Zhou Yi: China’s leading video artist comes home

Zhou Yi: China’s leading video artist comes home

One of China’s foremost video artists teams up with Tudou to push the limits of video production

Zhou Yi's work "The Greatness" show journeys through different worlds inspired by Dante’s "Inferno".

When Andy Warhol painted fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg in his signature flat, block-color style, he could not have imagined how art would change over the coming decades. Fast forward to 2011, when Chinese artist Zhou Yi “painted” the same designer not on canvas but in 3D animation.

Zhou Yi's work "The Greatness" show journeys through different worlds inspired by Dante’s "Inferno".

 

When Andy Warhol painted fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg in his signature flat, block-color style, he could not have imagined how art would change over the coming decades. Fast forward to 2011, when Chinese artist Zhou Yi “painted” the same designer not on canvas but in 3D animation.

In Zhou’s hands, von Furstenberg is an eerie white statuette from whose mouth small figurines emerge, flying towards the viewer. The figurines are female icons, both Chinese and Western, ranging from Mother Teresa to Maggie Cheung.

Zhou is one of four Chinese artists chosen by von Furstenberg to complete a portrait of her for an exhibition of her designs in Beijing’s Pace Gallery (on show until May 14).

Judging by her selection for this event and the rest of Zhou's packed upcoming calendar, she is a rising star in both the Chinese and Western art worlds.

A Chinese face to modern art

Zhou Yi - Tudou video awards 2011Zhou Yi, one of China's artists shaking up the global video art scene. Although the Hangzhou-born Zhou now calls Europe home, she has recently returned to China as art director for the 2011 Tudou Video Festival, which takes place on May 14 in Beijing, and art ambassador for Clarins in China. Later this year, Zhou will put on an exhibition at the Venice Biennale.

Zhou has captured international attention with her bold use of technology, one of the reasons she is partnering with Tudou.com for their festival. In her longer recent works, “The Ear” and “The Greatness”, she used a 3D body scan of American rapper Pharrell Williams to mold sculptures, which she features throughout the video (see above).

Then there are the puzzling, provocative images that run, like recurring refrains, through her surrealist video sequences. Consciously drawing on wide influences, from literature to philosophy, her works are like dreams -- strangely alien yet familiar at the same time.

“The Greatness”, for example, journeys through different worlds inspired by Dante’s concentric circles of hell. The von Furstenberg portrait draws on Freudian symbolism.

“There can be all sorts of meanings to things coming out of a mouth,” says Zhou of the work.

Struggle against tradition

Zhou was born and raised in Hangzhou before moving to Rome at the age of nine, growing up among the city’s classical frescos and sculptures. But after studying in London, she returned and rebelled against the ancient Italian city.

“I had been surrounded by the works of established and successful artists, so I decided to use video because it doesn't have much history -- animation has even less precedence, it’s virgin territory,” says Zhou. 

Technology is about the challenge of finding the possibilities, pushing the boundaries.— Zhou Yi, Chinese video artists and face of the Tudou Video Awards 2011

She also turned against her degree in politics. Upon graduation, she promptly decided to become an artist, teaching herself video animation and film.

Her lack of computing training doesn’t frustrate her she says, even though she has to work with teams of animators more used to video games to create her artistic vision. It may take her an hour just to describe to them how exactly, for example, an object should tremble.

“Technology is about the challenge of finding the possibilities, pushing the boundaries,” she explains.

Since deciding to become an artist, Zhou has continuously broken barriers between sculpture, painting, film, music and animation.

“My signature style showing people escape and change,” she explains. “In order to create, I have to put myself in a weird emotional situation. All my work come from that struggle moment.”

Zhou is particularly sensitive to the struggles of young artists.

Though she got her break relatively early, in 2002 at the Jérôme de Noirmont gallery in Paris, she complains that emerging artists are not given opportunities by the establishment.

This is one of the reasons she’s now spending more time in China where she sees enormous potential.

Supporting China’s developing artists

Zhou has been eager to meet Tudou’s young Chinese artists, who have little opportunity for stimulation or input from the outside world, says Anita Huang, Tudou.com's marketing director.

“We found great synergy with Zhou Yi as we’re about giving grassroots creativity a platform,” says Huang.

Zhou Yi - Tudou video awards 2011Zhou Yi making the Pharrell-based vase sculpture you see in her recent work, "The Greatness" (see video at the top of the page). “Many of the entrants to this year’s Tudou Video Festival are just individuals filming at home, with content that is either too risky or too experimental for traditional media.”

Being between East and West, Zhou is also a cultural ambassador, helping each benefit from the other's work.

She is bringing a couple of Sundance organizers to judge at the 2011 Tudou Video Festival. In the West, she is regarded as a window onto the mysterious landscape of Chinese art.

Being multicultural has of course informed her work, though she says it’s all subconscious.

“I close my eyes and see it like a painter, just the silhouette, the contours,” she says of any Chinese references.

It’s also there in her themes of, “construction, deconstruction and transition.”

In an early piece, "One of These Days," Zhou and her team spent a year constructing a virtual world building by building. They then destroyed each and every building, filming the explosions with the same meticulous care.

Zhou’s lifetime of traveling between countries, cultures and realities must surely have helped her explode traditional approaches to and mediums for art, which she will soon be able to transmit to China's newest generation of video artists.

For more information on Zhou Yi read on at www.yi-yo.net. For more information on the 2011 Tudou Video festival read on at tdvf2011.tudou.com.
In three years in Shanghai, Nancy Zhang has written lifestyle, business and technical stories for a number of publications and interviewed hundreds of people in Shanghainese, Mandarin and English.
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