“Under the Influence”

Last week, I was fortunate enough to meet up with RISD Graduate students Janet Shih and Chihao Yo, curators of the “Under the Influence” exhibit at the RISD Museum. Found in Gellman Gallery, this display is full of eye-catching art expressed through a wide array of media, from canvas to video, a baby’s rocking chair to communion wafers, a disembodied arm to a motion-detecting wooden chair. The curators and I had a pleasant chat about art, inspiration, and what it’s like to curate a “show full of favorites.”

Can you tell me a little about yourselves?

Janet: I’m from Seattle, Washington and I’m Chinese American. I went to undergrad at UC San Diego for Cognitive Science, and then I tried to do some freelance stuff for a year and decided it wasn’t really working. So I just applied to Digital Media here, at RISD. That’s it. [Laughs]

Chihao: I’m not Chinese American. I’m Taiwanese, from Taipei. Before RISD, I was in National Taiwan University. My department was Information Management, which was kind of a combined degree of Computer Science and Business. After college, I thought it would be good to go abroad and do media design and art.

What made you take an interest in art specifically?

Janet: I always traveled around with my parents when I was younger and they’re not particularly into fine arts themselves, but they liked to take me to all the hot spots, you know, all the museums and stuff. Somehow, I naturally took an interest in the arts — not necessarily at a very deep level, but once I got older, I tended to really like contemporary art. When I was finding that this more strict way of working wasn’t happening, it was kind of like, “Haha, why not try art? Maybe this is the kind of atmosphere I need.” I don’t know.

Chihao: For me, art has a lot of possibilities. It’s less rigid than other jobs or occupations that I could normally do in Taiwan, because everyone there is either a businessman or engineer. I wasn’t really thinking about art when I applied, but more design. But I found that digital media was more focused in fine arts, which is a happy coincidence. [Pause] I was more involved with music before this, and not so much visual art. My undergrad degree was part Computer Science, so I was trained as a programmer. So I thought, “Oh, I can do interactive design or digital art.”

What instrument did you play?

Chihao: I was the conductor of the choir. And I also played piano. And I learned trumpet. I tried to get into music school, but I didn’t get into the one I wanted, so I went for computer science.

How does being Asian or Asian American affect your art, if at all?

Chihao: Taiwan is this weird country that’s heavily influenced by the United States because of political reasons involving World War II and the Communist China situation. So we have a lot of American culture imported to Taiwan from Hollywood and all that stuff. Also, Taiwan is this multicultural, immigration based country. We are tiny. We are an island. We have all sorts of different people coming from all directions. And so that’s some background for me. In terms of my art, I think, after I came here, I was able to look back at my country from an outsider’s point of view, and that inspires my art a lot. Or rather, I don’t want to say “my art,” but “my work.” Labor conditions, education situation, and social injustice in Taiwan: that is what inspires me.

Janet: It’s nice that you can see your country from the outside, but it’s not like your work is specifically about Taiwan. It’s not like a Chinese artist making Chinese art.

Chihao: Yeah. I would not label it as Taiwanese art, but it’s more like art being seen through Taiwanese lens and addressing bigger issues. That’s my goal. I’m not sure I’ve done that, but I want to go for that.

Janet: We both come from pretty different backgrounds. I’m clearly Asian American and I’ve grown up without any of this feeling of estrangement or difference that a lot of people have talked about or pointed to, if that makes any sense. So I don’t really approach my work and say that it is clearly an Asian American point of view. There might be some Asian influences because of interests that I’ve grown up with, but whenever it comes up, it’s usually something like Japanese culture, even though I’m not Japanese American. And that’s just because that’s the kind of stuff I grew up with, but I never try to make it a main point — maybe just a point of inspiration. I don’t know how it will work when my work becomes a body of work… but maybe that’s the biggest influence in terms of aesthetics. And I definitely take interest in a lot of the stuff that’s going on there… I find interest in contemporary Asian art.

Chihao: The Gutai show at the Guggenheim last year was pretty good.

Janet: Yeah, it was like a post-war Japanese movement and that was really interesting to me. But I don’t think my work is about my experience being Asian. And I hope people don’t look at it like that.

Can you give me some information about the exhibit? What did you want to show people?

Janet: The exhibit is a pretty typical call for student shows every semester. It’s just something I knew I wanted to do and I asked Chihao to do it with me to make it easier. [Laughs] At the very beginning, it was just to try out this role as curator rather than artist (or the role of artist as curator). I was just going for a fun show! Just an enjoyable, fun show that had a theme that was interesting. Not so much, “these are all works that involve this medium,” but something that shows diversity in the student body in a more conceptual way. That’s where it started. [Pause] And that’s where it ended for me, too, haha.

Chihao: I got really excited about the title. I think that’s pretty clear in the statement, which evolved into a…

Janet: A dialogue?

Chihao: Yeah, exactly. That dialogue directed the movement of the show, the collection of the pieces, how we arranged them, and how we would write about those pieces. I’m a more politically charged artist — no, person — so I tend to go toward that way, while Janet’s more concerned about the diversity and vibrancy of the show. I think we make a very good compliment as a team.

What are some of you favorite pieces from the exhibit?

Janet: It’s hard to say because some of them are by people we know, and some of them are by people we don’t, you know? But I gotta say the one I specifically requested was “California #1,” which is the big bench that sticks out of the wall and looks like a cucumber/cactus thing. That’s by an undergrad that was in one of my classes. I tend to like pieces like that just because they’re so weird. Like, these images of things floating in space that aren’t really supposed to be there maybe. But his piece is about the total surrealness of everyday actions that he’s trying to point out. That kind of thing is really nice, and it looked nice. So that was a favorite of mine… But there are a lot of favorites though.

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“California #1” by Will GM Radin

Chihao: I think I like Tommy Mishima’s paintings. I really like the theme, the color, the feeling. It has such a huge presence on the wall. Maybe not huge, but heavy.

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“Cops” by Tommy Machina

Janet: I don’t want to call out my friends! [Laughs] That’s the thing.

Chihao: For a lot of the pieces, I tended to be drawn to the persona of the artist and then I would feel more attracted to their pieces, like Di Tang’s piece (“The Machine”). The piece is strong in itself, but I’m more attracted to the person, like, how did he ever come up with this idea of a fan and projection together?

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“The Machine” by Di Tang

Janet: It’s hard to say. We like every piece.

Chihao: It’s a show full of favorites.

Is there anything specific you want your audience to walk away with from the exhibit?

Janet: This is hard because you kind of focus it around the audience, but the main thought, at least for the opening, is about your fellow students. First and foremost, I hope people enjoyed it. But then through writing our statement, it’s also, “I hope you enjoyed it, but also start to think about this theme of what’s behind the scenes.” Not that artists aren’t thinking about it already, but in terms of whoever might wander in. For me, I didn’t want to have a show that was so heavy in one point that it was so obvious that there was something specific I wanted to say to people. And since I framed this around being a student show, if you’re not from RISD, you might have your preconceptions about what artists are interested in, but here’s a diversity of stuff they can make. It doesn’t all have to be about race, or class, or whatever; some of it is, but not all of it.

Chihao: For me, it was more of a prompt or reminder for people to think about what Janet just said: what’s behind the scenes. If people have time, they can try to find what’s behind it, what’s causing the piece to come about. They should give themselves time to think about things. I think a gallery is a good place to do that. Maybe you’ll find inspiration, maybe not. But at least you’ll have the time to do it. I think I’m really proud of our statement. I want people to read it and think about why we put this statement on the wall.

Janet: Even more than picking the pieces, the statement was the hardest part. At some point, it was like “are people really gonna read this?” But people said they read it, and I’m actually really happy about that.

Do you have any past projects that you are particularly proud of?

Janet: Come to our Biennial*! Another reason I embarked on this show was because in terms of making [art], I don’t know if it’s for me. But there’s a big draw for me to collect other people’s work and display that. So, in terms of this semester, that was my big accomplishment. My relationship with my work is that I make it off of some sort of whim or feeling. I don’t necessarily enjoy it after or during the making, so stuff I’m proud of usually comes from whether or not other people get anything out of it. Now, I’m doing a lot of stuff with big Internet collages of poor quality images that I stitch back together. That’s my current direction, and I kind of like it.

Chihao: A lot of pieces are more focused on what I’m trying to say. I think I’m having a hard time finding the right medium or way to express it through physical objects. But I think the piece at the biennial might be a more of an art object piece that people will appreciate. It’s a glass hardhat collection, which I made with a lot of help from the glass department at RISD.

Any last words for out readers? Final thoughts? Advice?

Chihao: Hiiii.

Janet: It’s so hard because I’m kind of new to this whole art scene myself.

Chihao: Me, too.

Janet: I guess I would say to be critical, but be light.

Chihao: Beware of what you’re being critical about. Always try to look beyond.

Janet: How about just do what you want to do?

Chihao: Probably get out of this country.

Janet: Oh, yeah! Go abroad or something.

Chihao: Right? That’s what I want to do. Or go to places that aren’t usually on the map. This is a huge country. It isn’t all about New York, or San Francisco. It’s almost like going abroad, but you’re still in this country. But it’s even better if you go radically away.

*The Biennial is held at the Sol Koffler Graduate Student Gallery at 169 Weybosset Street, from now until December 8th.

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