Screening and Artist Interview, The Drifting Stages - Arthub Asia
Presenting: The Drifting Stages, Wang Yefeng, 2016, 3D animation, video installation, infinite loop
Artist Introduction: Yefeng is a new media artist. He was born in 1984, in Shanghai, China. 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. See below for a full biography.
For more information about Wang Yefeng, check out his website here.
Arthub invited Chris Romero, curator and longtime friend of the artist to introduce “The Drifting Stages” – Yefeng’s most recent work premiering now at the group show “Do You Wanna Play With Me”. Make sure to pay a visit to Between Art Lab, Shanghai before 31 July to see works by Yefeng, Liu Yue, Lin Qing, and Chen Xiao. For the occasion of the screening, Chris spoke with the artist about his world of collection and discardment, imprisonment and freedom.
Collecting Like Clockwork: Memory, things, and data, in Wang Yefeng’s The Drifting Stages
By Chris Romero
I met Yefeng a few years ago while visiting artist studios in New York. Since then we have become good friends. Last year, we had the opportunity to work together on two curatorial projects I organized: Myth and Mutations, an exhibition featuring his Ambient Occlusion a series of 3D printed sculptures, and The Internet Yami-Ichi in New York, an “internet-ish” flea market, where he sold a product known as Promisecan together with his collaborator Unhee Park.
As an artist Yefeng’s work is a dialogue between the grotesque and beautiful. His skill with digital tools, observations of contemporary culture, and knowledge of art historical iconographies presents a mixture of humorous and peculiar worlds.
The Drifting Stages is Yefeng’s latest animation, and is part of an ongoing series of the same name.
📷 The Drifting Stages, animation installation, Between Art Lab, Shanghai, 2016
The Drifting Stages opens with descriptive text and a pulsing red and blue background. The title screen, although only shown for a brief moment, prepares you for something shocking. After the introduction rolls, a scene unfolds inside a disjointed and abnormal room.
In his animation Yefeng has created a bizarre interior, a mixture between a butcher shop and bathroom. The contents of the room make it difficult to look away. Womanly figures with gold plated baby skulls hypnotically beat back and forth; in their hands are meat grinders that spew a red-pink viscous. Pigs hang from hooks, while a simple cartoon-man rests in a tub. Disconnected walls and a floor are patterned with idealistic clouds. The flickering red and blue continues in the background of the animation, accompanied with rotating bones. While these strange aspects occur, one notices the room is decorated with modern furniture – a sink, tub, mirrors, wallpaper, potted plants, and shelves.
The composition of the room and the objects in their repetitive motions are reminiscent of an automata or mechanical theater. A scene unfolds over and over. In our conversations Yefeng has explained that the piece stems from his own movement, from different places within the United States. Along the way, the artist has accumulated a mass of objects (both real and digital). Considering this, the virtual space of The Drifting Stages, is a room or storage for experiences and memories. As a viewer, we enter the room and interpret what the objects might mean to the artist and to our self.
The animation speaks to what we collect and accumulate in our lives. When we obtain a new object or move to a new location, we are doing more than simply filling an empty space. The objects we obtain have their own aura that we consume, and in tandem we imbue objects and space with our own spirit, memories, and curiosities.
📷 The Drifting Stages, animation installation, Between Art Lab, Shanghai, 2016
For Yefeng however, continually moving to new spaces becomes a trap – a deluge of stuff, things, and matter. In this way, Yefeng compares the piece to clockwork. We continually pine for and amass new objects or collections. Time and time again, we hardly acknowledge that we have created our own materialistic prisons. The spaces we decorate or adorn will never be perfect representations of what we imagined. Instead, we will drift through new stuff in a cyclical manner.
In The Drifting Stages, the culture of collecting, specifically furniture, can be linked to Ikea. As a company aims to make people happy through mass production and efficiency. However, as a culture, they compartmentalize and conform space (and thus personalities, identities, and individuality). For someone new to the United States, and frequently moving, this culture of speedily obtaining new things can be woefully apparent and disconcerting. The Drifting Stagesresponds to this by mashing together the surreal with the common or commercial.
In Yefeng’s constructed room the mashing together of objects and memories creates an intentional style clash. Bones and clouds for instance are opposites – one symbolizing density and the other levity. At the same time, beyond the strange pairing of content, there are familiar objects such as a potted plant or mirror. The viewer may even own a similar model to what is in the piece. In this animation, the artist disrupts the concept of Ikea, but in turn the cultural influence of Ikea has infiltrated the animation.
The culture of collecting has also taken over digital space. This can be viewed through the preciousness of an iPhone’s storage capacity or the desire to gain more likes on an Instagram account. In the real world we are constantly moving, renting, and replacing. Now, in the digital realm, we are upgrading, archiving, and deleting. We are in a time where questioning the value of things and what we surround ourselves with is grossly overlooked.
📷 The Drifting Stages, animation screenshot, 2016
The Drifting Stages also comments on the aesthetics of the 21st century. The pulsing blue and red background of the animation speaks to this. The color compositions that digital artists choose often reflect the contemporary world they come from – one where the real and virtual is mixed. These are not colors of the natural world, but rather from the screens that we spend a majority of our lives looking at or living within. These digitally produced colors can be chosen in an instant, they do not need to be mixed like paint.
These colors can be found in the green screen of Hollywood films, in the pixels of a video game, or in other media. Yefeng’s choice of a flashing blue and red strobe reflects this. As our interview details, the choice in color is inspired by an episode of the Pokémon anime titled Dennō Senshi Porygon / Electric Soldier Porygon. Ironically, the Pokémon series, which is about collecting monsters, features a creature named Porygon a computer generated creature whose name is a pun of the word ‘polygon’.
The bright colors of The Drifting Stages, though startling, are synonymous with a new generation of artists, seeing colors that were only a few years ago unimaginable. Ultimately, in choosing to take inspiration from a 90’s episode of Pokémon, The Drifting Stages not only collects furniture, but also acquires digital media and personal memories.
📷 Porygon, as it appears in the Pokémon video game series
The bright colors in The Drifting Stages, though startling, are synonymous with a new generation of artists, seeing colors that were only a few years ago unimaginable. Ultimately, in choosing to take inspiration from a 90’s episode of Pokémon, The Drifting Stages not only collects furniture, but also acquires digital media and personal memories.
The Drifting Stages is a place of irony. It is perfectly crafted with luster and shine. However, what it symbolizes is unattainable in real life. It is a metaphor for a culture trapped in a cycle of collecting and discarding in hopes of crafting the perfect identity or place. The room Yefeng has constructed is a daydream, converging disparate forms and experiences together, both of the past and present, the real and virtual.
Yefeng has described The Drifting Stages as a prison or a castle, but at the same time it is a home. Our home (whether a house or computer desktop) could very well be a sanctuary, but if we fill it with clutter it can become a tomb. The blue and red shockwaves of this animation should be considered as a wakeup call to the influence of Ikea culture and digital media over our personal space. Instead, we have become more concerned with the color of the walls as an interior, rather than the message they forewarn.
YOU CAN (NOT) ESCAPE POTTED PLANTS A conversation with Yefeng.
Chris Romero (CR): What made you interested in creating rooms or interiors for this series?
Wang Yefeng (WY): A big part of this piece definitely has some relationship to my experience in the US, I was not born in the US. When I first came to the US 9 years ago, I was considered an outsider of course. Then I began studying and working there. During the 9 years, I moved about once a year. It makes one think about their condition as a Chinese person living in the West.
There is a feeling of an ongoing instability and an increasingly obscure notion of home, which relates to the title, The Drifting Stages. This is a project with a lot of collected memories. I look back and think about the spaces I’ve been living in, in the US, and think about what I’ve encountered and shared with these places. As you know, I also collect real things a lot. I have a collection of Asian antiques, mostly Chinese and Japanese. My artworks and equipment for making artworks became my collection as well. These are things I collect on purpose, if you will. Then I realized, there is another very big part of my collections, which is much bigger than the collections that I accumulate on purpose. Every time you move somewhere new, you’re going to have to buy stuff. For example, you have to buy furniture, from Ikea, or kitchenware from Bed Bath and Beyond. These things keep growing and actually become a much bigger collection, unintentionally.
📷 The Drifting Stages, animation installation, Between Art Lab, Shanghai, 2016
CR: You also have digital stuff too.
WY: Yeah, exactly, like the stuff I’ve made or downloaded on my computer in the past. I didn’t use all of them in previous projects, I didn’t use a lot of them in fact. They became forgotten artifacts on my computer and hard drive, but they are also my virtual collection. I feel like I have tons of resources I can use for The Drifting Stages project. The structure and system is already there, I just need to put it together visually. My process is basically that I start piling up objects, my collections, and my memories, into a virtual space, and seeing how it goes.
Speaking of our relation to space, I often imagine that every time we move into a new space, we will have expectations like, “ok, this is my next apartment – I’m going to make it the best place ever. This will be my perfect kingdom.” You then go to Ikea to buy furniture and you say, “I will buy the perfect furniture for my perfect kingdom.” But what I think now is that an empty space is just a prison. So when you go to Ikea in order to buy things to “decorate” your prison, you are actually buying a selection of compromises, because that’s what they sell. You will never find a “perfect” piece there. You might find usability or efficiency, but never “perfection.” In fact, even after you finish decorating your “perfect kingdom”, it just becomes a nicer looking prison.
CR: There is kind of an ikea culture of convenience and efficiency. When we were skyping the other day you actually noticed that I had Ikea furniture in the background. For The Drifting Stages, how did this all click together?
WY: I just couldn’t imagine how much stuff I’ve bought or collected unintentionally (or passively) in the past 9 years when I was in the US. I bought them not because I wanted to, but I had to. On one hand you have to get them because they are convenient and efficient. But at the same time, I was really fearful of them. It is frightening when I imagine how much more of this stuff I will possibly buy in the next 10 years, especially if I continue to move to different places. So that’s why in the virtual space of The Drifting Stages, you can see a lot of these “unintentional collections”. Basically the process is to pile them up in Maya and build up my virtual kingdom, and in the end it’s always pretty absurd and broken.
That’s the funny part of it: in the end, the virtual space I build becomes something I trap myself within, and my intention of escaping it always fails.
📷 Dreamspace, 2016. 3D rendering, VR, Unity3D, video game engine
CR: That is comparable to your other piece Dreamspace as well. Somewhat related, I talk in my sleep a lot, and when I do, I keep my eyes open.
WY: That has happened to me too.
CR: Yeah it’s weird, I’m kind of in between two spaces of awake and asleep. With The Drifting Stages or Dreamspace there is a parallel to the virtual and real, as well as personal memories.
WY: The difference between this and a dream though is that when I was making them, sometimes I purposely (very objectively) tried to reflect the space in my memory that I lived in. But whenever I try to do so, it becomes really crazy and always very absurd.
CR: Do you see that in green screens or other artificial worlds, as a kind of a façade, such as the flatness of instagram? How do you interpret that? What does it say about us, and you as an artist responding to that culture?
WY: Our world is definitely becoming more and more flat again. No matter how realistic the 3D rendering is, a digital video is always flat as soon as you project it on a wall or watch it on screen. You are not able to physically touch it. I am interested in the idea of video installation and keen to show my 3D animations as video installations in different spaces because in a way I feel it shows an artist’s fear of or desire to riot against the “flat world”. In general, everything we see is becoming so flat and I think video installation is trying to challenge that flatness.
Nowadays, we can know the whole world just by looking at a smartphone screen. You get all your information on that flat piece, and at the same time, the manufacturers never stop trying to make these flat pieces even flatter and flatter, thinner and thinner. Now these flat pieces have super high densities as well, not only in terms of the resolution on the screen, but also the amount of information we stuff in them, and we never stop stuffing these flat pieces. I believe these thin, flat pieces with super high densities are prisons too, and there is no end to their imprisonment – you cannot escape from them either.
You mentioned green screen, and obviously a saturated green is a pretty iconic color of 21 century. But I do want to tell you a story of my color selection for the background in one of The Drifting Stagesyou see. In The Drifting Stages demo, you see the background flickering between saturated red and blue. This flickering happens in 30 frames each second; 15 frames of red and 15 of blue, within one second. This references a pretty famous Japanese animation called Pokémon.
CR: Oh! Yes, I know.
WY: There was a pretty absurd incident that happened in Japan in 1997. TV Tokyo was playing a Pokémon episode, and they used a very common technology at the time which made a flickering of two highly saturated colors with 30 frames per second to create a very intense visual effect of explosion.
In one of the episodes that effect made more than 600 Japanese kids pass out and they had to go to the hospital because of the digital light switching on and off. It caused physical illness such as headache, blindness, vomiting, convulsion, etc. On the top of that, the character in that episode is called “Porygon, or 3D dragon”, this interesting story and the ironic name of the character made me decided to use that technique as a background for one of my pieces.
I also found that many people are very sensitive to the color choice of my works, and I am often asked questions about it. My question is, are we sensitive to it because of my color choice, or are we sensitive to it because we are programed to certain ways of watching in the 21st century?
CR: Are there any kinds of symbols or iconographies that stood out when creating this piece?
WY: I don’t think there’s a specific symbol, culture, religion or anything, that I am aiming for. I consider it as a mixture among a lot of different things, just like me.
I don’t think it’s always necessary to reveal the background of the characters I create in my virtual scenes, but I will give you one example. In The Drifting Stages, there is a toy-like, cylindrical character with very simple, cartoonist face. That face has some reference to a default social media profile icon or emoticon. It is a pretty common default portrait on internet platforms such as Netflix; you keep seeing it until you replace it with your own photo. It just looks like two dots and a line represents eyes and a mouth.
📷 Human evolution diagram by Yefeng.
CR: Or in finder too.
WY: Yes. We are all familiar with the chart that shows human evolution, from an ape to a modern person sitting in front of a computer, as an ironic representation of how the computer takes over the world. In my opinion, that chart of evolution is missing one stage, I would add a square face with two dots and a line as the default internet portrait, as the current and last stage of the evolution. That’s basically where this toy-like character came from. But see, my character becomes much more boring after I explain the story to you, so that’s why we should keep some secrets.
The following are a series of questions related to a future project Chris Romero is conducting in Tokyo. More information on that can be found on his website this September. He decided to test out some questions with Wang Yefeng.
1) Send a picture of your computer desktop.
2) Send between 1-3 video links (this doesn’t have to be to your artwork).
3) Send me your favorite emoji.
I think I send this one quite often to my girlfriend…
4) Send a .jpg of something on your computer.
5) Respond to this image in anyway you’d like:
A1: They are Chris, Ryan and I (I’m the squirting one); A2: If they are not Chris, Ryan and I, there are people inside; A3: If there are not people inside, they are looking at a person who is not captured by the camera view. A4: Their outfit is exactly the same one with Flea’s (RHCP bassist) skeleton jumpsuit.
Yefeng 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. His recent works address issues related to an ecstasy of digital visual culture, a generic predicament of living in an over-speeding society, and his personal predicament of living and working in the Western world as a Chinese. Yefeng has extensive experience exhibiting in venues internationally, which include Co-prosperity Sphere Culture Center (Chicago, IL), El Museo Cultural de Santa Fe (NM), Herald Square (NY, NY), Xuzhou Museum of Art (Xuzhou, China), HEREarts Center (NY, NY), The Museum of Luxun Academy of Art (Shenyang, China), Gene Siskel Film Center (Chicago, IL), Hyde Park Art Center (Hyde Park, IL), Hong Kong Art projects Gallery (Hong Kong), Between Art Lab (Shanghai, China), etc. He was also a residency artist and juried panel member in NARS Foundation in Brooklyn, NY.
Chris Romero is a curator interested in media art, photography, animation, the internet, and digital culture. In September 2015, he organized the first Internet Yami-Ichi in New York with Japanese Internet art collective IDPW. His exhibitions have been featured throughout New York and highlighted in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, and Hyperallergic. His academic and professional experiences express a passion for the curation, research, and preservation of media art.
For more information about Chris, please see his website here.
Arthub would like to thank Wang Yefeng and Chris Romero for the time and effort they have put into this virtual (inevitably flat, albeit insightful) screening, initiated in an effort to comprehend “The Drifting Stages”, related new media works and the consumerist prisons we are intentionally and/or unconsciously confining ourselves within. For more information about Arthub’s Screening Program contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org