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2011 BarTur Winner LUKA YUANYUAN YANG talks to the BarTur Photo Award

Luka Yuanyuan Yang (b.1989, Beijing), she is currently based in Beijing and New York. Most of the time, her projects take the research and collected historical materials as the departure, and they evolve along with individual experiences relate to specific places. By creating narratives where facts and fiction coexist, she challenges the rigid and conventional interpretation of history and gives voices to subjects that have been forgotten, silenced, and misinterpreted. Yang creates visual narrative through photography, writings, video, artist books and performance, these mediums intertwine with each other within her projects. In the past few years, many of Yuanyuan Yang’s projects unfold upon the history of migration and war in the 20th century. Although the theme, location and period of the stories are different, they are subtlety related to each other. Her work has been exhibited and published internationally. Recently, the film ‘Coby and Stephen are in Love' co-directed with Carlo Nasisse was premiered at the Camden International Film Festival in September 2019.

I know that you entered the BarTur Award in 2011 when you were studying at University of the Arts London. Where did photography start for you and what led you to take a course in photography?

It feels like such a long time ago. At the very beginning, when I was a teenager, about 14, I was interested in drawing and then later I became interested in Photography around 16. A very important moment for me is when I realised I could use the camera as a reason and method to get closer to the reality. My imagination had drawn images, but then photography could really bring them to life. And that’s when I realised, OK I want to use photography as a key method for creating work.

Did you do a Foundation Degree in Beijing or did you come to London for your Foundation?

No I did everything London. So, in 2008 I did foundation at LCC, then went on to start my BA in Photography at Camberwell College and then i transferred back to LCC for my second year, then I took a gap year and went back to finish at LCC.

You spoke a little bit about why you take photos, to get closer to reality more than your drawings but I wonder when you are taking an image what do you think it's important to capture a what. What are you looking for in a photo?

I use photography as a way to cut a slice of reality. Nowadays I no longer consider myself purely as a photographer, but photography is still the most important material in my practice, and I think a lot about the characteristic and history of this particular medium. In my projects, I often include collected materials that i have found in my research together with my own photography. I work in a hamster... At the very beginning I collect a lot of things, not just images, but urban legends stories I overheard or appropriated text and I get all these materials back into my studio and I start to work like a spider. I start to weave a web among these images. And this is the key moment for me to start actually creating, editing... like a visual writing process. So this is the way I work. You need to use collected material to get closer to the truth rather than through one particular image.

So what do you think makes a good photographer?

This is a hard question. The image culture nowadays is completely different from the time when Henri Cartier-Bresson spoke about “the decisive moment”... Cameras surround us everywhere these days... For example like let's imagine one street corner. One event is happening. There are four video cameras surrounding us. 50 phones. All around this one event. There could be, I don't know 200 very good images being produced within 10 seconds and so it’s hard to say which image was good and what made it good, and so what makes a good photographer? Maybe it’s not skill or equipment, it’s that you have to be there in that moment and be alert. Like a hunter.

Do you have any favorite photographers or maybe contemporary artists that use photography as a medium?

I like Tacita Dean and Collier Schorr, they are probably two of my favourite artists, but i suppose you don’t really consider them purely as photographers. I'm more interested in film-makers and writers actually. For example Jim Jarmusch is one of my favorite film directors and I actually love the whole group of friends that he got such as Tom Waits and John Lurie. Writers also influenced me a lot more than photographers actually like Robert Bolano and Paul Auster. Actually Paul Auster talks a lot about photography.

Are you represented by a Gallery?

I'm represent AIKE in Shanghai. I was lucky my career. The Bar-Tur Award was the first award I'd ever won in. At that time in 2011 I was in the second year of my BA course at LCC and then later I was the winner of Tierney fellowship at Three Shadows Photography Art Center in 2012. This was a really important award to win and really helped me continue my work in China. I also participated in lots of exhibitions and then later on won more awards… I guess it was during this process the galleries start to approach me… In 2018 i applied for and was awarded the Asian Cultural Council Grant (ACC was established by John D. Rockefeller 3rd in 1963… they awards fellowship grants to artists and scholars in three categories of cross-cultural exchange: Asia to the U.S., U.S. to Asia, and intra-Asia. ) I spent seven months in NEW York on this cultural exchange which was the most important opportunity that I have received as I benefited so much from that experience. So just got back to China in October 2018 and during this process I started to realise I want to make my first ever movie. So this is a big move for me because I have been mainly doing projects with contemporary art but I realised I’ve always been doing visual storytelling, which is the essence of filmmaking practice.

In September 2019, my first short film ‘Coby and Stephen are in Love' co-directed with Carlo Nasisse was premiered at the Camden International Film Festival. The film is about the unlikely love story between Coby Yee, a 92 year old retired nightclub dancer and icon from San Francisco Chinatown, and Stephen King, an experimental filmmaker 20 years her junior.

So one thing to say to people who are just starting out, is that look for opportunities, look for awards and grants and apply for them. younger. You may get rejected but you should keep trying because winning grants and residential experiences are really really important to develop as a person and your work.

Can you tell me a little bit about what you're working on at the moment?

From March-April 2019, my solo show “Dalian Mirage” was showing AIKE Gallery in Shanghai, it’s the outcome of a project that I have been working on for two years.

After the completion of my first short film in September, I took a break and now back on track to keep working on my other feature film, which is also relates to stories of Chinese American female performer and actress.

So just last two questions… I just wondered what your first camera was?

Right now I'm using a Sony A7R2. I've been using it for several years. For making the movie we rented the camera. One of my last favorite while was Panasonic AU-EVA1 that's a video camera. That's a really nice one. I can produce beautiful colors and it's not too expensive.

And lastly, have you got like an ultimate goal for your work?

I don’t know…. “Ultimate goal” is such a strange term. Making art is a method for me to explore and question the world and it’s always an ongoing process.

When people go to an exhibition, sometimes they stay for really short time. They don't have patience for the works. I guess I do hope that when people see my work, they want to linger, and spend time with them. I want to make things that hopefully after some years people will still remember or at a particular moment all of a sudden they remember. And they will reflect on it with some of their own personal experience to it. That's what I hope.

Thank you Luka!

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