working on in your work?

    YM: I’m interested in how displacement happens, the manifestation of identity. The basis of all the projects is identity work, that’s the school that I come out of. Any work that an artist of color does is automatically seen in ethnic light. The Asian-ness of my work has always been considered first, so I’ve had a struggle/embrace relationship with that aspect of my work. That said, work that is solely about an identity search can be a bit narcissistic and tedious. “Identity” is formed by so many exterior issues: adaptation, incorporation, extradition—these are the processes I am most interested in, and my work uses this cabinet of revolving ingredients. The most recent project, The Wu-Tang Illuminations, is a series of silhouette portraits of the Wu-Tang Clan in gold leaf. The work is about idolatry, the building of personality with blocks plucked from celebrities and heroes.

    LO: What is your background?  Where did you grow up and did you come from a creative family? How did your background shape your artistic practices, if at all?

    YM: In a nutshell, I was born in Guelph, Canada, and grew up in East Lansing, Michigan, with some trysts in Taiwan and Sweden. East Lansing is a college town, full of eccentrics, pretty international, so I wasn’t really too isolated or too sheltered. East Lansing bred several great artists. Unfortunately it’s effectively been homogenized and looks like a strip mall now.

    My family was not an artistic family per se, both my parents are scientists. I think that sort of critical thinking about the world rubbed off on me, to split open the world and spread it around; I certainly inherited their suspicious eye. Also, I come from a long line of migrants that have been shuffled around by larger political movements. The move to North America just happened to be the latest one. That’s made me aware of cultural impermanence, the root of my work.

    LO: I wish more artists did whatever was best for their work despite market trends, which I think is the case with your work. What are your thoughts on this and why do you work with several mediums?

    YM: I am a material whore. The dialogue between technique and content feed my work. I’m not cerebral enough to conceptualize and execute—I get into the craft and the production and find they are modes of discovery for art-making. I don’t think choosing to use one medium to fully investigate your content is bad, on the contrary, I think it’s a healthy way to work. But the trend of making one style or type of work over and over again is a result of the recent art bubble, where marketing and career have become synonymous. Artists have let the market control the way they work, now that that bubble has deflated a bit it will be interesting to see what sort of work gets a lot of props. Not that its wrong to make a product, I do that too, but call it as such. I’d rather treat each project individually, keeping the artist’s exploration apparent.

    LO: What inspires you to make work and which artists make you hungry to make work? What is it you respond to in the artwork and artists that inspire you?

    YM: Sadly, and possibly stupidly, I rarely look at my contemporaries’ works in relation to mine. I love looking at great, messy painters, that always makes me want to paint big and messy, but that just isn’t my thing. I look at a lot of photography. Photography is a “still water that runs deep”—a very simple image can have so much weight. That’s something I strive for in my own work. What has been most inspiring of late are the works in the Rubin Museum, it’s a treasure trove of amazing Himalayan paintings of buddhas and mythological creatures. There’s both an ease and also a dramatic flair that I admire in the works.

    LO: What advice would you give to anyone coming to NYC to be in the arts or to be an artist?

    YM: Remember why you do work.

    LO: What shows and upcoming projects do you have coming up?

    YM: This winter I am showing in The LaMaMa Galleria’s The Family Show, and I am in a show curated by Robert Curcio at Chashama called Desires

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