February 26th, 2018
John Yuyi in conversation with Blair Cannon
A few months ago, Taiwanese multimedia artist John Yuyi captioned one of her comical yet sultry Instagram selfies, “Really wanna to have a show~~~~~~in NYC.” The New York-based collective of young artists-cum-curators, The Art Vacancy, swimming among Yuyi’s 113K followers, took note. Scroll back up to February 21, 2018. It’s Yuyi’s 27th birthday and the opening night of her first solo show, ‘The Next Gen: John Yuyi,” presented by The Art Vacancy (TAV) at Site 57 Gallery in Chinatown. She’s showing large glossy prints from the series Skin on Skin, Julia’s Twitter, Ukiyo-e, and others plucked from her digital vault of Insta-famous collages riffing on Asian cyber girl culture. Between 2016 and 2017, Yuyi, almost magnetically, garnered online and real-life attention as she helped forge the visual identity of buzzy alt-popstar Rina Sawayama, provoked aesthetic comparison to beloved photographer Ren Hang, and was recruited for Gucci’s notorious meme campaign (which either marked the cultural apocalypse or signified the beginning of a new direction, depending on what corner of the Internet you reside in). It’s still a new phenomenon, the strange process of natural (or perhaps, algorithmic) selection that transposes Internet-famous artists from the personalized world of their social media accounts directly onto a full blown international art career, complete with advertorial collaborators (from Chanel and Gucci to magazines of all calibers) practically banging down the door. Unsustainable as it may seem, the worlds of art and fashion simply cannot get enough of Yuyi's work, and the demand remains sky high—from companies as well as from fans—for her irreverent, millennial-speak depictions of the female body and her aptitude for collecting, wielding, and reflecting on social media influence.
Blair Cannon: First off, I’ve been a fan of yours for a few years now.
John Yuyi: Really? Oh my god, you must be in the range of like 18 to 24 years old, the age range on Instagram.
Is that your main fan base?
For readers who aren’t familiar with your work, can you speak about your experiences on social media and how you got into it? How do you connect that to your art?
In the beginning, I got into making this kind of work because when I graduated from fashion design school—fashion is my background—I had used Instagram before, like when average people started to use it. I made some illustrations with temporary tattoos and was selling them online, which was not very successful, but I had a technique and the materials to make the tattoos. I was thinking that it would be interesting to put my Facebook posts on my face and then post it, and then I put the image on Instagram—then it was Snapchat, Twitter, Tinder, all these social media apps. I try to find models that use an app a lot. Like if this model uses Twitter, then I will use her as a model for a Twitter project and all of the elements on her are from her Twitter posts.
It seems like it was obvious to you to blend thinking about bodies in fashion and bodies on social media. Am I assuming correctly or was it more complicated than that?
Actually, it's not too complicated. Every time I have an idea it's just like a pop-up in my mind. And I think it had to relate to fashion because I was so unsure about art and calling myself an artist because I did fashion design and was styling for Vogue Taiwan, so all of my past experiences were in fashion. It was just natural to link together.
Do you think your relationship with tech and social media is different from most other people because you work with these concepts so actively, or do you think your work reflects how the whole generation sees social media?
I have thought of this question before. Like, why would I do this? I think it’s just my daily observation; the way I do my art is like I'm writing a diary. So this is the present life we are living in, the present world. You can see this in artists from the Twenties or Eighties—their art reflects the time they are living in. What we are doing—a lot of artists, young artists—is just reflecting the world we're living in right now.
You have also done a lot of self-portraiture. I'm thinking about how self-portraits can perform a certain identity or persona, as well as artists like Cindy Sherman or Catherine Opie, who fashioned their own portraits or portraits of others with a fictional twist. Do you feel that when you are taking your own portrait, or a portrait of someone else, that you are creating a different character, or are you instead trying to get to the essence of who that person is?
I already knew that I’m bad at expressing myself in words, so I never try to give my work a lot of definition or explanation. When I shoot a model or when I shoot myself, I try to bring a kind of a realness. It’s not easy to express with words, but I hope when people see the images they can have their own explanation, a feeling about that. And the self-portraits are about the different pressures I feel from social media. I think it's just more about my own feeling, my mood right now. Because I'm a Pisces, I’m really emotional. That's what I'm trying to show.
Let’s discuss the temporary tattoos—you have also worked with ice cubes. These are objects that are clearly transient. How do you select your objects? Do they relate directly or metaphorically to the Internet and social media, which are also fleeting and temporary yet permanent in terms of their documentation?
I think with temporary tattoos, it's a good medium for our own body, or our objects. Recently I've been thinking about this, I don't know if it's relevant, but everyone remembers that Andy Warhol said, "It's 15 minutes of your life."
I'm not sure what the...
...fame, I think.
Yeah, 15 minutes of fame. And I feel that's my life. Temporary tattoos and the temporary fantasy moment of my life. Because I never—maybe two or three years ago, I couldn't think of what I have right now. Every year I feel this is already enough, it's the peak of my life, and then I have more. I’ve just been so lucky, I have more and more opportunities. But I still think one day you will, you know, just be gone. I'm ready for that every day.
But the objects, like the ice cube. When I was in Taiwan last year—because I had very serious depression because of my ex-boyfriend—the rose, flower or other object was all about my mood at that moment because I was really sad. A lot of artists do art to escape from depression and anxiety. When I'm doing those ice cube and flower projects, I’m saying something sad. That's what I felt at that moment.
It's visceral and literal at the same time, then.
Reading your Instagram posts, you've said, "Oh, I found out all my ex-boyfriends have become my work," or something like that. I feel that's so true for a lot of artists.
I think it's really stupid, but my emotions get affected by boyfriends a lot. All of my ex-boyfriends become my work. There's the first one—I put the stamp, so you can see the ... not a stamp, I don't know how to say it. You have that picture? It's kind of like, he's mine. I am putting my name on your face. It's not a stamp, but it's a...
Like a branding almost...
An imprint, I guess.
Yeah. So this is what I feel when I’m doing that. I’m like “You are mine, so I’ll put a stamp on you.” [Laughs]
Another one is my ex-boyfriend, who broke my heart and made me so depressed that year. He has a lot of moles, which you can totally link like a connect-the-dots into a cat. My other ex-boyfriend, he had three moles which link together and it looks like a piercing. I observe these because a boyfriend is the closest person you have. You can see their face so closely, so you can know, “you have this little scar right here, you have this little acne scar, you have a little pore.” Every detail is so close. That's why all my ex-boyfriend art is so close and so detailed.
I’m obsessed with their skin. Everyone's skin is so different. That’s how I know in my heart that they are already a “past.” When I can't remember where their mole is, what their pores look like, where their skin is scratched. That's when I feel the relationship is really done.
On Instagram, you recently expressed that you’ve felt “over dependent on the male mentally and physically,” and that you became trapped in the mindset of “I need him so much!” You said you felt that if your boyfriend was with you that you could do anything, but without him you couldn’t do anything, let alone make art, especially because people gave him much of the credit for your work. But then you wrote that you discovered it was actually the opposite, and that you were more capable when you were finally alone. Can you elaborate on that feeling, and do you still worry about that now that you’ve achieved recognition and created your own identifiable aesthetic as an artist?
No, that was a feeling a couple of years ago, when I had just graduated. I was really frustrated. You know sometimes when you refuse something, but you also rely on it? I relied on my boyfriend a lot. Even when I did my stuff I wanted him to come with me. You know those kinds of couples, they just show up every time together. We were like that.
Even when I’m in New York for my own fashion internship, I wanted him to be here. Then when we broke up, I literally thought, “Okay my career is done. I can't do anything.” I was so shy when I was a kid. I felt really unconfident and insecure. That’s why I felt, after I broke up with him, “This thing is the total opposite!” I went to all the countries, all the cities doing all the jobs, all the collaborations by myself. I went to foreign countries to do meetings all by myself. I went to events, just everything. It’s just not what I thought; it's totally opposite. My career just went straight up after I broke up with him. I think that I learned from my early 20's. I was sad because people thought he did all the work, but also I doubted myself, “Is it because I rely on him too much? I'm not independent enough?” When I think back, I think maybe a lot of girls have had this kind of experience.
With the way that your personality changed over time, did your work change with you?
I quite like my work from 2016 because I just did it for fun. Actually few weeks ago, I felt really tired. In the beginning, I was doing art to escape from depression, but I wonder, why now, has it become the source of my depression?
Sometimes I feel really, really stressed doing collaborations with magazines when it's not just for fun. It makes things more heavy. I still want to keep it pure. I want to improve and upgrade it. I think it happens to everyone. It's not possible that your mind or your work, everything, stays in 2016 forever. I just go with the flow.
Do you feel obligated to keep making work in the same aesthetic because that's what the magazines and followers want, or do you feel as though you have the freedom to go in a different direction? If you wanted to stop making tattoos, what would happen to your work?
I think the magazine and the brands, they still want the old thing. I think that happens to a lot of people. I met this lady called The Accidental Icon. She was a professor and everyone knows her because she was a professor. But she is so stylish. When I shot her—I also think this is interesting—she had this phrase, “There is no there.” She said to me, “This is already the past.” She made me think of how people still want old things from you, the original things from you. But you already want to move on.
Because social media and the Internet are your biggest topics, do you see ways that that world is evolving and changing that inspire you? Or do you think that Instagram has stayed the same the past couple years? Do you see social media and relationships between people changing in any particular direction that you find interesting or noteworthy?
Last year when I did a BBC interview I said, "This is the best time for artists because you don't have to have a gallery, you don't have to have a real studio in real life, you just use Instagram as a platform."
But now I feel that Instagram is just a thing that can get you an audience. Originally, I thought, “Am I doing Instagram art or I am doing art that’s just released on Instagram?” Because I don't want to be shaped by Instagram, by social media.
Because you could tell, “Oh that’s Tumblr art,” back in Tumblr time. Now we absolutely have this trend with Instagram art. I’ve been thinking, what's the next? Because Facebook is already going down and Twitter also, and Tumblr—suddenly we don't use Tumblr anymore. Instagram is the most popular thing right now, but I just can't think about what’s next. If I could know what the next popular social media is, I would immediately address it.
Do you know the British drama Black Mirror? I feel like I'm living Black Mirror.
In what way?
In a really sad way. I’ve been to events, I was invited to Alexander Wang’s show, and then as the host of a party at the Museum of Sex, but every time I go, I feel emptiness. I was happy, I was thankful. But I also feel the emptiness. And when people see the posts, they might think, “Oh she is having a fancy life,” but actually, I think it's kind of like an alter ego. John Yuyi is my alter ego on social media, but me as myself, I'm just a girl living in Chinatown, being poor all the time. That's made me really feel related to Black Mirror.
So you’re thinking of the episode about social media?
It depicted an obsession with digital social status that led one women to go completely crazy. She couldn’t handle the pressure in a world where popularity was literally the currency—it determined what building you could live in, what seat you got on a plane, and basically everything about your quality of life.
As you know, after my followers go up people treat me differently. That happens to a lot of people. But what does that mean though? It's kind of like this thing we feel we can do nothing about, but we also can't deny that's what’s going on right now.
So it's sort of like a blessing and a curse for you at the same time?
Is there anyone that inspires you or that you align yourself with in this larger conversation about social media and our real lives? People you collaborate with, where you just feel that you’re either influenced by them or you're just on the same level?
All the people I've collaborated with are people I like. I only reach out to people when I have a feeling about them. Like Lyn Slater, The Accidental Icon. We talked a lot when we were shooting like when she told me, “there is no there." That is also why I feel like nothing is enough, but there is nothing to lose, but it's still never enough. What's going to be next? It's just like a, I don't know how to say...
...a never ending cycle.
Do you think that is specific to you, or is it generational or is it just human nature?
I don't know. Actually I feel life is meaningless, but we are here because—it's very weird—humans have so many emotions. Otherwise, we are just a creature in the world. But what makes life so interesting is because we love, we hate, and everything is because of love and hate and fear—all of this make things so interesting.
And worth making art about.
Blair Cannon studied under RoseLee Goldberg at NYU, where she majored in Contemporary Art and New Media, exploring the relationships between image-making, fashion, and the Internet. She is now a contributing writer at online publications including ArtForum and i-D, where she continues to discuss digital culture and its aesthetics.
John Yuyi is a Taipei-born visual artist with a background in fashion design. She rose to Instagram fame between 2015 and 2017, becoming well known for her temporary tattoos and brightly lit photography style. She has collaborated with Gucci and Chanel, among other brands and has been profiled by i-D, Office, NYLON, Dazed, Bullett, and the BBC.