Conversations with Artists in Art Getting Art: Yifan Jiang '20
BY Audrey Deng, March 27, 2020
Conversations with Artists in Art Getting Art is a bi-weekly series and a play on Jerry Seinfeld's Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. We interview artists about their art and 'getting art'.
This week we sat down with Yifan Jiang '20 to talk about science fiction, the phenomenon of sharing time, and social experiments in art.
An apple goes to space. A big baby tries to find his way home. Humanity loses language. These are just a few of the stories woven into the works of visual artist Yifan Jiang, who approaches her art less as a series of instantaneous reactions, and more as a way to tell long, sometimes absurdly funny stories. Though her paintings are lush to behold and velvety in their colors, the trick to observing Jiang’s work is to set aside these visually pleasing qualities and focus on what exactly is happening under all that beauty, and in one case, some monkeys are fishing for the moon (based on a Chinese tale).
Tell me about your time here at Columbia so far
Yifan Jiang: I got here in 2018, and I entered through painting. But now I’m a multidisciplinary artist and I use mediums like animation, performance, and sculpture. I still paint though. Scores. Anything goes, really! I usually start out with an idea, a story, and then after that I just use whatever medium is necessary, or effective in communicating that story.
Can you give me an example of a story or an idea you wanted to communicate?
YJ: For example, I was interested in the idea of human scientific progress, and how we have taken a specific road, and the almost arbitrary events which have led us to this point. So I sent an apple to space using geological weather balloons. I attached an altitude-sensitive mechanism to drop it down when it reached as high as it could go, and I attached a camera to record it. It’s like the physical counterpoint to the narrative I wrote about the apple falling back to earth, and on its way it would meet things like migrant birds, commercial airplanes, the tip of Mount Everest, atomic bombs, Newton’s head, and the Tree of Knowledge and Adam and Eve—and then I had a physical event to tell a fictional story.
How did you send an apple to space?
YJ: I talked to the geography department and asked them a bunch of questions. Basically I got a weather balloon, a high-altitude weather balloon, which goes up very high. Not exactly space, but the edge of space.
How did you choose an apple? When did you write this story?
YJ: Friday night. I mean last year, but that’s an example of how I do projects: I start out with this idea that bothers me, and say, how do I make it communicable? How do I tell this most efficiently? It starts with an idea, and this applies to animations as well.
I came in as a painter, but I got into animation because I needed narrative to be included somehow, and with images, just by themselves, it was difficult to convey narrative.
Was it partly because your stories had changed, too? Like before, you were telling stories better suited for paintings, but now your stories are better suited for moving images?
YJ: I was painting sidewalks. Really mundane things. Everyday things. I think, for the longest time, there was something about normal things that didn’t look very convincing to me. Why is the sidewalk this shape, right? Things just looked weird for a moment. When I came here, I took mostly classes from other departments, and it kind of gave words to what I was feeling. The sense that I wasn’t very convinced by what was around me. It turns out, there are all these knowledge systems that you tell yourself about how the world works, and they don’t really come together.
So when I got here, I took all these classes, and it turns out what I was really bothered by was the fact that there’s not really one way to understand things. And people are always shifting between perspectives. Even now, when I write stories, it’s often more abstract ideas around philosophy, physics, things I don’t really understand, on top of really normal things, like the things I used to paint: street cars, busses, sidewalks.
Now I’m really curious what kind of classes you were taking.
YJ: Everything that I possibly could! I hung out in the philosophy department a lot. I got into philosophy of science and the history of science, and then pragmatism, which was very difficult. A lot of astronomy. Stuff like that. Anything I was curious about that I could do here. I was really happy.
When did you start making animations?
YJ: Last semester. After I started taking all these classes, I wrote a story, and then just for fun, I sort of did performance art and conceptual art and stuff like that as a side hustle. I made it into a slideshow, and I showed it to my peers, and they seemed to think that this was more in line with how they knew me as a person instead of just paintings. That was a big moment of realization for me, because up to that point I had always kept my curiosities separate from my art. This was a moment where I realized I could combine them and be a whole person. And it’s fine. After that, I learned how to animate. It took a month, and I just crammed it out.
What was this first slideshow?
YJ: It was a short story I wrote, and then I just sort of drew line drawings. I have the animation—I made it into another slideshow that used just painting instead of just line drawings.
'Caterpillar,' 2019, animation. 50 second excerpt from 8-minute narrated animation.
Is that Julian Day’s voice?
YJ: (Laughs.) Yes, Julian, it’s hard to miss, you know?
How did you create this?
YJ: It’s a lot of drawing, scanning, and then Photoshop, and then aftereffects, and then Premier. I painted all the paintings, then scanned them...
That’s incredible. I noticed there’s music in this as well.
YJ: I don’t do sound art, but I just cut bits of things and layered it using Audacity. That was last year.
So you’ve been working in animation ever since.
YJ: I work in animation, I work in performance. For a while, the idea of time bothered me. Physicists don’t have a good way of explaining it—I mean they do. Every discipline has a way of explaining it, but the answer always comes out to be something that’s more about the culture of their discipline rather than something that sounds convincing. For example, psychologists would say that time is something manifested by your brain, and physicists would say that time is the distance for light to travel from point A to point B, and then well, you have to prove space first.
To me, as a visual artist, I think about experience a lot, like tactile experience. Like holding a cup. I know how to do it, I know how it feels. So to have all these things come together, to have all these people think about this thing that we all live and die by, I created a sort of performance art piece. I had four people go into a room without a watch, and they just talked to each other. They were supposed to exit the room when they thought, collectively, that ten minutes had passed. There was a livestream of that clip juxtaposed with an atomic clock of the world that is most scientifically accurate.
Did they leave at the right time?
YJ: They were fighting a little bit, and I did this several times, and each time it was a little different. It turns out with humans there are power dynamics. So it was like, one person is obviously more right because they do underwater diving, but another person is just way louder, so everyone ended up following them. This group was only like ten seconds off. So the crowd was watching the atomic clock and counting down. I just start with something, an idea, and go from there. Some things turn into animation, others turn into this—like performance art.
I’m curious whether you have any memory of yourself getting at this stuff as a kid.
YJ: Yes. I was really bothered by language. You can probably relate to this, as a writer. It just doesn’t make sense to me how I can say this word and another person can know that I’m talking about this thing.
Are you talking about the color blue in English is not the same color blue as in, say, Russian? Like what the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis states—that language shapes experience and perception? Or more so the verbalization of language and how it actually sounds?
YJ: Yes, like how you can turn sensory data into a word, and you can share it. How language works is crazy to me. You can say something to a person and they will get an idea without really experiencing the same thing. And like you said, colors too. I could say “blue” and another person could have another idea of blue. Even in a different language, they could have a different idea of blue. How do I know my blue is the same as your blue? How do we agree we’re all seeing the same thing? When I was a child that really bothered me, when I was learning languages.
I think I can understand. Learning a language, and then a second language on top of that—it can multiply a person.
YJ: Which made it more complicated than just the word blue between people who share a language. Because English is not my first language, and I moved so much as a child, language bothered me a lot because how could I know we were talking about the same thing when we have different words?
Whereabouts did you grow up?
YJ: I was born in China, and I grew up there until I was twelve, and then I moved to Canada. Vancouver. I lived in Canada for a long while, then went to Europe for a year during undergrad, and then went back to Canada, and now I’m here. English is not my first language.
What’s your memory of learning English like?
YJ: When I went to Canada, all the schools were on strike because teachers were unionized, so for six months I had nothing to do. I just watched Spongebob for six months and learned English. It’s really strange! Until this day, my English is only like Spongebob plus academia, and there’s nothing in between. So I can read Hegel, but I don’t know a lot of common words.
What kind of artists and writers do you admire?
YJ: I like some dry-as-fuck philosophy. Let’s see. I read a lot of Borges, all of Borges, but I think that’s typical. A lot of science fiction. Ursula LeGuin. I think this is my difficulty. It’s hard to find people who are doing a weird mixed bag of things. I really like Shimabuku. There are these Texan monkeys called “snow monkeys,” but they’ve never seen snow before. What Shimabuku did was really simple: he just got snow for them. Another thing he did was that he brought an octopus in a tank from the ocean to the Tokyo Tower to see the city, and then brought it back to the ocean. You just feel so nice. And he was at the Korean-Japanese border, standing on a rooftop, holding a fish that locals in both Korea and Japan eat, and this fish is really reflective, so Shimabuku just flashed the fish. It makes my heart really happy.
What do you like about Shimabuku?
YJ: I just think of it as free real estate, you know? It’s like an area in a culture where you are allowed to do anything you want, and it’s legitimized, it’s fine. You can flash a fish and it’s fine. I suspect what society needs us—artists—to do is to be an alternative to what we already have. It may not be that useful, but some other person needs to try it out and do it so the rest of us don’t have to.
Exactly. Who else is going to flash a giant fish across the Korean-Japanese border?
YJ: Exactly! Maybe the world needs that.
What kind of performance art do you like to do?
YJ: Sort of something like that also. For the longest time, and during undergrad as well, I was wondering what it would mean to break what we know as reality. And then I thought about it for a little bit, and it seems pretty easy. What we understand to be reality is a consistency across time. If anything breaks out of that consistency, you would have “broken” reality. So I did this performance of throwing a yoga ball up into the air and then there was a robot repeating the phrase, something like, “Reality is broken once the ball does not come down.” So I just threw up the ball. And in the instance of the ball not coming down, then I will have succeeded.
I love the way you phrased this: reality equals consistency across time.
YJ: We should think about it, no?
And when I transcribe this interview, I will take about double the time to record this time. What is happening here?
YJ: That’s the funny part of what we’re able to do, because you’re using up your own time to relive a time you already lived. When I was saying that reality was just consistency across time, let’s say we have a cup on a table, and we expect the cup to stay there unless something else happens. That’s consistent.
What is something that has been consistent for you throughout your life, so far?
YJ: If I walk, the ground is solid. And I would expect, with the next step I take, for the ground to still be solid. And in the case when it isn’t solid, when it was no longer consistent, no longer solid, the floor would give in, and therefore it wouldn’t be reality anymore. It’s this trust of believing things will be the way they are into the future. Like the sofa will be a sofa until I die. If it were just to disappear the next moment, I wouldn’t trust it, and I wouldn’t call it real.
Has anything inconsistent like that happened to you before? The loss of trust in reality?
YJ: When I was fifteen, sixteen, I got hit by a car and almost died. After that, I was like, “What the fuck is this about? What am I supposed to do here with my seventy-plus years of time?” What matters? What doesn’t? It’s kind of weird. It’s like you don’t come into this world with a manual of how to spend this time. After the car accident, I was confused about what to do with the rest of my time, because it wasn’t a given anymore.
I’m so sorry that happened.
YJ: I didn’t die, so that’s good. (Laughs.) I guess normal things that were bothering other people started bothering me.
What’s the most recent thing you’ve made?
YJ: I guess the most recent thing I’ve made is this, which I made with James Mercer who is downstairs. This is actually quite intensive because it took two months to make, and it’s twenty minutes long. It’s called Two Truth and a Lie.
'Two Truth and a lie,' 2019, animation. 1:40 minute excerpt from 20-minute animation.
Did this also begin with a short story you had written?
YJ: Yes, I wrote an outline, and then James and I sat down in the studio and cut it up into a million pieces and tried to piece it together. It took four hours to sort out. It’s about a baby that was given a name by his grandmother and was challenged to a game of two truths and a lie, and he went on this journey to prevent his own death at twenty years old. It’s about a baby going on a journey for twenty years.
Does the baby grow up?
YJ: Well, he grows to be big. (See clip.)
Oh, I see, the baby grows to be physically large! What a big baby! Is this one of your longer projects?
How about your classes right now?
JY: This semester, I’m taking the philosophy of quantum mechanics. My favorite professor’s name is David Alberts. He was originally a physicist and became a philosopher, and he teaches in the philosophy department. I’ve taken several classes with him. He’s really great. I mean, I feel very, very stupid when I go to other departments, which is fun.
What do you like about Professor Alberts?
JY: He makes complex and big topics very accessible. So someone like me who has no scientific or mathematical background can even start to think about stuff like quantum physics. And here, in my own department, I really enjoy doing independent study with Gabo Camnitzer. He’s very knowledgeable about art in general. There’s a lot of things I don’t know about in terms of performance art and conceptual art, because I was trained as a painter. When I got here, he was very helpful in my research.
What are you working on right now?
JY: I have a story about how humanity lost language. I’m planning to make a diorama with animations projected inside it, so that it kind of feels like a mini theater.
How did humanity lose language?
JY: It was a Sunday morning. During breakfast.
Art by current student Yifan Jiang '20
'Vancouver,' 2019, 2, oil on panel, tarp, found fabric, bike tires, light bulb, wood structure, 4x29x16in, by Yifan Jiang.
'Library,' 2019, vinyl tiles, fluorescent light, ceramic cow, shoes, receipt rolls, leaves, hair tie, post-it note wood structure, 38x17.5x12in, by Yifan Jiang.
'Plaza monkeys,' 2019, oil on canvas, 80x69in. Based on a Chinese fable about monkeys trying to fish for the moon's reflection. By Yifan Jiang.
'Broadway,' 2019, oil on panel, found ironing board, clamp lamps, metal structure, 8x5x3ft, by Yifan Jiang.
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