In Conversation With: Yuge Zhou

Yuge Zhou is a Chinese-born, Chicago-based artist whose video art collages footage in intricate, cubist-like ways to explore her story as an immigrant and observer. Her latest project when the East of the day meets the West of the night, filmed on parallel sides of the Pacific Ocean, explores the bonds between her homeland and her adopted country. In fact, the second part of the series is on indefinite pause due to the travel and immigration ban between China and the US. 
Her ongoing series Love Letters finds two dancers creating a gestural “dialogue” on opposite sides of the Chicago river inspired by isolation, interacting from afar during the pandemic.

Emerald Arguelles: Did you want to introduce yourself a little bit?

Yuge Zhou: My name is Yuge Zhou. I was born in Beijing, China, and I moved to the United States about 12 years ago, initially to go to Syracuse University and get a Masters Degree in Technology. I was interested in experiencing a very different culture as a counterweight to my Chinese heritage.

When I was in Syracuse, upon finishing my degree, I randomly picked up a camera and started filming and photographing different scenes and people’s activities. I got pretty interested in doing black-and-white street photography at that time and eventually started to build a portfolio and decided I wanted to be an artist. 

I then came to Chicago to get another degree, a Master of Fine Arts from the School of the Art Institute in Chicago. That’s where everything started. Pursuing an art degree solidified my interest in art and I was able to fuse artistic concepts with the logic associated with technological innovation. Since I graduated in 2015, I’ve been a practicing artist based in Chicago.

I create video and large-scale installations about connections, isolation, and longing in urban and natural environments.

EA: I wanted to ask—regarding connection, isolation, and longing—what personal experiences or conversations in passing led you to create work centered around those topics?

YZ: I grew up in China, which was kind of a conservative upbringing. Then I moved to the United States, when I was in my early 20s. Because of my bicultural background, I feel that, at times, I am too Chinese to be American and too American to be Chinese. I also find myself longing for home and realizing that both countries are my home. I will always exist in these two cultures as both an outsider and an insider. This in-between stage makes me more sensitive to boundaries and bonds in people’s behaviors and environments, and inspires me to explore the themes of connection, longing, and isolation. You can see it from the way I position myself in my work.

In some of my works, The Humors series, for example, the scenes are all filmed from a distance. I position myself as an observer. I am away from actions and isolated from the scene. That has a lot to do with me feeling disconnected from activities but at the same time interested in the connections I am capturing between people.

In one of my recent works, when the East of the day meets the West of the night, there are no people, instead two cameras capture this continuous, lateral movement of the horizon line from two sides of the Pacific Ocean. It’s two takes of sunset and sunrise in both China and the United States. It is a personal project but also somewhat of an insider project. That shift in point of view has a lot to do with my experience in this country.

EA: I personally connect with that “inside” and “outside” a lot, because my mom is Black, my dad is Cuban, and it’s like you can’t really pick because you relate to the cultures in different ways. I understand that I’m too Black to be Cuban but I’m too Cuban to be Black. Being in that “inside” is extremely difficult, and you have this internal tugging of what side do I identify with and have this identity crisis. What side am I? What am I? I love that about your work and not really having a definite answer to what it is but exploring both sides to it. 

With your video work, I wanted to ask what is your personal connection to water and your need to show both sides. 

YZ: To follow up with what you just said, one thing I want to mention is a sense of belonging. What is interesting after all these years is that I feel like this in-between, this gray area, is actually what is most interesting for me. Now I’m at a place where I’m happy with that. I’m willing to explore this in-between state rather than trying to find one or the other.  

In terms of what you said about the connection to water: in Chicago, there’s Lake Michigan and the Chicago River. I am near water and I have a view of the lake, so I spend a lot of time looking and thinking about the relationship between humans and the natural environment. 

So what does water mean to me? There are three things. Water is a source for contemplation and meditation. There’s a sense of lyrical rhythm and tranquility in the flow of water. Water also symbolizes distance. To me, it is an embodiment of the idea of separation. Lastly, I think water has a sense of romanticism in my work. 

when the East of the day meets the West of the night was inspired by a conversation I had with my mother, who lives in Beijing, about the emotional and physical distance between us. When I was talking with her, I had this picture in my mind of two figures standing at the edge of the Pacific Ocean, contemplating and looking out towards each other at the same moment, feeling connected despite the physical distance.

I filmed that project in the fall of 2019 in two continuous takes from the opposite sides of the Pacific Ocean with one camera near Beijing and one in California. As you can see in the work, the camera slowly moves laterally as the sun rises and sets in the sky. There was this really beautiful arc-shaped trajectory of the sun going down on the American side and rising on the Chinese side. In that piece, the water of the Pacific Ocean is a literal, physical barrier between myself and China, my hometown, and my family. At the same time, I know that my family is on the other side. I can’t see them but I know they are out there. The ocean is separating us but also links us together. There is something really powerful and really romantic about that, about looking out over the water’s edge in that way. 

Similar sentiments can be found in another work of mine entitled Love Letters. Love Letters is a four-part video series conceived during the pandemic. It portrays two individuals overcoming obstacles and physical barriers in order to make a connection. The summer episode, which was filmed last year, features two dancers standing on opposite banks of the Chicago River, attempting to communicate from afar by using gestures. The water here is the river. It’s smaller than an ocean, but it is also pretty significant. The dancers are separated by the water, but at the same time, the water is also a conduit for their connection.

I think these two works are really representative in interpreting what water means to me.

EA: That’s beautiful. I think it’s such a great connector in the sense of how this water keeps on following you no matter where you go. In the transition you went through in your career, I’m curious about your process to create your work. I guess that also ties into your inspirations if it’s other people or experiences and the things you see. 

YZ: The process of creating work has really changed from my previous works to my newer works. A lot of my older works involve improvisation. It has two processes. One is traveling to the location and collecting raw footage. Most of the time, I go to places without a particular mission or trying to film the most photogenic view. I have a sense of what I want to capture but I am very open-minded and allow the chance to happen. 

After I collect the footage, I start editing. It is during the editing process that I search for themes, events, and interesting juxtapositions in the footage. Then I assemble the footage into collages. In a way, my work is like a visual diary. 

A particular work I want to mention is entitled Underground Circuit. That piece is a collage of hundreds of scenes I filmed on New York subway platforms. It’s about the theatricality of mass transit. When I filmed that work, I knew people were going to wait on the platform and I knew people would be talking and moving, but I didn’t know exactly what was going to happen. While I was looking over the footage in my editing software, I realized that there is a rhythm and a direction of movement, and then I collaged the footage to coincide with these interesting themes and patterns.

My newer work is more choreographed, and I think that has a lot to do with the switch of my roles. In my previous work, I was doing everything on my own. I was a videographer, photographer, editor, producer—everything. In my new work, I play the role of a director. I set things up and figure out the exact concept I want to pursue. Then it’s about finding the right technique and collaborators to do it. 

For example, in the Love Letters project, I worked with dancers, a choreographer, and videographers. At the beginning of the project, I brainstormed with the choreographer on the movement of the dancers. Then we had a lot of rehearsals through Zoom. When we decided we were ready to film, we had a whole team on location, and I was the one directing the action. Everything’s more choreographed and more purposeful.

Another thing I want to mention about my new work is that, since September of last year, I’ve been a member of a New York-based residency program called NEW INC, which is the New Museum’s art and technology incubator program. Through that program, I’ve been working with mentors and peers to explore new possibilities in incorporating computer-mediated performances in my work. Specifically, we are focusing on the last episode of Love Letters in which the two dancers stage a courtship dance by following each other’s movements in this collage of urban labyrinths. For that piece, we decided to create interesting computer graphics that would interact with the dancers’ movements. It has been a really fruitful experience so far in bringing technological aspects into my work, especially with the help of my dedicated mentor James George. The project is going to be shown in 2022 as part of a public digital art protection program in Chicago. 

As I am producing more projects, I have a lot of collaborative effort from different people I am working with. That has become a very meaningful part of the process.

EA: I grew up in the South, and to touch on what you said about New York and that rhythm: I’ve never seen anything like that until I got to New York. It’s so inspiring because it definitely is possible to be thrown into that setting. There’s a sense of being hypersensitive and it can be overwhelming but it gives you so much strength to be able to navigate through those things. 

And the idea of collaboration is something I also think about in my own work, because I am used to being the makeup artist, the hair stylist, the director, photographer, lighting—I’m doing everything. Letting go and letting things work out the way they’re supposed to with people that you trust ends up being something that’s way beyond anything you could have thought of.

What do you want people to take away from your work?

YZ: That question has a lot to do with what you mentioned about New York. First of all, probably a sense of place. What makes a space a place? When does space become a place? For humans, that’s when we inhabit a space—we assign its activities and purposes.

For example, my video entitled Soft Plots features a quilt-like view of people playing volleyball and frisbee on a beach in Chicago during the summer. I collaged the scene into a surrealist landscape where you see a frisbee thrown into the void and then reappearing at the other side of the composition. You see people disappearing and reappearing in different places. To me, this uncanny fragmentation of perspective portrays a concept of urban living that is both group-oriented and discontinuous. Suddenly, a sandy beach becomes a place because of all of these activities, and through those activities, it becomes purposeful for us. That is the first thing I hope people can take from my work: this sense of place.

Second is the cadence of ritual and the cadence of connection. As I said, I use my camera to document these ritualistic moments in urban and natural landscapes, and then I reassemble these documentations into scenes that create meaningful connections and relationships. When those scenes aggregate, you can see that a rhythm emerges. To me, that rhythm is essential because, in some way, it defines the place. Through this collection of time and space, things happen simultaneously. That, for me, is a technique to manifest those cadences which you may not be able to see otherwise.

Lastly, what’s important to me is the universal human condition, the core humanity that we all share. Regardless of it is about communication across a random assortment of beachgoers like in Soft Plots, or the boundaries and bonds between two isolated individuals like in Love Letters. As humans, we all long for connection and community. We all inhabit each other’s stories and we all experience happiness, joy, sadness, peace, and fear in fundamentally similar ways even though we come from different cultural backgrounds. We may reflect different ways of being, but we all share this core humanity and longing for connection. That’s essentially what I want people to get.

EA: I think it’s very apparent in your work. I know in the States right now a sense of humanity has been lost, it’s been lost for a while, and I think the work you create brings it back into the picture. With their being so many differences among all of us, it brings back that humanity and it humanizes people, because at the end of the day we all have these basic necessities and we all long for the same things. 

YZ: I think as you said about the current time, it’s been really crazy, and I think that has a lot to do with people seeing things in black-and-white and not being open to opinions from the other side. This increasing amount of division in American society is catalyzed by rhetoric played out by the mainstream media. I think there is something in between, and that is sometimes what is most beautiful, the things that we all share. I’m hoping that we can eventually all acknowledge that beautiful sense of humanity.

Instagram & Facebook: @yugezhou

Twitter: @YugeZhou421


To view more of Yuge Zhou’s work please visit their website.