We caught up with Yichen Zhou, the 6th Crystal Ruth Bell Residency artist at Three Shadows in Beijing and Xiamen and Red Gate in Beijing, about starting collectives, privacy and surveillance on social media, and learning to gain knowledge, not just information, from the endless amount of images that surround us.

Yichen Zhou, A Guidebook of Image Reading, Page Five

China Residencies: Hi Yichen! How are you doing? And how is the situation in Beijing at the moment? You are home most of the time, right? How do you and others cope with staying inside currently?

Yichen Zhou: It is a tough time here because of the Coronavirus. This is the fourth week people staying at home, most of the industries are still shutdown in China. During the first two weeks of staying inside, I couldn’t do anything but followed every news about the coronavirus. I tried to figure out what was exactly happened and how bad the situation was. Then, I experienced anger, anxiety, depression and frustration through all the news. 

There are still new cases reported every day. But the numbers start to become very blurry and abstract for me now. I’m trying to get my life back to normal mentally, focusing on my projects, editing photos, applying for art grants and open calls…

CR: It is a rough time people are going through. I'm so thankful for the people risking their lives and fighting on the frontline for this - nurses, doctors, medical staff and support staff. Despite the sadness and harshness of this situation, we can see people and communities being strong together, be it through online music sessions or other online hangout sessions. Glad to hear you are doing well. Let's also focus on your art! Can you tell us a bit about your background?

YZ: I am an artist working with photography, video, performance and installations. I was born in Inner Mongolia and raised in Beijing, China. I moved to New York in 2010 and received MFA in Photography and Related Media at Parsons School of Design in 2012. Now I am working as an independent artist, and also as curator in MiA Collective Art, an non-profit art organization I co-founded in 2014.

CR: Lets talk about last year’s Crystal Ruth Bell residency: How did you find out about it, and what made you apply to it? 

YZ: I saw the open call from the public Wechat account of the Three Shadows Photography Center. I had been doing freelance works in the past three years, while running a small non-profit art organization called MiA Collective Art. All these works slowed down my personal projects. I really needed a period of time and a studio space to focus on my own work and get back the rhythm of creating works.

Three Shadows is the first contemporary art space dedicated exclusively to photography and other lens-based art in China. I’m a photo-based artist, and I had some opportunities to work with them before. Red Gate Gallery was founded in 1991 in Beijing. They started the international artist in residency program in 2001, I heard of the residency program when I was still studying in New York. Based on what I needed at the time, the three months residency in both Three Shadows and Red Gate Gallery seemed very ideal for me. 

Working on site during the residency at Three Shadows Photography Center in Beijing.

CR: Can you tell us a bit about your time at the residencies? What did you do at each of these places? How did these spaces contribute to or shape your working process? 

YZ: The first month of my residency was in Three Shadow Photography Center in Beijing, where they have a studio space right next to the exhibition building. I’m a local in Beijing so I didn’t need extra time to adapt the environment, so I started working in the first week. The interns working for the international artists residency program at Three Shadows were photography students studying abroad. They were very helpful driving me around, and even helped me press the shutter since some of my works involved performance in front of the camera. Basically, I did all the works I had planned to do in three months during the the first month stay at Beijing Three Shadows.

I moved to Three Shadows in Xiamen to the second month of residency. Xiamen is a beautiful coastal city. The environment is quite different, which inspired me to make new works that really differed from my previous interests. During my stay there, the Jimei x Arles International Photo Festival took place, with dozens of exhibitions and events to join during the opening week. Exploring the art scene in a different city beyond Beijing made it feel more like a traditional residency program.

Then I came back to Beijing for the third month, this time staying at Red Gate Residency. Red Gate has run the residency program for years, and they are good at connecting resident artists to the local art scene, there are many activities including field trips, studio visit of local artists, artist talk and open studio in the gallery space. There were other artists who came from Germany and Australia, so it is more like a small community for me to share experiences from the residency. As my last month in residency, I had time to edit photos and videos, presented works I have made during three months in open studio, talked to more people about my work. It is a nice conclusion for my residency. The three locations worked well as a whole for me. 

Installation shots of "A Guidebook of Image Reading", Open Studio at Red Gate Gallery December 2019.

CR: Had you been to Xiamen before?

YZ: Yes, and I had been a part of the Jimei x Arles Photography festival in 2018, as a curator with MiA Collective Art. We curated a show called “ You are not paranoid, Observe yourself being watched” with 8 artists who explored the ways in which digital media affect our understanding of privacy and surveillance.

CR: How did the idea of MiA Art Collective come about, and how do you combine being a curator with your own art practice? 

YZ: MiA Collective Art was founded by several artists from Japan, Korea, China and US in 2014 in New York. We offer collaborative opportunities for artists, invite young artists to work together by providing a curated selection of articles, interviews, exhibitions, and specific-themed projects. The original intention to form a collective is very simple, as one of the artists who had just graduated from school, I hoped to create a platform to communicate with other artists, to find a way to keep talking about art, share ideas to inspire one another, and do some interesting collaborative projects. Luckily, I met Grace Noh, a young curator who shared that same idea and together, we started MiA. We both believe it is very important for young artists and curators to promote each other and grow up together. 

I gained a lot from managing this organization. I met more people and got chances to try different things, like writing and curating. It is always excited to develop a concept into a collaborative project, then an exhibition. As an artist who always focused on my own project and worked alone, it is easy to get stuck in a narrowed-down vision. I love to have opportunities to jump out of my comfort zone and work on more projects with people from different fields, and MiA makes that possible.   

You Are Not Paranoid, Observe Yourself Being Watched” in Jimei X Arles Photo Festival 2019.

CR: In your project "A Guidebook of Image Reading” you aim to  intentionally manipulate the information in images, creating a context that can “guide“ the audiences to read images. How are you thinking about the ways we share and belive information, or as you put it: “become fools who believe in those fragments of information?“

YZ: In this project, I’m experimenting on making images with different materials, like neon lights, PVC material, rugs, etc. It is about living in the era of image explosion, image reading has become an important way to obtain information. But can we read images autonomously? Is the information we read every day already pre-determined by someone else? Can I manipulate the information of the images intentionally? 

Lots of my works focus on how technology changes our relationship to the image, I try to locate the line between reality and illusion, questioning if we live in an illusion that is made by technology without self-awareness. Information is easily attained through the surface glimpse of the Internet, and people lose interest in exploring the world more deeply. With all the fragments of information we get from internet, we believe that we have a better view of the world than before. While it is true that we get more information, it doesn’t mean we are getting better at understanding. There is a difference between information and knowledge.

Yichen Zhou, A Guidebook of Image Reading, Page Four.

Yichen Zhou, A Guidebook of Image Reading, Page Four (Detail).

Yichen Zhou, A Guidebook of Image Reading, Page Seven, Rug.

Yichen Zhou, A Guidebook of Image Reading, Page Seven.

Yichen Zhou, A Guidebook of Image Reading, Page Two.

CR: There's so much to reflect on, especially as we are now stuck on our phones for over a month and discouraged to go outside... And lastly, what are you planning next?

YZ: I will continue the project I was working on during the Crystal residency, also plan to edit "Daily Talk," one of my photo projects started in 2010, into a photography book. I will keep working with MiA Collective Art to try and create more exhibitions and collaborative projects this year. But being financially functioned as an art organization is still a big challenge for us. We are now planning an online exhibition on our website, will let you know once it's finished.

CR: We wish you good luck!

This interview was conducted over WeChat in Chinese & English by Xiaoyao Xu for China Residencies in February 2020.

With the current coronavirus situation and the ongoing lockdown in Wuhan and many other cities in China, people have been finding ways to keep in touch with artists and friends online, since they can't meet up in person. Entire parties of the clubbing scene have been moved online, there are cloud drinking parties where friends meet up over videochat, band practices and people sharing their experiences through paintings and comics. We're making the best of our postponed 2020 research trip by having cloud conversations with the amazing artists we've supported over the past 7 years ☁️