In The Guest Room with Yanyan Huang


Born in 1988 in Sichuan, China, Yanyan Huang is based between Beijing, New York, and California. Influenced by multiple cultures and histories, her practice incorporates painting and performance. 

Recent solo shows include Bank, Shanghai, CN, Jelato Love, Palma de Mallorca, Spain, Cloud Tempo at Salt Projects, Beijing, CN, Nebbia del Tempoat Ibid, Los Angeles, London, Giardino del Tempoat Tomorrow Gallery, New York, NY and Ex Silentio at CURA’s Basement Roma, Rome, Italy, both in 2016. Notable group shows include Hidden Words at Gallery Vacancy, Shanghai, CN, After Effect “Vapegoat Rising,” Arturo Bandini at Ballroom Marfa, 2016, and Windoes at The Composing Rooms, Berlin, DE, 2015.

Huang’s artworks are in the East West Bank and in the private collections of Zhang Enli, Dominic Ng, Susan and Michael Hort, Kylie Ying, and Michael Xufu Huang and many others. She has been nominated for Forbes 30 under 30.

In an online studio visit, Guest Work Agency Director Alana Kushnir asked the artist about painting, performance and everything in between.  

I read an article in which you were quoted as saying “I consider myself to be a history painter”. I love this romantic concept of painting - of the role of painting in bringing to life historical subject matter. Could you tell us a little more about how you see your practice acting out this concept?

I suppose what I meant by “history painting” goes more along the lines of painting having the power to memorialize great historical events or large spans of time. History painting as an art historical genre is limited to mythological or political/propagandistic events that serve to glorify the power and wealth of people and nations. But I think of history also in an environmental and geological manner - the history of the planets, of the Earth, of civilizations rising up and declining and disappearing into sand. Painting acts as a timebank in the same way as would a hard drive or diary. Each painting takes an unknown span of my life-time to begin and complete, and as I paint I am on a hyperconscious journey as I recall memories, emotional resonances, and meditate on life and civilization itself. Some sections of painting have more layers of time, some less. It depends on how much emotion or technique I feel like including, and how I negotiate between what I want the painting to look like vs how the painting wants to exist. In the layers and pathways one can draw parallels to forensic cross-sections of an ancient tree trunk or geological layers in a desert canyon. One can think about human or animal migrations: what causes them, where they lead; political, religious, and artistic movements all coming in ebbs and flows like the ocean’s tides. And in flowpaths of straits, flight paths of migratory birds and Monarch butterflies. I would hope viewers are led down similar emotional and imaginative paths when viewing my work. 


On that note, I wanted to ask you about the fusion of tradition and contemporaneity in your work. Each brushstroke is methodically applied, over and over again. Does this approach come from a place of freedom or of restriction? 

Each brushstroke is different from all the others on the canvas and from all brushstrokes on other paintings. I work with very few colors and rigorously restrictive parameters. It is a challenge for me to create something that seems as though it could have been made at any time or place in history, like cave paintings and petroglyphs. I think about ancient dead languages, like the Minoans’ Linear A and B, like the Sumerian stones, and how complexity was used to communicate very simple ideas, like “So and so owes me 2 sheep” or “Today, the sun was hotter than yesterday.”  I think it’s charming and very human to want to have written logs of events and feelings. I also think about Chinese calligraphy and Arabic script and how beautiful those strokes are: singularly, in architectural and decorative patterns, or compiled in books. So I think there is great freedom within restriction because without restriction or limits, there would only be incommunicable nonsense. (Or beautiful cave paintings of animals!)


You are often photographed with your work wearing your work. That is, your designs appear on fabric which you wear too. Are these items one-off, part of a performance of some sort?  To that end, what do you think of art/fashion collaborations - is this pure zeitgeist or  something more?

I have been wearing silk dresses printed with my work since 2013, ever since I started printing them in Tuscany. They act as protective garments - they are a way for me to distill and mark the passing of my life-time and the arc of my artistic progression. It is performative as I see it as an extension of my painting, and I love to be enveloped and camouflaged within my own work. The performance will last the span of my life (and I hope beyond). I don’t see it as existing within the fashion or art zeitgeist, because it is a crucial part of my personal practice and I don’t advertise or sell them. Sonia Delaunay is an artist I look up to in this regard. 


You studied your MFA in California, but you now live in New York. Why New York? And if you could live anywhere, where would that be?

I did my undergrad in Los Angeles. Now I live in New York because of friends and the artistic culture there. Also - people tell me it’s an important city for art. I personally find the city unliveable and too fast and loud for my liking. If I could live anywhere it would probably be on an island around the Mediterranean sea, in a villa with a pool and chef/housekeeper. There are so many rich mythologies around that area of the world to keep my imagination inspired. 


I was surprised to see that you recently made your Instagram account private, as I have been a keen follower of your performance-posts for a while now. What has the role of social networks been in the development of your practice? Why shy away now? 

I didn’t like that I was on the platform constantly and it took up a lot of time and careful curation. It started to feel like an unhealthy addiction as well as a life-promotion service, which I didn’t foresee happening. As for my performances I am planning on developing them into short films that can be shown within art spaces, because I think for them to share space on a platform built for advertising shoes and lifestyles to people, many themes and strategies get lost or misconstrued. I also am reverting more to privacy now, as I don’t believe everyone on the internet needs to see what I do or where I go, etc. There is no contract that says I need to broadcast anything on social media, actually. 


Can you tell us about some of the galleries that you work with, and the role they have played in your practice thus far? 

Right now I work with Bank in Shanghai, and it has been amazing as Mathieu is New York-born and raised but moved to China 20 years ago and is fluent in Mandarin. I feel like he is able to understand my hybridity more than someone with only a Western art history background, who would lack any point of reference within Chinese culture and art history. As I myself don’t know exactly where or how my Chinese background and American/European background intersect or fuse, I feel like Bank, being both Chinese and international, is able to support my practice in creative ways that either a Chinese gallery or a European/American gallery would be unable to. It’s important to me to not work with galleries who are in the business of cultural colonization - of bringing “high culture” to a local audience without respect for the conversations happening in the local environment. Bank is able to engage both international and local audiences in a nuanced and respectful way that I really appreciate. 

Ché Zara Blomfield curated me in my first show in 2015 in Berlin at her project space The Composing Rooms. She has always had an eye for young, interesting international artists who don’t easily fit into any one style, school, or narrative. Since she moved to Palma de Mallorca, she’s opened Jelato Love with Javier Esteban (where I had a solo last October), which brings together past artists she’s worked with, along with new talent, into the local Palma scene. It’s very young and fresh and works well in integrating itself within the community.