With a focus on Asia for Art Basel Hong Kong, Art World Forum returns to Singapore for an interview with artist Dr. Yanyun Chen. Featuring as a full-time lecturer in the Arts & Humanities division of Yale-NUS College in Singapore, the founder of illustration and animation at studio Piplatchka, and the managing partner of publishing house, Delere Press LLP, she’s won awards for her creative talents including the People’s Choice Award at the President’s Young Talents 2018 exhibition at Singapore Art Museum, and the winner of the 2019 ArtOutreach IMPART Visual Artist Award.
“Instinctively, I would say that an artist is someone who designs the very framework of “responsibility”, and takes full responsibility within her framework for the thing she is creating, and for all the decisions she makes while creating a work.”
1. In celebration of the Singapore Art Museum’s 17th edition of the President’s Young Talents Award Ceremony, which is the nation’s only mentoring, commissioning and award programme for emerging Singaporean artists under the age of 35, you won the “People’s Choice Award.”
Your winning work was titled “The scars that write us” and it received the highest number of public votes on-site at the exhibition. Knowing that your work related to so many people, how does that make you feel? Would you like to share a little more about the piece, what it represents and perhaps why you think it is so relatable?
I was really surprised, touched, and thankful for the varied and vibrant responses towards “The scars that write us” at the Singapore Art Museum. I recall a few attendees showing their scars to me—a stranger who I only just met through the exhibition—and it is their willingness and comfort to generously share “war stories” with me that I felt my work working. I didn’t expect the kind of resonance this installation would have, and I am grateful that it did.
Jason Wee of Grey Projects recently described my work as a form of auto-fiction, which I read as a fluid and inseparable combination of autobiography and fiction. I am truly appreciative of this description, as it parallels the way I think about my installation works. “The scars that write us” is a story about my family genetics, having and growing up with keloids, and reflecting on the transference of metaphors: carrying scars as carrying stories. It would be safe to say that everyone has scars, be it physical, psychological, traumatic, or mundane. Perhaps, it is due to the ubiquitous nature of scars, “The scars that write us” found a way to speak to the stories that every individual body carries, and reach into the spaces of collective memory that have been overlooked.
When I was deciding on a story to tell given the opportunity of the President’s Young Talents exhibition and the space that Singapore Art Museum 8Q provided, I felt that audiences who came to such art events are already looking for works to connect with: they are willing participants. Of the many stories I am working on, a story about keloid scars was my way of being receptive and reaching out to this feeling I had—perhaps I have assumed—about our Singaporean attendees, a topic wide enough to be easily understood by persons without keloids, and close to those who do. It was also my way of exorcising past pains with keloids, and the work functioned as a process of gentle catharsis to transform negative experiences into reflective ones. In “The scars that write us”, I share this process of transformation through a three act structure, beginning with close proximity to the portraits of scars; followed by a distant yearning as one is placed far from the drawn body that carry such scars; and finally to think with the scars in writing. At the end, one exits by returning through the same passage of drawings and metal welding before exiting the space. I hope the time spent in the installation allows one to get used to the darkness and quietens one into a meditative state to reconsider another perspective to talk about scars.
2. With your experience and training in Europe and Asia (currently a PhD candidate at The European Graduate School), and publishing works which focus on etymology, origin and fiction, where do you get your inspiration from to create new artwork?
I am delighted to share that I have graduated with my PhD from European Graduate School since November 2018!
My inspirations often come from personal stories, fiction and philosophy books I read, movement and story-telling found in animation and comics, random thoughts mixed with perplexing riddles and puzzles, and questions I have about my existence in this world. I have learnt to consider the context of my work, the place in which it sits, and narrative structures that allow a story to be told well. I was taught bravery and courage by my students, thinking deeply from my mentors, and contemporary practices from my peers.
3. Also featuring as the Co-Founder of Delere Press, a boutique book publisher which seeks to explore ideas, notions and philosophies, how did this idea come about and why did you decide to launch it in Singapore?
Delere Press began as a conversation with writer and reader Jeremy Fernando, when we wondered about the general lack of well-designed book covers in 2010. We felt the need to feature the layout designer as an integral medium in the dialogue of text and image, and to hold all three spaces—text, image, design—as equals when we considered the book-as-object. Jeremy and I are based in Singapore, and we share an interest in philosophy, art, questions, and stories. Thus, we spent time learning about building a publishing print-on-demand business that would allow our titles to be sold internationally, and began Delere Press in 2011.
4. How would you describe Singapore’s art scene? Perhaps how has it changed over time and what are your aspirations for its development?
The Singapore Art scene is young and evolving, and it has grown and changed tremendously in the last 10 years. I feel that it has received more commercial and institutional attention than it did before, coupled with the rising cost of space, resulting in a shift away from independent artist-run spaces. Yet at the same time, we also see young artists actively experimenting in spaces such as Make It Share It, Softwall Studs, Coda Culture, Your Mother Gallery, Grey Projects, which counter and respond to that narrative. There is also a rise in the number of exhibitions at alternative spaces organised by WeJungle, Knuckles and Notch, at Tiong Bahru Air Raid Shelter by Daniel Chong and Zulkhairi Zulkiflee, State of Motion, etc. This combination of commercial, institutional, and independent collectives make for a vibrant art scene, and I do hope that it will continue to grow in these many ways and more over the coming years with Southeast Asian counterparts, drawing a larger crowd of audiences unafraid of art, and for more Singapore artists to be presented overseas.
5. Pursuing a career as a professional artist has always been paired with its challenges. What would you say your greatest challenge has been so far and [how] have you overcome it?
I am still coming to terms with the idea of an artist, let alone a professional artist, as a form and practice, so it would be too early to be able to pick a single, most excruciating challenge from my journey thus far. As with any profession, the ability to adapt, think, communicate, organise, construct, execute, strategize, market, brand, publicise, budget, collaborate, and sell are part and parcel of what creates a living path. These developing skills can be challenging, fun, painful and delicious all at the same time.
6. In your opinion, how would you define an artist? And perhaps what are his/her responsibilities?
This is a difficult question. Instinctively, I would say that an artist is someone who designs the very framework of “responsibility”, and takes full responsibility within her framework for the thing she is creating, and for all the decisions she makes while creating a work. Art-making is a series of decisions, and questioning each aspect of a work allows her to plough deep into the depths of an idea. This naturally leads me to consider the notions of “care” and “carry”: the artist as a carer and carrier of stories. How she is to care for a thought, and carry this thought forward, are questions I would ask about any artist. Art-making is also its own language, with its own grammar and vocabulary specific to the form, frame, content, author, and context.
7. What would your message be to people who feel a disconnect with art, and who believe art is not for them.
Keep searching in different spaces, in different artists, in different forms, there is a story for everyone. If one is able to appreciate a good story, one has already accepted art in their thoughts and their spirits. The next step is simply to find resonance.