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Interview by Alice Wang, Images courtesy of Guanyu Xu & Kiki Jia-Qi Zhen

Kiki Jia Qi Zhen’s work has a peculiar immediacy.
Moving with ease between found materials and painstakingly rendered objects, her slap-dash constructions and curious household gadgets describe a funky but complex visual realm, where she herself makes intermittent appearances as the protagonist of an open-ended story. -ILYSM 4 Artists Judge Laurie Simmons
Guanyu Xu confirms that we are seeing-machines, maniacal in our need to optically engage with, record, know, give the beat to and melt to the idea that if we only see enough images we might know we are not alone. Now more than ever this drive to see-it-all, try to organize the uncertainty all around us – that encroaches on us but that also confirms and bestows something deeply human on all of us – now, we see the mad, imperious almost-divinity of cloud-scape visual symphonies. -ILYSM 4 Artists Judge Jerry Saltz

♡: HI!

Guanyu Xu: Yay! Thank you for doing this~

Kiki Jia Qi Zhen: For sure, thank you for having me!

♡: What are you doing with your time in isolation? What has this period been like for you?

GX: I’m honestly being lazy now. I read, I prepare things for my class, I talk to students, I play phone games, I apply to stuffs, I work on my visa materials, I check news....

I’m ok with just staying at home but I miss being free going out and meet friends. And go to chinatown to eat.

KZ: Ooooo, I'm been obsessed in sewing bags and learning how to sew my own clothes. Each test and trial, I'm learning more on how to alter. But somehow it lands back to art making haha. It's pretty helpful, especially when I'm doing the costumes or sewing up my sculptures.

I mostly eye ball the measurements, and surprisedly it fits. Massive shocker 😂

I'm currently out of work and staying at home, surrounded by my parents and siblings constantly. Can't escape to anywhere. BUT I'm appreciative of this sorta bonding experience and soaking up the home studio time I get to make work.

I commuted from home during art school. Easy commute too, saves money than living on campus for sure.

I spent most of my bfa years at school, just making whatever and whenever. It was a PAID escape from home. But I enjoyed it. I get to make and learn stuff on my own

Away from home**

But now, I feel like it's total 180.

♡: So, this week, Laurie Simmons and Jerry Saltz were so moved by both of your work that they decided to select two grant recipients. Laurie donated the additional grant herself.

GX: It was certainly amazing to be selected by them!

Honestly, I was super shocked when you called me on the news.

♡: I was excited to see that the winners they chose resonated with me so strongly, and then the two of you are BOTH based in Chicago, Chinese, and Chinese American, and explore that identity in your work...

Where did you grow up?

GX: Beijing, till 21 and I moved to Chicago for art school. That was 2014

KZ: Jiangmen 🤔 I came here when I was 5, halloween night! And lived here in Chicago since then

♡: Halloween night! Do you have specific memories from that night, your first American Halloween?

KZ: I think having my first nose bleed was a killer moment for my mom. Since the dry air from the heater. Supposedly it isnt common thing for parents to ever see??And no, my parents are too superstitious to let me enjoy a first american halloween haha

♡: Did you start making things at a young age?

GX: Im more a photographer-turned artist. I used to only do straight photography not until I got to Chicago and studied in saic I start to make “art”

My parents wanted me to study finance for college but I got in Beijing Film Academy for photography and everything started to change lol.... I think since we all take photography everyday now it’s a like if you write on twitter you are not necessarily can be a writer.... But I certainly wasn’t self-critical about my photography so I don’t think they are fine art enough for me. That’s being said, my understanding of definition of contemporary art started from Western’s discourse.

♡: Why were you attracted to photographing things? What motivated you to pursue a degree? And how do you differentiate what you call “straight photography” and art?

GX: Ithink I was just continuing to pursue a career being a photographer. I wasn’t introduced much about fine art photography much in Beijing. And I think coming to here really broaden my understanding of art and photography as well as photography as art. Degree is a something more a necessity. Maybe that’s a more or less Chinese mentality. I also learned so much in school. In terms of straight photo I think I mean something more focus a formal elements instead of also thinking about conceptual/historical/theoretical aspect of making a photo/project.

♡: it was more of a pure aesthetic expression?

GZ: Yes. More maybe also reproducing images I already seen unconsicously. Since I was really just learning techinical aspect of photography.

KZ: Would it be a shocker if I self claim myself as a athlete turned "artist" lol.

I started enjoying art in junior year of high school. Only my dad was supportive of my decision for an art degree for college. But my mom has slowly started opening up to over the past years.

♡: Were you making work for school? For fun? For Instagram?

KW: Mostly in high school, after taking an art class. Most of my high school years was just hell, missing classes and just didnt care.

Middle school, I was an athletic kid, did all the sports you could name of (besides swimming) still don't know how to swim haha.

Transitioning to hs was rough, my middle school was predominantly all Asians/chinese. But then switching to predominantly Black high school. I guess culturally I couldnt figur out where to fit in

I was/still am an awkward quiet Asian chick lol. It's really weird to get compared in piano class what an ACTUAL chinese/Asian was VS. Americanized asian.

By former classmates'

GX: Early on I took photo of things I think is “beautiful” when I was in high school

♡: Do you remember the first piece of work you made with the intention of "making art" and feeling successful at it? What was it? Did you show it to anyone?

KZ: I have just started making my costumes roughly junior bfa year. It became more evident that a mask was an essential piece. Sorta gave me an alter ego when I perform/wear it. Especially having my glasses off, the audience just a blur to me, gives me a comfort shield.

GX: favorite image i made before I transferred to Chicago.

first photo I made in school here.

♡: What kind of work were you producing when you were in Beijing? While you were there, were you thinking about work you wanted to be making but felt like you couldn’t? The first photo you took in Chicago- what is the story behind that photo? That’s you, in the photo?

GX: Thinking backward, I took photo that interests me. Lots of presenting feeling of isolation and loneliness. I don’t think I was that creative at that point lol. The self-portrait of my staged death was the first group of photos I made here in the US. They deal with fear of coming out to people, fear of my safety bc of potential hate crime here in the US as well as confronting my internalized homophobia....

♡: What made you decide to transfer from Beijing to Chicago? And what was that transition like for you?

GX: I really wanted to come to the US since I watched too many films and tv shows while I grew up especially secretly being gay. I also wanted to learn more contemporary art and my friend who went to the US earlier really encouraged me.

♡: did you have group Crits in front of all your peers and professors?That seems like jumping right into the deep end!

GX: Lol yes. I was still trying to learn art vocabulary and practicing my broken language even though there was English class since I was 6. But my professor and my peers were really really encouraging. I certainly feel grateful of that class.

♡: What did it feel like to put yourself in a piece of work like that for the first time, and show a bunch of strangers?

GX: Hahaha honestly I don’t remember.... it’s more than 6 years ago. I think I was super nervous every time I was in that class. I work almost everyday really late in school to prepare. I think for the 20 years I wasn’t really being myself and it’s good to presenting myself even though you know as a dead one. It’s more a performance. So not so much pressure but more pressure from questioning if it’s a good art.

It’s also in an art school. It’s a protective space of being vulnerable. And in many ways art is about risk taking and being ok with being vulnerable

♡: Are you actively thinking about people seeing your work as you are making it?

GX: Not until I started to showing my work in exhibition. But I think in art school, one of question that always will be asked is who is your audience?

KZ: Starting off a piece, I'd think of the asian/Asian Americans, and the in-between as my audience/s. As an immigrant growing up here, I'm experimenting many cultural and intergenerational clashes.

♡: I know I’m projecting here, but I’m thinking about the idea of performing and wanting to put yourself or your ideas out there and have them be seen. That wasn’t something I felt encouraged to do growing up with Taiwanese immigrant parents. Expressing yourself, exploring your identity wasn’t a priority. But the desire to express myself and be seen was there.

So I’m really interested in that seemingly abrupt transition

From studying in China and taking a structured, formalized approach to your work

And then suddenly, exploring these very real and very big fears, and putting yourself in the images, and putting them in front of people

Were the seedling ideas for these images in your head before you came to Chicago? Or was it something that just started happening when you got there

GX: Great question. I think I certainly share that history of collectivity and be conscious about family value as well as societal structure. That’s not a wrong value, more to what degree I think, especially seeing neoliberal individualism as well white supremacy in the US. Just saying “me me me” is not gonna make a society functioning. In terms of the complexity of feeling I had when I was trying to figure my life and art in the US, it’s hard to just put into few words. I don’t think I was thinking too much about what to make in the US when I was in China, but as we are all the individual who has history that means we are all accumulating knowledge and experience constantly. You could formulate something based on your past experience to present now or even construct something futuristic. So I guess because I was looking at more films, tv shows, fashion, I was accumulating art and cultural language. It’s not a moment of singularity.

The willingness of thinking across space and time is so generative.

♡: Kiki, can you tell us about Yellow White Baked? You perform in the piece, right?

KZ: I do performance this piece along with yearning support

Yellow-White Baked reflects heavily on modern Chinese standard of female beauty that's influenced by Western capitalist society. This modern beauty standard grow to be an obsession of achieving a Western "look", with facial enhancements of perfect nose to the perfect v shaped jawline.

Which is why, the piece consists many of the facial enhancements attachments that alternate my facial features... like the white porcelain skin, enhanced high nose bridge, plumped red lips, and even the strand of blond hair.

As Yellow-White Baked embodies the cultural shifts to globalization ; a dependent on the obsession of western beauty... Yearning Support questions the cultural norms of etiquette

This coined stereotypical term, Asian squat has been a common and generalized posture the Asian population... some roots referring back to the lower/middle class population

If I'm not at work/school setting, I'm surrounded by my chinese roots. Esp at home, I'm legit the translator for my parents to my little siblings

♡: Your parents only speak Chinese and your younger siblings only speak English?

KZ: I’m still struggling today on the two languages, I'm losing alot of my chinese since my days been more caught up in work, around more English speakers.

My parents speak chinese, lacked english. The 'engrish' definitely comes out when its needed.

My siblings struggle with chinese. And yes, they mostly speak English even at home.

Too much of an age and cultural gap between my parents, my siblings and I.

♡: Do you share your work with your family?

KZ: To my mom and siblings yes. My dad however no, he has been a cook working from 10am-10pm since we came to america. I dont get a chance to really sit and chat with him not even art at least.

My siblings are a huge part of my work and helping me too. Like studio assistants haha

My mom has been to all my shows, she might act cold to me on my art, but I can tell shes proud of me when she sees my work.

Some work i make she cant figure out if its art, trash, or both lol.

This work I made, Mahjong. She could tell right away it was a mahjong table. It was an essential thing for her. Haha, growing up in america, i remember her going to play this every weekend/ free time. The work reflects on my own interpretation of the mahjong game. How it's no playable as its bent in a newspace and perspective.

Seeing my mom gets consumed in this sort of entertainment makes me less attached to learning how to actually play it.

I just see and watch from afar, it was somewhat familiar yet unfamiliar thing to me.

♡: What was her reaction when she saw it?

KZ: 😂😂 She said I missed the side slots for the cigarette tray. And how it made her think bout playing mahjong during my own thesis show 🤦🏻‍♀️

Over time, I think it's the generational gap making it harder for me to grasp and communicate with my parents. Which then reflects back into my art practice.

Portion of that frustration I'm throwing onto my work, probably hoping that someone else out there could also feel and see that.

♡: Guanyu, I was reading about your most recent exhibition, temporarily censored home, and how you installed your work in your parents’ home while they were away, and took it all down before they came home. Have they seen the work or read about it since the show went up?

GX: They knew I was making art in home back they never seen what’s the actual work. Neither have they read anything about the work. They still don’t know anything about it.....

♡: They’re not curious?

GX: Not really. Maybe at the beginning. But I was also back to the Chicago quickly they seems to forget about it and honestly they are more focus on if I could find a stable job. I think at least having a part-time job in school is better assurance for them.

♡: Do you talk to your parents often? What is your relationship like!

GX: I periodically argue with my father on WeChat about politics. And I usually have video chat with my mom and my grandparents.

♡: Do you see yourself living and working in the US/Chicago indefinitely?

Or is there somewhere else you want to see or experience

GX: I also hope there is not much hate crime and the politician are not taking advantage of this virus to advance their deadly politics.

I have no idea. I think I like the US as it’s place nourish my practice. But I don’t know if I should be concerned about my safety and how much the policy will change from the current government since it’s so unstable, hypocrite, and evil. I also know to have option to leave is also a privilege even though I don’t really know where I could move to with getting a job there and have practice there.

♡: How has your perception of the US changed, from seeing it in film and tv to living here, at this time?

GX: Firstly, the films and tvs are just myth. They created a desire for people to consume. I don’t think US actually changed much. If changed, probably from bad to worse...... In terms of both economic, democratic, as well as being responsible for human being both internally and externally.

♡: Did you recognize them as fantasy though? Before you moved here?

GX: I guess,

♡: What did it represent for you

The promise of coming to America, to going to art school, to making art here

GX: I believe they were sugar-coated reality.

But not really tho haha school is both practical(gaining degree) and also fun to learn art I guess. Coming to America is about “free”, “democracy,” “being oneself,” “achieving dream.” That’s “America” not the US I guess haha.

My amazing professor Clarke [Robert Clarke-Davis] told me the difference.

♡: Do you see yourself making or showing work in China one day?

GX: I actually just got contacted by a photo festival in China. So maybe soon!

KZ: Guangyu, how does your parents see your art/art practice now? Since one of your recent(?) Installations were also captured in your parents home in china(?)

GX: They had no idea about what the project look like! I made those installations while they gone for work everyday.

KZ: And wow lol that really resonates me to even the sneaking and making it part.

GX: How did your parents react to your sculptures and performance? I don’t think my parents would understand them If I made them. So you are really courageous if you have shown them.

KZ: My parents doesnt really understand my work, esp my dad. Only my mom if key and evident form are shown in my work that she can render herself

GX: It’s certainly tough to communicate.

I don’t know how to reveal my work either.

How do you see your manipulation of objects transform your identity? What potentiality generated and offered to you and audiences?

KZ: In terms of the manipulation of objects, I think it lays heavily on my questioning of being in the in between, this transgenerational identity has been hard to navigate.

Pouring part frustration of what I've experimented on both/multiple sides on the table

GX: I think that’s really beautiful and courageous, showing the vulnerable experience seeing oneself as stranger and showing the process of figuring out the cultural and political forces around you.

KZ: Have you spoke to your parents and know what they think about your photography in the current years? Since you've won many photography awards since your time in America(?).

GX: They don’t really know what kind of things I received....I don’t think they translate to happiness if these things translate to a stable job and money....... Maybe I project too much...... I haven’t really encounter students having that issuance even though several are Chinese Americans. I’m also not in the position to tell you how to deal with it especially I’m not a Chinese American. I would say just try to deal with slowly. Transfer the vulnerable to your strengths, as in the art world unlike “real” world, is allowed and encouraged.

KZ: What would be some advice to your students if they're experimenting this cultural clashes? And would you further recommend them to grad school? (This might be a personal question of mine😂, since I'm still conflicted bout it in terms of a masters for arts).

GZ: Master degree is so complicated. I had privilege to have it without having a debt since my parents paid it. I helped me process my practice that I didn’t have chance to process (I was a transferred student for 2.5 years in SAIC undergrad.) Eventually, different people want different thing from Master. It depends on what you want: art career? Teaching? Family pressure? Learn more art? For phd? Then you need to research whitch program is suitable.

We could talk more about grad school later. Also, sculpture world is also quite different from photography world.

Lol maybe or maybe not...

KZ: Ah right on!

Oof, to define being an artist is ehh... weird territory.. especially graduating semi "fresh" from BFA. Still struggling to land a full time job and now this crisis just adds on the load. Sometimes wish I forced myself to do a "better" degree instead.

Yes, even more of a reason for me to put mfa degree on the back burner for a bit.

GX: I certainly understand that struggle.... really difficult to get a real job with bfa degree for sure...

KZ: I'll keep researching, perhaps a different take of it eventually. I hope to keep in touch esp since we are both Chicago residents artists as well. Small world haha.

And thank you Alice for this. I do enjoy this casual style.

GX: I would be happy if any parents see my work and maybe understand through my work about their kids.

KZ: Even if I could communicate with them about it, I dont believe they'd care. It's just a different world lol.

GX: We all need education for kids to understand art and culture in school.


:) :) :) :) :)