For Beijing-born, Brooklyn-based visual artist Zhiyuan Yang, her chosen career wasn’t one she always seemed destined for. Her major in undergraduate school was not in art and so, when she decided to pursue a creative subject, the photo department was the only one she could actually apply to. It was here, however, that she discovered a passion for the medium – one that gives so much potential to everyone, even those with little experience, away from the “ivory towers” of the art world.
Zhiyuan’s practice comprises of photography, moving image and performance which she uses to “challenge and construct alternatives to normative definitions of gender, ethnicity, and social character”. This conceptual sphere is largely impacted by her upbringing in Beijing. As one of the largest cities in China, it has developed rapidly in recent times, in part, because of the influx of western culture over the past decade. Such huge shifts in such a short time have caused social disruption – “people are struggling with both conventional thought and trendy ideas,” Zhiyuan explains, “I think my background of growing up in China but then studying in a western country gives me a special perspective to question these issues.”
Under the name, A Family of Three, Zhiyuan has created several series which present a new, but standard nuclear family structure in Mainland China. “Through these projects, I intend to explore the relationship between governmental legislation (single child policy) and family dynamics, as well as emerging feminist politics and patriarchal traditions,” she tells us. The implication of policies such as The First Marriage Law (1950) and The Family Planning Policy (1979) intended to curb China’s population, had unintended consequences that have produced a multitude of adverse social situations. The series’ scrutinise these issues through the lens of Zhiyuan’s family, her parents have “an unsuccessful marriage, a dynamic not unique to my family,” she says.
The subjects of Zhiyuan’s work are her own parents. She describes how, despite their unsuccessful marriage they have never tried to divorce – “as the only child, I become an emotional bridge between them. We are entangled with each other.” Through A Family of Three, she has been able to collaborate with her parents and build a communication through making the work. This process has had a real impact as “now, my mother has learnt what feminism is, and told me she wants to pursue her own happiness one day,” Zhiyuan explains.
Much of Zhiyuan’s work incorporates masquerade, role play and humour, something that developed as a result of giving her parents full creative reign: “For our very first project, I gave them full directional control and just asked them to mimic each other.” They invented an element of pretence, picking a dramatic way to exaggerate their mundane lives which has continued to define Zhiyuan’s practice.
Her photographs express an “awkward intimacy” through their staged poses, costuming and mundane domestic interiors, something which is also apparent in her moving image work. Could you please hug me? is a performance situated within the “private environment of the home.” The video has an incredibly slow pace, revealing the familial tensions of forced intimacy – “the drama of family, the intense emotion, sensitivity and the resilience that exists,” are all rendered visible.
About the Author
Ruby joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in September 2017 after graduating from the Graphic Communication Design course at Central Saint Martins. In April 2018, she became a staff writer and in August 2019, she was made associate editor. Get in contact with Ruby about ideas you may have for long-form stories on the site.