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Lu Yang and Wen You Cai: Art in Everyday Setting

This fall, New York City was taken over by a series of events and exhibitions under the rubric of the Creative China Festival. Sponsored by the Beijing Contemporary Art Foundation (BCAF) under the directorship of Cui Qiao, the festival brought artists ranging from Song Dong to Guo Hongwei to various venues. A highlight has to be the current exhibition of urban fashion wear and new animation videos by Shanghai artist Lu Yang, staged at the East Village boutique, Special Special. The location was perfect for this artist who blends imagery from anime, video games and neuroscience to comment on life-and-death issues in a humorous way. Special Special is the brain child of Wen You Cai, the daughter of renowned artist Cai Guo Qiang, who chose to open “a shop” specializing in art multiples and editions by both artists and designers. 
Just before the opening of the exhibition, I sat down with these two accomplished young women for noodles and tea at an upscale Chinese restaurant in lower Manhattan. Since earning her graduate degree from the China Academy of Fine Arts in Hangzhou, Lu Yang, 32, has shown her work internationally, including participating in the China Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2015. Wen You Cai, 27, attended Rhode Island School of Design followed by a graduate degree from Goldsmiths College, University of London, before returning to New York to open her space just last year. The two made a perfect pair, happy to talk about the upcoming show.
How did this exhibition come about? Did you know Lu Yang?

WYC: BCAF approached me and they thought that Lu Yang would be suitable to exhibit in a space that is more friendly to a younger audience in a vibrant area like the East Village of New York. It is the first time that she is showing her fashion collection and since the concept of my store is art editions in every day settings, her fashion line is perfect for Special Special.
What do you do at Special Special?

WYC: The idea of Special Special is to work with different artists and designers to create limited edition artworks that can be used in an every day setting. I’ve exhibited ceramic works, I’ve exhibited clothing, I’ve worked with an artist who makes collages about bathroom interiors and we turned one of his drawings into shower curtains. I want to enhance the value of artworks in terms of every day appreciation. I call it “Special Special” because since we show multiple editions, I decided to repeat the name and make it twice as special.

Why did you want to open a space?

WYC: Because growing up with my father, I went to many museums and galleries and I always felt that museums were a chillier environment. As a child I didn’t understand the meaning of artworks and I wanted to touch them. I loved museum stores because I could touch everything and play with everything and I could take them home with me. Those were the toys of my upbringing. Over the years, I just always enjoyed the idea of a store being an environment where there is an exchange, where there is the transaction of a product being offered that can be instantly taken home. There’s something very warm about that idea.

Lu Yang: Special Special is very nice location. I just didn’t want to make the show in a contemporary art space. I wanted to make it in a shop. Because not many people know me in New York so some people can pass by in the streets and they can see my work.

WYC: Part of my motivation in doing Special Special is to meet different artists that I can have fun with. It’s an environment suited for collaboration.

Why did you agree to do this when BCAF first approached you?

WYC: As a relatively young space, I have so far been working with artists and designers who were closer to my community, like people I went to school with. I wanted to expand that circle. My ambitions for Special Special are beyond this little storefront in the East Village. I’d like it to be in China and Japan, anywhere in the world. So it was not only a good opportunity to work with an artist from another part of the world, but also to grow the exposure of Special Special.

Lu Yang, why did you decide to do a fashion line?

LY: Last year, a company came to me and asked if I can design clothes for them. We made around 30 outfits. Eight or nine for the spring season and another 20 for the summer. They sold it online. I think some fans really want to buy these clothes but now I am too busy and they don’t have enough people to be in charge of the brand so now we just stop. I found out if you want to be a fashion designer, you just have concentrate on being be a fashion designer — not an artist — because it takes a lot of time.


What do you want to do while you are in New York?

LY: We are going to see a horror movie tonight. The new “Saw.” Number 8. You know we can’t watch horror movies in China because the Chinese government doesn’t allow horror movies. Even if it has some horrror elements, they say this a mental disease or this is something bad, so you can’t have a movie with even a ghost in it. So when I come to New York, I always want to watch the horror movie.

 

Wen You, how are you promoting this show?

WYC: Well, that’s a difficult question. I am a super low key person so it’s always been a bit of a challenge. We have designed invitations and campaigns and posted it through social media. We also have a lot of people who come through the space and like to see that we are doing something completely different every time. Hopefully, that keeps people interested in knowing about us.


But also, how do you talk about Lu Yang’s work? Do you think it’s important for people to know she’s a Chinese artist?

WYC: No, I don’t really see artists in that way. That’s not my personal take. I don’t care about people’s nationality as part of their identity or an art signifier unless their work explicitly means that to them. I think most artists, if they are working around the world, they are global artists. There are no boundaries, really.


And Lu Yang, you define yourself as living on the internet?

LY: I don’t even call myself “an artist.” I think I just call myself “creator.” I don’t really like the title, “artist.” To me, art is more an interest or a hobby. If people give you the name “artist,” you can survive by this job because now Chinese contemporary art is so popular. The Chinese young artists are maybe the happiest artists in the world because in most other countries the young artists have to get a job, they can’t sell the works.

 
But in China, you do very well?

LY: Not very well, I’m not a painter. But I think I still can survive from this job, so I think the name “artist” brings me something, because if you are not an artist, people think you are doing something completely useless.

 

But do you think what you are doing is Chinese contemporary art?

LY: Of course, I’m Chinese, but I think my generation can reach a lot of things online so it’s not the same Chinese. You have so many things influencing you today, so naturally you make some other kind of art.


Wen You, I always wanted to ask you, about your father’s generation of artists. You can tell his work is Chinese art from across a football field. How do you feel about that?

WYC: I think it’s part of their cultural identity, having grown up in China and only being exposed to Chinese culture in their surroundings that infiltrated into their every day. Whereas today, everyone has the internet and they see what other people in different cultures are like and they join that global community. It’s more about finding the sense of self through this global community than finding a sense of self in a local community.

 
What’s Lu Yang’s new work? Will it be in the exhibition?

LY: I will show Electro Magnetic Brainology, a series of four videos using motion tracking technology. Each video is about a new character and together they represent the four elements: fire, water, air and earth. In Buddhism, those elements are supposed to separate when people are close to death.   So in a way, I am creating a new religion and these four characters are four different gods in this religion. We will have nine monitors. Also I made a music video for dancing, so people can dance in the space.

I want to make the exhibition to be just fun. If people can’t get the point of my work, thy can just have fun there.   Because I don’t think everyone can get the deep meaning of contemporary art, so its’ okay if they just have fun.


And this is why it’s okay for people not to think of you as an artist?

LU: You can’t control people, you can’t control how they like you. You can’t say if I make this, how many people will be interested and how many people will get something from it. Because people are different and some people will understand and other people will just want some cool things to play with. This is why I always concentrate on the music and the design. I want to make things of good quality so people can enjoy it first and then they can go more deeply in my work.

 

The two of you are like a perfect match because you don’t want to do a gallery and she does not want to do art. So you are a perfect match. Do you think this also comes out of the internet, this desire to cross boundaries this way?

WYC: Maybe because there are so many options today, there is also an idea of not wanting to pinpoint one thing I want to ascribe myself as. Like I never wanted to be an artist and but I feel like now, doing this, it may be the best way to describe who I am. But, I’m not really an artist, so in some ways, it sort of manifested itself through the idea that I can do anything but also nothing at the same time. I never wanted to be an artist because I think it takes the fun out of it by giving it a label.   I think it’s just a marketing tool but I was never interested in that, so I just say I have a shop.

 

And Lu Yang, you are not an artist, you are just a producer?

LY: I can be whatever. I think my lifestyle is like that of some youth in Japan who are selfish and lazy and just have interests by themselves and maybe they survive by their parents support. I think my lifestyle is like that but I still support myself. I think that’s the thing that art can give me, but I think the best way is not so different than just follow what I am interested in.