our work is characterised by an obsession with mirrors. Could you please explain why this is a focus for you?
My family are superstitious about mirrors. When I was a kid they covered some of the mirrors in the house with cloth because they believe ghosts haunt them. So there’s that.
To me mirrors represent recognition of oneself and perhaps a yearning to be recognised by people, culture, and society. Junot Diaz put it perfectly when he said; “if you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves”. This rings incredibly true in terms of my own invisibility, and the general lack of representation for queer people of colour.
Mirrors also signify the double life I have had to live in some sense – closeting aspects of myself that society deems monstrous, “unnatural”, or shameful. I’d say this is why I’ve always been fascinated by doubles and doppelgangers. There is often conflict between one’s hidden self and the self one projects to live up to societal and familial expectations. My work with mirrors, reflection and distortion have often been attempts to recognise who I am, and distinguishing that from what others have told me to be.
From a practical point of view, your photographic practice often includes self-portraits. What is your process for shooting these and how do you prepare?
It’s often quite a spontaneous, sporadic process. It’s impossible to describe exactly what happens. My mother had a cheesy saying about bamboo growing – that it doesn’t sprout at all for years and then all of a sudden it will grow 5 metres within a few months. I feel like that’s how I often work, things will brew inside for a while and then all of a sudden come spilling out.
For my last show I created a work called “Now I am a Lake” (a line from Sylvia Plath’s poem “Mirror”) which involved self-portraits that were stuck onto the bottom of 70L glass tanks and filled with rippling water. The light refraction through the water caused the images to be reflected on all sides of the tank. This was quite an experimental self-portrait for me and I didn’t really know how it was going to look until I set it up in the gallery the day before the opening. The process is different with each work, but most of the time I just go with my gut feeling.
“‘Meng-Yu’ translates into ‘Dreams of Jade’. Because of this I feel like I exist in a very liminal space: between cultures, between religions, between realities, and between genders.”
ou seem to explore a lot of mystical themes, including parallel realities and superstitions. I read that anyone who is interested in psychic themes usually has a heightened intuitive ability themselves. Is this true with you?
I’m not sure about my own intuitive abilities but I grew up in a household that believes in past lives and luck. We have a shrine in our family home to Guanyin and we’d often ask her questions by throwing coins in the air and divining an answer from the result. My dad saw ghosts when he was growing up in China and my mother has a fear of butterflies because she believes they are the spirits of the dead. I think it goes beyond superstition; many of these beliefs are culturally embedded.
My mother named me after a dream she had when she was pregnant; ‘Meng-Yu’ translates into ‘Dreams of Jade’. Because of this I feel like I exist in a very liminal space: between cultures, between religions, between realities, and between genders. I have created many surrealist dreamscapes and works about fluidity that attempt to blur a range of boundaries as a result of that.
The occult is fascinating to me, perhaps because I was brought up Buddhist then converted to Christianity in highschool. Now I’m a mix of a lot of things (at the moment I’m really into Daoist black magic). I practice my own rituals at home that are a blend of Eastern and Western beliefs. My most recent exhibition was inspired by scrying, a form of divination where one receives visions by gazing into black mirrors or still water. My next project will focus on queer spectrality – addressing the absence of queer representation and queer ghosts that have been forgotten or rejected by society.
How does your cultural heritage influence your work?
I was born in Australia, and my parents moved here when they were both students during the Tiananmen Square massacre. We’re all Australian citizens now (China doesn’t do the dual-citizenship thing) and I’ve been back to China a few times during my childhood. I finally went back as an adult with a university group a few years ago to Tianjin where I created a series called ‘Jade City’. Even though they are landscapes, they feel more like self-portraits of an inner world. I had an amazing time there and I’m very proud of that series. The work expressed my feelings of diaspora through fragmented dreamscapes layered and pieced together. I felt a strong connection with both the landscape and the culture yet alienated at the same time. Here it’s kind of reversed, I feel at home in Sydney yet sometimes I’m treated like an alien.
I’m going back to China in February for Chinese New Year to see family I haven’t seen in years. My grandmother on my father’s side is a Buddhist nun who lives in a temple in Fuzhou, so I intend to stay with her for a little while and make some new work inspired by women and Chinese spirituality.
“I played with a lot of distortion digitally and with water, mirrors, and other reflections. My aim was to discuss fluidity in relation to the way one perceives oneself, and all the dysmorphia and dysphoria that goes along with trying to figure out who you are.”
From left: Meng-Yu Yang “Jade City” ongoing series (2014-present), digital print. “Dreams of Jade” (2014) Images courtesy of the Artist.
hat is the most memorable reaction or comment you received about your work and why?
I had a self-portrait in a group show called ‘Identity’ at Dominik Mersch Gallery last year with a mind-blowing collection of artists including Goya, Francis Bacon, Gerhard Richter. My work ‘The Talking Mirror’ was the headliner for the show and contemplated ideas around identity, reflection, and the double. Funnily enough, my friend Lucy (who is often noted to be my doppelganger) was at the opening. Apparently heaps of people went up to her and congratulated her thinking we were the same person. So this question is probably better directed at her (haha).
What has been the proudest moment of your career to date?
Definitely my first solo exhibition that debuted in May this year at Dominik Mersch Gallery. It’s such a beautiful gallery with an oustanding stable of artists. I feel honoured to have had my first major exhibition there. Dominik has been incredibly supportive of my practice for years and I am so grateful for that.
The show was titled “Occulere: Vision & Concealment”, and was derived from the Latin word meaning to “conceal”. I was captivated by the similarity this word displayed to the word “ocular”, relating to vision and the eye. I played with a lot of distortion digitally and with water, mirrors, and other reflections. My aim was to discuss fluidity in relation to the way one perceives oneself, and all the dysmorphia and dysphoria that goes along with trying to figure out who you are.
Favourite Book? Anything by Anne Carson
Favourite Film? The Double Life of Veronique
Favourite Band / Musician? HTRK, especially their latest album “Psychic 9-5 Club”
If you weren’t an artist, what would you be? Maybe a filmmaker
If you could change one thing about the world, what would it be? Ending violence.