An Interview with Beijing-based Artist Yibei Zhang

Tiange Yang interviews Yibei Zhang 

 (Interviewer’s Note: In our talk, Yibei Zhang talks about her long-term research and work with sculpture as a specific medium but also as an all-encompassing dimension for various creations. She addresses her memory growing up in a typical Socialist industrial city, and her state of mind in the hope to get reconnected to her global peers during the time of isolation…She told me she wanted to attach the images of the works that she mostly created during the pandemic, hoping that the collective memory will bring all the readers on the same page with her.)

Sinter, Mixed material, Dimensions variable, 2020

Old Lesions, 140* 50 * 40(cm)* 3, Pressure cooker, aluminum alloy, resin, stainless steel, 2020 

Tiange Yang:
You seem to have a long-term pursuit of sculpture in your study and practice - from the sculpture department of University of the Arts London (BFA) to the sculpture department of Royal College of Art (MFA), along with your recent artistic practices based in China since graduation - all of them seem to revolve around the theme and creation of sculpture. How and where did it all begin?

Yibei Zhang:
I have been fond of drawing, playing with clay, and all sorts of craftsmanship since I was little. In high school, I took fine art, fiber, and photography, and it was then when I discovered that I preferred, and was factually better at, building three-dimensional things as opposed to drawing or photography. Before leaving for college, I went to see several contemporary sculpture exhibitions, in which the artworks largely assumed the format of installation. The sight of those pieces evoked a sensation in me, one that was wild and untamed, and I felt that was something I wished to pursue, hence the choice of majoring in sculpture in college. 

I recall that back in college, the first technical course was electric welding. I realized that I was responsive and sensitive to materials; when presented with one specific material, I would always want to engage with different methods and processes to create various things - once, I stacked up the solder joints into a tiny hill. One of the projects in college was to melt sand in the desert and then scorch it till it became glass. Sand is mainly silicon, which can be made into things with different usages due to the element’s very nature. It was then when I started experimenting with and exploring silicon in my artistic practices, forming an individual research direction. In graduate school, I wished to better and deepen my understanding of materials, thus beginning the research on tools. 

The sculpture department of my graduate school organized a series of lectures titled “Everything is Sculpture.” I have developed a more sufficient passion for sculpture since then. It is not merely because creating has enabled me to express what I wanted to say and what I did not but also because in the process of creating, I have always felt that I could mobilize and activate the entire world with no hindrance, with everything in the surrounding becoming accessible materials for me. 

Coupling relation between a prisoner, a lover and a spy, Dimensions variable, 2019

Tiange Yang:
You grew up in Daqing, Heilongjiang. It might be considered as an insignificant city now, but six decades ago, back in the 1960s when the passion of Chinese Communist Revolution was vehement, “Daqing” was widely recognized under the wave of communist construction, set off by the enthusiasm towards the Revolution, Daqing’s oil industry was the epitome of industrialization. In 1964, the Party called upon the national industrial front and coined the slogan “Gong Ye Xue Daqing (Learn from Daqing’s Industrialization).” It may be coincidental that you deal with a large number of industrial production materials - iron, aluminum, silicon, glass, etc; simultaneously, the large scale of your works is rarely spotted among young artists. All of the above contribute to the viewer’s sensing “an industrial feeling” in your works, and how would you respond and react to that? 

Yibei Zhang:
Daqing is a city born due to its petroleum energy resource after the founding of the People’s Republic of China. When growing up, I was not quite alert to the industrialization of my hometown but more aware of its fertile land, the delicious agricultural products like rice, and the quality of formula milk. Only after I had left for school did I discover that most people’s defining knowledge of Daqing was the oil underneath it. 

As for the “industrial feeling” given off by my work, I did not connect it with my hometown at the beginning of my practices. Many elements of those pieces were derived from the everyday utilities of the city, such as high-voltage cables and water tanks, which are the fundamental components located in the peripheries to ensure the functioning and running of the city. When the works were exhibited, I found it surprising yet reasonable when the viewer associated them with the industrialization of Daqing in that oil wells were a common sight where I grew up. Those often neglected yet omnipresent scenes in daily life exist in my memories subconsciously and then are naturally brought into my works. As for the works that render larger scales and volumes, they are more of a challenge and examination of the particular exhibition space. Quite often, especially in the case of sculpture, the second the viewer enters the space, they are already in the sculpture. I want the pieces to interact with the space, and therefore the dimension would vary based on the specific space. 

If granted the opportunity in the future, I wish to engage in a series of in-depth cultural and geological explorations of Manchuria, including my hometown Daqing, in that it is a land witnessing and bearing many fascinating happenings in both recent and ancient histories. 
At the pinnacle of despair, Bronze, glass, oil gun, 407 × 33 × 7 cm/68 × 74 × 56 cm, 2021

At the pinnacle of despair, Bronze, glass, wire wheel brush,177 × 64 × 37 cm, 2021

At the pinnacle of despair, Bronze, glass, wire wheel brush,93 × 72 × 75 cm, 2021

Tiange Yang:
An alternative aspect in reading your works: in spite of the emphasis placed on addressing material-related issues, as expressed often in your artist statement, the literary essence shown in your work - for instance, your own poem or the references to Aesop’s Fables - implies a much more in-depth approach. Would you still hope to handle them the way you do materials? Could this be ascribed to a somewhat commitment to sculpture of yours? 

Yibei Zhang:
I deem poems, fables, work titles, the exhibition space, even the viewer and the creator as all part of the material. Sculpture to me seems more like an exit, a portal. All these materials constitute the expression of works, not merely visually but also extending to literary and other disciplines. I presume such is not so much so the commitment to sculpture, but that to expression. 
Morning fair donkey, Dimensions variable, Fire-clay crucible, glass, stainless steel, ultra giclee, 2020

Tiange Yang:
One final question that is relatively irrelevant: As you returned to China after graduation, with all those years spent in the U.K., and as the artistic structures, communities, and ideologies all vary from place to place, do you ever feel lonely? 

Yibei Zhang:
This is a tricky question. Personally speaking, back in the U.K., I did not speculate my works comprehensively, and yet after getting back to China, many works were hoped to be fully completed. I do think that it is more convenient here in China in terms of fastening the production process and shortening its time, which makes it easier to actualize many ideas. I do feel quite lonely. Ha ha. 

Tiange Yang:
Since you do feel lonely, what modes of communication and what sense of group participation would you expect? Further, who would you like to communicate with - someone domestic or abroad? 

Yibei Zhang:
I do not think that the sense of participation is particularly strong in the group exhibitions in which I often participate, as I usually simply put the fitting works into the show and most of the time do not interact with its theme quite much. The sort of communication I am interested in and excited about is having a preliminary discussion with the curator or planner on the themes and debates of the show, after which comes the creating and/or recreating processes.

Currently, I look forward to being in touch more with my friends overseas. The pandemic revealed to me how artists in different countries have incorporated new contemplations into their recent works - I am curious about how my fellow artists in different geographical and political contexts reflect upon their physical and psychological stages in the past two years in their works.  
 Installation view, "A Vase in Everything", Yibei Zhang solo exhibition at BANK, Shanghai, 2021

(Interview originally in Chinese, translated by Sam Baixin Zhou; Image courtesy of the artist)