An interview with Yarli Allison

Yarli Allison in her studio in London

'If you imagine a mind map, I’m interested in not touching the core but the things that extend from it'

Yarli Allison received her MFA in sculpture from Slade in 2017. She talked with Art Springboard’s Wolfram Schnelle in London at her studio in June 2018.

Yarly Allison: My family never said ‘We’re moving’, they’d just show up with a truck and dump everything inside, including the furniture and say, ‘oh yeah, we’re leaving’. Then we would drive ten hours or so. There are many conspiracy theories from my other family explaining why we moved so secretly. I was always detached from my environment, detached from friends, schools, or the land. It’s a weird experience and almost feels like I am escaping from something.

A lot of my work responds to fear. I remember when I was young I had many panic attacks. The suburban areas in Canada have such huge spaces and I was a very little child, always left alone with no one around. That anxiety always comes back and re-appears in my work. The feeling of having nobody nearby and not knowing when it will end. It lasts until now. I grew up in that environment, not knowing when I would be detached from the familiar and when I would be facing the unfamiliar.

Growing up I slowly started reading about psychology, engineering and social constructs to understand how we understand the world and how to deal with detachment and emergency crises. Dealing with that slowly became my art. Or I’m simply making art that deals with that.

As a kid you don’t realize differences. You just think, hey, they’re all humans. Growing up I needed to recognize that I am part of a queer community. And being Asian in a very white city I didn’t even think that other people looked different. I slowly started to realize how many cultural differences and language barriers there are. And when we moved from Canada to Hong Kong, I had to learn another language that supposedly belonged to my family.

Wolfram Schnelle: Was it a language you already spoke at home?

Y.A.: I spoke English and French at that time. And Cantonese but I didn’t know how to write it. It’s very difficult to learn so I had to invent stories.

W.S.: You did a performance having to do with language.

YA: Yes, so the performance of Wood-Eye, Eye-Human is about disassembling the traditional Chinese characters ‘soeng gin 相見’ and generating new meanings. In the first word, a tree or wood (木) is placed on the left of the symbol of eye (目) to indicate meeting or being together. Then for the second character, when you place the human leg under the symbol of an eye, it has the meaning of seeing and vision. When the two characters are joined together, it implies eye-to-eye contact, as in seeing each other in depth, or even knowing each other heart-to-heart.

I really like how language evolves and how it shows how people at that ancient time saw the world. How would you say that a tree or piece of wood means interaction? At that time it was more about resting in nature, climbing high, and seeing how small humans are while nature is about big mountains when they imagined the universe. Words evolved into different meanings based on their social function. When I play with these ancient graphical symbols I can imagine my version of the meaning in modern life.

Wood, Eye, Eye, Human, performance by Yarli Allison

So, I put these bits together in Wood-Eye, Eye-Human. I was blind folded with soft leather. I had a steel rod balanced on my head that people had to balance with pieces of woods. There are two projections of eyes on the wall behind me – one eye was from my friend staring at the camera for thirty minutes and then the other eye from me staring at the camera for another thirty minutes. My helper, Ismene, turned on the projector hanging on my rod where the other eye was already projected. Then the audience could try to balance and overlap the eyes together to achieve the meaning of meeting and seeing each other. The eyes of course could never be together permanently as it’s a balancing effort that also reflects on the various durations of human relationships.

‘We see each other’ is the core meaning of the Chinese word ‘soeng gin相見’. The experiment ends when the meeting is achieved. It’s as simple as that. There is nothing deep. But people strive for meaning.

It doesn’t mean that you have to know my culture or language to know its simple meaning. The meaningless ‘mind’ is very rooted in East Asian culture and aesthetics as well, like I see imperfections or distance between people as a beautiful state. Something is missing or no longer there and we can say it’s okay.

When I studied in the UK, I realized there was this challenge that things always needed to mean something. Maybe it's the mind of the West that things have to be logical and make sense, that the work needs to be convincing or you have to justify it. In East Asia, I think the poetic element goes along with the unjustified.

W.S.: I would like to ask you about the work that you showed in your degree show, these floating life-saving devices. How did that come about?

Y.A.: It goes back to the frequent moving during my childhood. It wasn’t intentional but the more I did them the more I realized that I was dealing with floating and drifting, not being able to take root and always thinking about how to escape from a place that doesn’t belong to you.

I was also reading human factors and ergonomics research because I had re-united with a close relative after years and I realized that his interests are similar to mine despite being in very different fields. In his work he is responsible for finding the most efficient way to design an environment or a tool that helps deal with emergency situations. For example, he would consider where to place a button in a tank and what colour and shape it should be so that the operator would perform instinctively in an urgent situation, which can save a life. These kind of methods also factor into my sculptural works.

I was thinking a lot about these sculptures, how would I sustain myself and what kind of environment I would escape. It came to me that I am always building caves, holes, or boxes. I wanted to build a grotto, maybe something narrow at the entrance to the exhibition where you have to bend down at first but then it opens up into this big cavernous space. I placed a video projection with my performer Juls floating at the entrance as an introduction.

I was struggling with the question of whether a physical human should exist in the space. I think my work suggests the possibility that somebody might have lived in the space or used these tools.

I use the form of stalactites to suggest an isolated dangerous environment, using chicken wire as a material, which also makes you think of traps as it’s quite sharp. I combined this with soft materials that invite touch. The space has a lower ceiling to enhance the box-like experience. Then all the devices were put together quite intuitively while I was designing its imaginary function. During installation I thought about how the audience moves through the space and how one thing links to another.

W.S.: So these objects are actually designed to be functional and used.

Y.A.: They are more like psychological or mental saving devices. In this work Baby You Can Go Anywhere for example you have blinds that you can open so that you can either hide or be seen. It very much relates to my first work about this blue human box Me(n)tal Skin Cage 02 where I hid myself inside the box and started rolling around and picking up metal bits. We are hidden and are protected at the same time.

Baby You Can Go Anywhere

It goes back to a childhood experience of being in a big room and hiding under a blanket to give myself some mental protection. You can’t really use the boat, but I titled it Baby You Can Go Anywhere so it’s like an intangible comforting saying and gives hope – only the object we call a boat doesn’t really function if you want to escape from the cave of isolation.

I was reading a psychology guidebook that provides weirdly effective tools for people who experience emotional crises. For example, if you feel really overwhelmed, you can hold your breath and put your head in a sink filled with cold water for long enough that your body knows you’re drowning but short enough that you don’t go into a coma. Your body would then immediately ‘restart’ your heartbeat as well as your emotional system. By placing our bodies in danger it helps us survive. It’s very interesting how we survive in society with all these survival tools suggested to us. I referred to this book when I was working on my devices.

W.S.: The life-saving devices relate in an interesting way to the work you did in Hong Kong. Can you tell me more about that?

Y.A.: With the shrine I built in Hong Kong, I was questioning whether these fortune telling things I believe in function. You can never have the right answer for the future and I liked that. So, in my shrine I had a fortune teller in front of you, answering your questions as a tool to respond to your anxieties about the future.

W.S.: How did it work? How did people interact with it?

Y.A.: People could go inside and talk to the fortune teller. I built the shrine in a way that referenced what I would see in Hong Kong. It's a very local village-like office and super personal, and reflects on how people believe in supernatural things. We went into a fortune teller’s office in a fishing port in Hong Kong. Inside, there was a little shrine with a collection of red objects because red means good luck. So whatever red thing they see, they put them in there because it’s red so it must be good. There’s a red Coke can next to some random red sandwich wrap in front of Guan Yin, who’s one of our gods. The random aesthetic is based on practicality and function, how they believe in things, and it’s really strange to see how things are organised. I wanted to hack into their logic and then play with the logic and jumble all these things and rules together.

W.S.: This brings me back to a comment you made earlier where you talk about how things in Asian culture don’t always have to make sense. How has living and being at home in both cultures informed your way of looking at things?

Y.A.: It’s never at home. I feel in between cultures and in between everything, which influences my works. In my MFA I felt like there was always this tension of things needing to make sense. I like rough and unfinished stuff or a working process where I just have an idea prepared and accidents become part of the work.

If a sole survivor is left on an island and all they have is sand, paper, and scissors, what can they make out of it to escape from the situation? What do you have in your environment that enables you to survive? What I have now is the resources in London, the UK, and Europe. I couldn’t do a work on Chinese gods here with as much impact as it would have in Asia because the cultural context and community is not really referencing each other. Material wise, it’s also not easy to purchase a variety of ceramic gods in Europe. So, I’ll always produce something with what I can access. If you imagine a mind map, I’m interested in not touching the core but the things that extend from the core. And that is what I think I’m working with. It is always in-between and around the sense of belonging but doesn't belong itself.

W.S.: Is it beneficial to be an outsider in these cultures? Are you an outsider in the Chinese culture?

Y.A.: For five years I was trying to find my roots. I went back to Canada in my twenties, tried to abandon everything behind me in Hong Kong, and tried to find the places I first grew up in. On my 21st or 22nd birthday I took a train and nostalgically went to the house that I was born in and grew up in. The house was the same but the car and the interior was different from the picture that I was holding. The shell was the same but the inside had changed. I finally realized that I should move on. Maybe it’s not important to belong to a place.

W.S.: Is moving from one place to another something that will continue in your life?

Y.A.: I think it feeds into my practice. As my work deals with drifting, uprooting, and identities, I feel like I couldn’t physically stop moving somewhere else. I need to discover new things and reflect on my background. Having had the chance to return to Hong Kong as an invited artist with generous funding was really a great opportunity for me to reflect on my culture and how it shaped me, and then to see how I grew apart from this culture.

For now, I’ve moved on to making experimental films that are related to queer identity and have intimate erotic interaction scenes. One day I realized that I’m always making objects with holes because I want to give extra dimension, vision, and access to the interior, as if this was a way of seeking the inner. My studio friends pointed out that my objects always turned out to look like female organs, so I started to embrace this unintentional symbol. Apart from reading about Freud, I have decided to investigate it with my video works.

W.S.: Tell me more about holes.

Y.A.: I think I’m good at making holes or tunnels and it feels like they could lead us to somewhere. My sculpture teacher used to say, ‘If you look at a solid sculpture or object you can only see the surface, but if you put a hole in there it opens up more surface.’ That really struck me when I was a student. I was looking at a wooden cube and imagining how I would make holes in it and turn it into something like a cube of cheese. I like to touch things, so I was hoping to discover more texture inside the piece of wood. Putting my limbs in there feels as if I am interacting more with the dead object.

W.S.: Tell me about your experience at Slade.

Y.A.: The Slade community is so bonded and active in the art scene. A lot of our collaborations and ideas are generated here. I am at the studio every day and night – it’s a safe space where I feel most at home for my practice.

We were given a lot of freedom so it’s easy to be lost. Because of the free time we were exchanging ideas every day, we want to try a lot of new things together. So, one time, we made a public open call to organize a group show in The Crypt Gallery, and the reputation of Slade really drew many interesting people together across London. It was a night with a digital media exhibition and performances. We estimated that over 200 creative people came in the span of 2 hours. You can see how strong the community is.

Another time I was invited by Katarzyna Perlak to join her curated performance exhibition at Chalton Gallery, which opened up conversations and challenges on the notion of performance. Some of them are now showing at the ICA, at New Contemporaries, and at the Zabludowicz Collection, new works with traces you can see from the works shown on that night. These out-of-school group achievements are one of the best learning experiences. And the inside-school opportunities and resources are rich, like my Slade Yitzhak Danziger Entrance Scholarship, performance nights at Bloomsbury Studio Theatre, a funded residency working with Hong Kong Baptist University, Academy of Visual Arts – they’re all really valuable learning memories from the Slade. In a resourceful place, like Slade and London, you have to engage with the environment. It was door opening.

Besides, the MFA program for me is like a parenting system: you are given a studio space and some material and then you can just do what you want and play, then through discussion we would reflect on whether it’s good or bad. When we are totally lost, we’re supported by tutors, staff and the community.

Slade's interim show and degree show are also a great environment for training. The guidelines were super organized before the hectic install of the degree shows. Each student is allocated an exhibition space, although the process was a bit of a fighting nightmare. But once you get the space, it’s about working with the beautiful historical architecture in a limited installation time. Each room is different and you get to see how people worked with it, came up with many inspiring solutions. It's more than a school, it's like the real world.

As opposed to how it was when I was going to have a show in Shanghai! They invited me to go there and set up the work. So I sent them a list of the tools I needed to set everything up: a ladder, a hammer, and so on. For me setting up is to prepare everything ahead, climb the ladder, drill the ceiling myself. And the curator said, ‘Why do you even need these things? You don’t need to install by yourself, we have a team of technicians here to help you. If you keep doing it yourself you’ll die earlier. It’s not good for your body.’

I was shocked, because I had forgotten that this is the way in mainland China. They have labour power. They usually have a technical team and the artist is telling them what to do and then the team will solve the problem. In London, we were really trained to solve everything by ourselves.

In terms of ‘marketing’, we are required to have two CVs – an artist CV and a non-artist CV – and we need to have a portfolio ready. A website and Instagram is almost a must, and then we need to have our business cards and so on. The Slade degree show website was also useful because quite a few professionals approached me through the web, including the Spitalfields public sculpture opportunity, individual curators, and it led to our solo week in Annka Kultys Gallery in January 2018. Even one year after graduation new people contacted me because they saw me on last year's web. So, I can’t imagine that you don’t have much of that in Germany.

W.S.: How was it at Slade when it comes to theory?

Y.A.: My MFA in Fine Arts was more studio-practice focused. We had workshops or seminars where we could present anything we liked and relate it to our practice. It could be a YouTube video about wood working, a live demonstration of drinking games, whatever you like. I did a homemade interview about modern Korean cosmetic surgery and beauty standards, which my Korean friend explained in a genuine way. MA students are not required to participate but it’s flexible if they want to. The MA requires a lot of reading each week and then the materials are discussed. The MA students also write more essays than the MFA students, and at the end after the degree show they have to hand in a dissertation. The great thing is that we could all flexibly join each other's programs, it’s all about participating and learning as a community. MA students can attend our seminars or we can attend the theory classes. All in all, there’s not a huge difference between the two but more like what kind of minds you're more associated with.

W.S.: What’s next?

Y.A.: Keep making work. Staying in London for now but I’m actually going to a lot of international residencies, like Paradise Air in Japan, Visual Artist Island’s New Spaces program in Northern Ireland, and my film screening in PFFB Berlin Film Festival. I think London could be a good base from which to travel around but a lot of my peers believe that London isn’t affordable in the longer term. In London you need a lot of persistent exposure. You need to go to openings to connect to people and there are like five openings every evening. Maybe after two years I’ll start looking for an alternative place. Brussels, Lisbon, Paris – those are some of the places we talk about a lot. I’ll see how it is there to live as an artist and as a minority there as I'd like to be part of a welcoming community. If it feels right, then I might move and learn the language.

To see all works by Yarli Allison, click here

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