FWD.us met with Rene Yung, a Bay Area artist who immigrated from Hong Kong at age 14. Her work seamlessly ties together question of identity and culture, while challenging the public to engage directly with the work and contemplate their relationship with the story the work tells.
See Yung’s work in person at The Art of Immigration, a celebration of Bay Area artists as part of Immigrant Heritage Month.
FWD.us: Your work includes many different mediums. How do you describe your art?
Yung: My work has evolved over the years. The way I’m working now is really across different platforms. It includes installation art, which uses space and materials and concepts, and also social practice, which includes a significant amount of social engagement that brings people into the work as part of the process.
I began the installation work in the early 90’s. I’m interested in getting across a concept or an idea, as well as invoking emotion and creating a sense of awe and mystery. I found that working spatially allows me to do that – and my work increasingly became more culturally specific as I became more concerned about issues of culture and belonging.
I do very large drawings, and I was doing a number of drawing installations that have a central metaphor. A specific work is called “mountainriver.” It uses this idea of a seed both as a seed for new beginnings, and also the Greek meaning for diaspora – the scattering of seeds. I took fruit pits – we call them fruit stones – and I drew that at about 300 times their scale, and used the visual language of Chinese landscape painting, but rendering the topography of these seeds as landscapes. So, you see these worlds inside of the seeds.
FWD.us: How has your Chinese heritage been incorporated into your work?
I did another project about the Chinese who worked in the Boise Basin in Idaho, on the railroads and mines there. I had no idea there were Chinese in Idaho in the 19th century! At the time, Chinese made up more than 45% of the population in the Boise Basin. What happened to these people? Where did they go?
I created an installation of a brick wall made of soap, and each bar of soap is stamped with the word “REMEMBER.” The installation was built on a platform that was made from historic barn wood in the Boise Basin. So, who knows, maybe that barn wood had been part of the lives of these early Chinese immigrants who live there and then moved on. What I also came to realize as well is that as anti-Chinese sentiment became really virulent, Chinese were literally driven out of all parts of the country. So the “REMEMBER” part is ironic because these are bars of soap. The installation includes a washbasin, a stool, and towels with printed words of identity and memory – like “legal” or “illegal,” and “beloved.” So, as you use the towel, of course the word “REMEMBER” gets rubbed away, and the memory word on the towel also gets washed down and worn out.
Last fall, I launched a project called Chinese Whispers: Bay Chronicles, as part of my research about the maritime history of the Chinese. I was fascinated to find that the Chinese had an enormous shrimp fishery enterprise in San Francisco Bay in the late 19th century, and it continued all the way to the late 1950’s. It was completely decimated, for a number of factors, including strong anti-Chinese sentiment. You know, the Chinese Exclusion Act did not end until 1943. I partnered with San Francisco Maritime National Park last September and we did a research and art chronicling sailing expedition and sailed around the San Francisco Bay on a replicate 19th century Chinese junk [a kind of boat for shrimping] to former Chinese shrimp fishing sites. It was six days of sailing, with three public events. We had the junk armed to the teeth with cameras and recorders. We had mics, hydrophones, mics on the sails, GoPros on the masts… I did a very simple sound installation at San Francisco State earlier this year using some of these sounds. It was very exciting!
FWD.us: As you explore so many different parts of the Chinese experience in the Bay Area and beyond, what would you describe the main goal of your work?
Yung: If I pull back the lens and describe my work, I would say I’m interested in making connections. In that regard, maybe I sound more like an entrepreneurs than an artist. My language sounds like design thinking. I’m asking: How can I draw things together, and make connections that other people don’t make? And then, how can I make those connections understandable and palpable for a very broad public?