Yi Zhou: ‘Art Should Be Free’
  Resource:wsj   2012-10-15 08:49:55  

Few artists celebrate the 10th anniversary of their first solo exhibition by the age of 33.

But Yi Zhou, a multimedia artist raised in Rome and now living between Shanghai and Paris, began showing her video work in 2002. Since then, she’s drawn attention for installations that merge music, digital animation and live footage.

She has struck collaborations with the Chinese video site Tudou.com and produced a pair of Dante-inspired videos featuring Pharrell Williams. Her work has been selected for the Sundance Film Festival, and last year she held a solo exhibit at the Venice Biennale.

Karl Lagerfeld recently featured Ms. Zhou in a series of photos for Chanel called “The Little Black Jacket.” She spoke with the Journal about proving her sanity to NASA and searching for parallel universes. Edited excerpts follow below.

The Wall Street Journal: What drew you to multimedia art?

Ms. Zhou: When I graduated, I started experimenting. Growing up in Italy, I was more familiar with classical arts. But living in London, I began to explore the meaning of contemporary arts. I learned how not to be afraid and how to express what I wanted to say in a contemporary language. And for me, the easiest way was to take a camera and make short films, so I went and saw a lot of Bill Viola, Nam June Paik, Tracy Emin, and Sarah Lucas, the Young British Artists. I started to do my first videos and in September 2002, my Paris dealer offered me a solo show.

What was it like growing up as a Chinese woman in Rome?

Now when you say you’re Chinese, everyone is impressed and all the doors are open, especially if you’re an artist. Growing up in Italy and being Chinese, it was different. No one wanted to be Chinese. I wanted to be Italian! I had…I wouldn’t call it a handicap exactly, but I had that kind of shame.

When foreign media talk to Chinese artists, there’s often a fixation on their political views.

I don’t think my work is political. Having studied political science, I’m fascinated by political rhetoric. Communication is a big part of my work. Not only in terms of social media—I’m always tweeting—but I also speak five languages (Mandarin, Italian, English, French, and Spanish). It makes all the difference. Much of my work is about cultural exchange.

You recently created a work in collaboration with NASA. How did that begin?

I started doing research on the material aerogel, because I wanted to do a sculpture. They didn’t want to work with me, because they thought I was crazy.


I called NASA and said, “I’d like to make a mountain out of aerogel.” It’s used in buildings and has all these insulation properties. I insisted, I didn’t give up, I emailed them all the projects I was doing. Usually they produce very squared, blocked, symmetrical shapes, so when someone emailed them asking to make a mountain, they were like, whatever. Until one day, after six months, they replied, “OK, maybe we’re interested. You’re not crazy. Why don’t you come to Silicon Valley and do a little research with us.” So I went, and we ended up collaborating on this piece, an aerogel-made heart, which comes from the medical mold of a heart.

You’ve often cited parallel or new worlds as an inspiration for your works. What does that mean?

I’ve read a lot of books about astronomy and astrophysics. And I really believe in the theory that, through black holes and white holes, there might be parallel universes. These theories have always marked my thinking, and I think it’s an approach to art that is about not just focusing on one medium, but really unfolding through different mediums and collaborations.

So you see the idea as a strand linking your works.

The work of an artist is not just to interpret the moment we live in, but to give the world a dream, a hope. For me, it’s important to carry a message throughout your work in a lifetime, and to be able to deliver a good and meaningful message. It’s easy for people today to like an artist as a brand. But to me, a lot of art is useless unless it really means something. Otherwise it’s just an extra piece in the world.

What are you working on now?

My latest project is a jewelry line, which I’ve designed for a French brand called Gripoix. We launched this month in London and Paris. Gripoix has manufactured for Chanel since the 1930s. In 2006, they reopened as a jewelry brand. The whole idea is around everything you can do with a pineapple.

Are there any new artists that you have your eye on?

I tend to like old masters. Tintoretto, Rembrandt, Piero della Francesca, Fra Angelico. A lot of Italians. And also French.

On the question of young artists, so many don’t get the chance to showcase in galleries and museums. I strongly encourage them to put their stuff on the net. I’m a big believer in virtual worlds. And not just because I’m the art director of Tudou.

And I’m going to say something very radical, that my gallery won’t like: I think that art in the future should be free. How are you going to regulate some pay-per-view way? I really don’t believe in that. The work I do is for everyone to share. If you believe in the work of artists, you should invest in their work over the course of a lifetime. There should be a new system. And I strongly believe that there will be one day.

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