Before we step into John Yuyi’s Beitou studio, she warns us: “It’s really not photogenic.” The remark is a little jarring, coming from an artist who’s known for being just that: Yuyi came up as a digital artist on Instagram — a platform known for its polished interiors and personas, alike — with the selfie as her calling card. Despite her screen–bound, social media origins, however, Yuyi, in the flesh, is refreshingly three–dimensional, candid.
Like most of us, who spend our days split–screened between the internet and reality, Yuyi’s life is one of dualities: public and private, ordinary and outlandish, photogenic and not–so–much. Currently, she lives between New York City, where she established her career, and Taipei, her hometown and safe–haven since the beginning of the pandemic. Her online presence spans an official Instagram account, 219,000 followers and fans strong, and a newly–minted finstagram, where she shares silly, off–the–cuff selfies with a handful of friends. With the launch of her first Taiwan–based solo exhibition, Eye Sees No Lashes, earlier this year, Yuyi’s work now bridges the realms of digital and installation art.
Yuyi’s demeanour is coloured by a cheerful frankness. Throughout our conversation, she speaks openly about the pitfalls of social media (“It’s tiring to debate with people”), how her practice has affected her self–image, and what she’s been up to during the pandemic (“I haven’t been really productive. I used to feel guilty about it, but not anymore.”)
Perhaps, more so than a selfie, the cluttered topography of Yuyi’s Beitou studio captures her true likeness: her candor, her contradictions. “Authentic,” as she describes it, the make–shift space, owned by her grandfather, is situated in a traditional building just a stone’s throw from her childhood home. Before it became Yuyi’s temporary studio, it was used as a private temple and bits of its history still occupy the space: a wooden Buddha sits, grinning and arms raised, in one of its corners. Other relics speak to Yuyi’s current day–to–day: scattered coffee mugs, shopping bags, books, dried flowers, make–up palettes, all which she arranges and rearranges throughout our visit. These mundane artefacts are interspersed with pieces of her current work: an empty bubble tea cup adorned with dried tapioca pearls and a CD–ROM wall hanging printed with a disjointed selfie. By the window, a blue–haired mannequin — a sculpture from Yuyi’s Taipei exhibition — towers above the rest. And when Yuyi pulls on a massive, tent–like Vaquera dress, she, herself, gives off the same larger–than–life aura: a self–portrait brought to life.
Zoë: You’re currently working out of a makeshift studio in Taipei’s Beitou district. How did you come across this space?John: I was daycared by my maternal grandpa. Every morning I would go to the traditional market with him. Then the rest of the day we were just chilling at his private temple, which has become my temporary studio now. Last March, I came back to Taiwan because of the pandemic in New York City. I was just looking for a two or three–month sublet in Taipei, thinking I’d move back to New York sooner. It’s been more than a year now that I’ve been using my grandpa’s empty space as a studio.
Z: Do you have any memories of this space?J: From my memory, most of the time my grandpa was just doing his temple routine, making tea, and smoking cigarettes. I would just play on my own or with my brother and cousin. The most interesting part was around the evening, when we’d be asked not to play in the middle of the temple because that’s when Buddha would be riding his horse. Also in the evenings, bats would fly in and out of the temple; they lived behind the curtain.
Z: What’s your favorite thing about being back in Beitou?J: I grew up here and my favorite thing here is the milk tea. Taiwanese people love bubble tea; like, they invented bubble tea. But there are so many different genres of it. In Beitou we call it “traditional black tea.” It’s something I drank when I was three or four years old and we used to drink it out of plastic bags on a string. It’s really traditional, so I feel like, “Ah, I’m back in Beitou, I need to drink that!”
Z: You just had your first solo show in Taiwan. How was the experience of showing an exhibition on your home soil?J: It was something really memorable for me. I’ve always wanted to have a solo exhibition in Taiwan. But I have this weird standard for myself about showing an exhibition here because I want to present the best of myself to Taiwanese people. This is my first installation exhibition, which is something I’ve never been able to do in New York. In Taiwan, I’ve received a lot more support from galleries to try doing things I haven’t done before.
Z: What made you want to move from digital art to site–specific, installation art?J: Recently, my feelings towards the internet and digital spaces have become much less positive. I’m also the kind of person that gets tired of something if I’ve been doing it for too long. I wanted to try making art that you have to be in one place to create, because, for the most part, I’ve been making still images or videos you can watch while browsing social media. I did this tree installation in 2019, and I realized that there’s a difference between seeing something in real life and seeing it on a screen.
Z: When did you start to feel less positively towards the internet?J: I’d been posting a lot of Stories on Instagram and there was a moment in 2019 when I suddenly felt embarrassed showing myself or talking to the camera. I wasn’t really confident being in front of the camera, but I’d already created this image for myself and people were asking me to take selfies, commercial job–wise or exhibition–wise. Every time I forced myself to do it, I felt like, “Ugh, I wish I was normal!” That was one phase I really hated.
Z: Has your work changed how you use social media in your personal life?J: Last year I started a finstagram, and I feel like that’s the original purpose of Instagram: sharing funny things, happily, with only 10 friends. You can’t do that anymore. Or maybe you still can. But I feel like being low–key is a way to protect yourself on social media. You don’t have to worry about people saying “This isn’t correct” or “You can’t do this” or “You’re not being polite.” You don’t have to be perfect. It’s peaceful.
Z: How would you describe your personal style outside of your artistic persona?J: I’m Leo rising. I wouldn’t usually describe myself like this, but after I looked it up, I learned that people with Leo rising like to dress crazy and want to be the center of attention. I felt like, “Ah, no need to explain; it’s just because I’m Leo rising.”
Z: Do you feel like your style has changed since you’ve been back in Taiwan?J: I haven’t really been hanging out with people in Taiwan, so I don’t really do make–up or dress up anymore. That’s one thing I miss about New York. But in two weeks, I’ll be back and I can fulfill my impulse to dress up. Although, Taiwan had a lockdown two months ago and I wasn’t doing anything so I dyed my hair brown. It’s been my dream colour since I was a kid, back when the Japanese Gyaru style was really trendy. So I thought: this is the perfect time for me to have Gyaru hair.
Z: You work between cities and travel a lot. Do you feel like your current locale inspires your art, as well?J: Different cities give me different inspiration. It’s not something you can deny or refuse. Even though I haven’t been socializing in Taiwan, I still feel like I want to relate to Taiwanese culture. I’ve been doing bubble tea [art] and Taiwanese fortune telling temporary tattoos. I think the most important thing is the place you’re in right now and the people there. People excite you and give you the motivation to do things.
Z: You styled yourself for today’s shoot. What jewelry are you wearing?J: I’ve known the brand Melted Potato for years. I chose some pieces from them. They’re jewelry but they could also be pieces of art. I also really like the Alphabet earrings from D’heygere. They’re really smart. I like smart design — simple, but smart. Anyone could think of making Alphabet earrings, but when you add all the backings it reaches a different level of design.
Z: Do you own a piece of jewelry that’s especially meaningful to you?J: I have these hoop earrings I carry with me all the time, especially when I’m travelling. Because whenever I go to different countries, I have to change my SIN card and I’ll use the hoop earring to pop it out.
Z: Besides your hoop earrings, is there any other item you always bring with you when you’re travelling?J: I guess I would just grab my iPhone, laptop, and hard drive. But if you want me to choose just one, I think I’d bring my hard drive.