A conversation with Amy Yao
Published in Issue 2 of Art Los Angeles Reader, January 2016
Amy Yao makes curiously unsettling objects. Her paintings and sculptures feature byte-sized phrases that read like resurfaced text messages, Craiglist ads, or Livejournal posts, floating beneath layers of high-gloss resin—as if locked behind a screen or trapped in millennial malaise. Teenage confessions ripped from memes (“All I do is surfing the Internet”) seem to comment on our contemporary moment of social networking, digital buzzwords, and their attendant sense of alienation. But the more oblique of Yao’s works extend this alienation beyond the laptop, to the challenge of self-identification in a dizzyingly pluralistic society. They refuse straightforward interpretation with the plucky indeterminacy of human beings. They seem to mock our inability to make sense of it all—either the art before our eyes, or the world beyond our periphery. Yao has encouraged this ambiguity by speaking little about her work, so I was keen to ask her questions about her practice that had long been on my mind. We both grew up in Los Angeles, and Yao’s involvement—along with her sister Wendy, the founder of Ooga Booga—in the early-2000s Chinatown art and punk scenes seemed like the natural place to start.
Evan Moffitt: You grew up in Los Angeles, and were involved in the punk and art scenes in Chinatown. How did your experience of the city influence your practice?
Amy Yao: I was born and raised here, mostly in the San Fernando Valley, although I spent a year in Orange County. I went to Art Center in the ‘90s, first to the Saturday high school program and them got my BFA there. It was an interesting time to be in L.A. The teachers I had a chance to work with were Sharon Lockhart, Andrea Zittel, Diana Thater, Chris Williams, Mayo Thompson, Stephen Prina. I was also part of the music scene at the time, going to punk shows at Jabberjaw. My sister Wendy and I had a band with our friend Emily Ryan. There was a nice intersection between art and music then. I started China Art Objects with Steve Hanson, who was working at the Art Center Library and very knowledgeable about early LA punk. I was really young at the time, and eventually I stopped doing the gallery after being involved for a year . They went on to become a serious commercial gallery. When I was involved it was a project space, more loose. We had music events, a Mike Kelley poetry reading, a record release party for Steve Prina’s record, informal exhibitions, and parties. Working with people and projects that give agency to the unformed or minority voices, who deal with confusion or fantasy, continues to influence what I do.
There’s a lot of space in Los Angeles, which I think allows for a lot of fluidity. I think that’s informed my practice—fluidity between different forms of working, whether that means programming film screenings or making objects. When I was in school there was an openness to the way one could work, I was not confined by one medium. The medium could be determined by what you were trying to say, based on the place the idea comes from. That continues to be the way I do things now. With the project I did with the ladders, three years ago, I was thinking about Los Angeles art history, and Finish Fetish more specifically—thinking about persona and character in relationship to object making. A lot of Finish Fetish artists were surfers or hot rod custom culture enthusiasts. So I was thinking about that, and about my identity as an Angelino, having recently moved back to Los Angeles from New York. I surf, I live in Long Beach. How does one come to perceive an individual and how is that relating to a wider collective sense of identity.
EM: The ladders are such a commonplace item in galleries, since every preparator uses them. Even so, they feel very bodily. Some of the ladders have anthropomorphic elements, like bows and strings of pearls.
AY: I’m thinking about the body in relationship to architecture and how architecture dictates how a body moves and feels through space. These sculptures have a totemic quality so they can also resemble bodies. As a tool, ladders are related to construction. In Los Angeles there’s always so much construction here, so much tearing down and rebuilding of buildings. I’m interested in the idea of things becoming, or being in-between, rather than being clearly defined and static. In terms of an idea or way of relating to things in the world, I am interested in that indeterminacy.
EM: Like being a “Valley girl” and a Chinatown punk?
AY: (laughs) Yeah, I guess so. With identity especially, the world we live in demands clarity. I’m interested in being unclear. That could be a punk position—though a statement that has its own kind of clarity, I guess. But being in a state of transition has always been interesting to me. It feels radical in some ways.
EM: You’ve also worked repeatedly with fans, a cliché, Orientalist fetish in the West. Are they meant as a critique of racist stereotypes?
AY: At the time I started making the fan pieces, I started working on this film—I’m still working on it, actually—it’s a series of short films shot in China, starting in Shanghai. During this time, I had a studio in Chinatown New York on Canal and Mott. From my window, you could see all the business transactions and tourism happening on that busy corner. Here, I thought about how people project a certain cultural identity onto me. I’m Chinese American, and there are souvenir shops throughout Chinatown that sell cheap tchotchkies that refer to an idea of China to tourists. The shopowners are Chinese. But if you went to the shopkeepers’ home they probably don’t have those trinkets. It seemed almost culturally subversive, selling your identity according to other people’s projections of you, making money off someone’s semi-benign racism. I jumped into that mess.
EM: Is the punk aesthetic in your work a projection too? I’m thinking here of your fonts. One of them feels particularly punk, in an almost spooky way—like the font of a pulp horror film poster or a Misfits album cover. But applied to words that might have come from Craigslist or AirBnB postings, floating in those semitranslucent skeins, that aesthetic doesn’t feel edgy so much as anachronistic. It feels intentionally out of place, more a ghost of punk than the real thing.
AY: Maybe spooky like the Cramps bubbling up. Something disembodied, put in a different context, has to be read in a different way. Context changes meaning. Think about “Occupy”—an easy example—which can mean so many different things in different situations. When I started using that in my work it was a buzzword in daily life and Internet culture, because of the Occupy movement. “Sublet” and “Live/Work” sound very different in a Craigslist ad, because you think about those words in terms of their utility. I was interested in that displacement of meaning that comes with a shift in context. Like, “Do you want to sublet my life?” (laughs). That free-floatedness of meaning also has a lot to do with how quickly we consume images online. The high speed of the Internet makes image culture and text culture meaningful and not meaningful at the same time.
EM: There’s a line that appears in a number of your works that seems to capture that fraught relationship to meaning in our networked culture: “All I do is surfing the internet. All day, I talk to the internet.” It sounds ironic, like someone who either doesn’t know how to use the Internet, or uses it so much they’ve forgotten how to speak.
AY: That statement was a quote from a Korean movie I found in a subtitled still that someone posted online, and I took it. I put the quote next to a list of artists who have spicy blogs and or have practices relating to internet use. I felt like the voice was supposed to belong to some sad, lonely girl. (laughs) A lot of the text I use, 80 to 90 percent, I didn’t come up with. Many words and phrases are so common that it may seem pointless to think about their origin.
It’s so far gone that it feels nearly impossible to be critical of network culture at this point. It’s probably changed the way our brains are configured. Before the Internet, subcultural people found each other through different visual codes. But now it’s so easy to find someone who relates to you, they can even live far away. Since everything is accessible, where can you disappear to? When I was young, my interests and tastes came out of boredom and a feeling of alienation. Now it seems to work in a different way.
EM: The more obvious forms of millennial alienation—being constantly glued to cellphone screens, our romantic lives reduced to Tinder swipes—seem to go hand-in-hand with a kind of Marxist alienation. Terms like “Live/work” and “sublet” are part of the vocabulary of alienated labor in the era of big tech.
AY: I definitely was thinking about the neoliberal situation we find ourselves in now, where AirBnB and Uber, for example, are supposed to improve working conditions via flexibilizing, but they really don’t change the balance of power. It’s a mirage.
EM: The utopian myth of the sharing economy.
AY: I’m critical of the way they meld together life and work through a false sense of freedom. I wonder how things are supposed get less precarious.
EM: Isn’t that what being an artist is about? Like the title of an essay by Nina Power, “The artworld is not the world.” I have to remind myself that sometimes. I don’t blame you for living in Long Beach! (laughs)
AY: It’s true… we also live in precarity with a false sense of freedom.
EM: Can you tell me a little bit about your upcoming show at Various Small Fires?
AY: I live in Long Beach and my studio’s in Commerce, between two train tracks on the Union Pacific and BNSF. I’m working on a show at Various Small Fires in Los Angeles, which speaks to this. My commute follows truck routes between the Port of Los Angeles and industrial warehouses in Commerce. I was thinking of the pollution and industrial waste along that route, and the neighborhoods that surround it, and the economic condition of individuals in those areas subjected to toxic materials. The further you get away from that the less of it you see, and the more you consume, perhaps, because you make more money and you shop more. A lot of products that we purchase enter through the port and travel along this route, and there’s something very bleak about that.
EM: The mime—the word, if not the figure—appears frequently in your work. The mime is an interesting tragicomic symbol to use, maybe the most alienating of performers. What does the word, or the character, represent to you?
AY: I was thinking about learning through images and copying them, or acting through empty gestures, like a mime might do—like opening a door that doesn’t exist. I was thinking about that somewhat critically: we see an image of someone buying something with their credit card, and it enters our subconscious and we want to do the same thing. So I was thinking about that effect of images, and what the actions they produce might mean. Mimetic gestures seem even emptier than imitation.