- Victoria Comstock-Kershaw
THE TRANSCENDANT PHILOSOPHY OF YANJUN CHEN
Fetch discusses Freudian dreams, traditional Chinese philosophy, and the impact of the occult with London-based illustrator and artist Yanjun Chen.
How did you start making your art? What other artist(s) inspire you at the moment? What was the first visual art that made you want to start making illustrations?
It's a natural urge, like penciling dream monsters on the white walls of my home or doodling in my math books. When I grab a pencil, I feel like I am trying to find a way to escape the real world for a while. [I'm inspired by] artists such as Leonora Carrington, Brecht Evens, Samuel Bas, Jun Cen and Dadushin, but I was also inspired by poets and writers such as J.A. Baker's The Peregrine, and Nan Shepherd's The Living Mountain. On the other hand, H.P. Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness portrays the quiet and secret expanse of nature and the tiny and insignificant human beings. The real unknown behind those quiet grandeur is like the dark currents under the calm surface of the sea, or the murderous hidden in the vast forests, and the evil buried behind the beautiful neon lights of the city. I love the chaos and disorder under the surface of the calm order, just like me. The first visual art that really made me want to start making illustrations was a short little comic I created during my junior year of my BA, Nightmare River, using my nightmares as the text.
The colors in your art - especially the blues and yellows - are incredibly striking. What attracts you to the shades you use?
As early as my second year of middle school, I began a five-year long after-school course in traditional Chinese painting of water, the potential influence of this classical art learning experience gradually emerged in my later artworks, such as a palette of no more than three colors and an obsession with blue. Blue is my favorite color, which is the color of lakes, oceans, and the sky, as well as wisdom, healing, and naturalness, and as I mentioned before, I see blue as a symbol of calm order. In the field of art color therapy, blue can have a calming effect, thus lowering blood pressure. And yellow can be used to help cheer up someone who may be suffering from depression. I am fascinated by the chemistry that comes from the coldest of all colors, blue, and the brightest of the spectrum, yellow.
On the other hand, in ancient China's feudal dynasties, yellow, as a representation of supreme power, was only allowed to be worn by the emperor and his family, and it is difficult for me to avoid the influence of China's mysterious ancient feudal dynasties in my paintings, while in ancient Eastern mythology, the blood of the dragon is considered to be yellow; Picasso's Blue Period, Van Gogh's and Klimt's paintings also inspired me a lot. The consistent use of two colors, black and white in my undergraduate years, and light yellow and blue, black and blue in my final year and early postgraduate studies, showed two different rivers of emotions flowing through me.
The classes I took, the books I read, the traditional stories and mystical cultures from the country I grew up in, all converged into a me like a flowing stream.
Your ‘Self and Ego’ series mentions the study of psychology and philosophy. How have your studies of these Freudian subjects influenced your work?
Freud's The Analysis of Dreams influenced me very much during my undergraduate years. During my undergraduate years, my art was usually inspired by my nightmares, I kept dreaming and drawing some doodles on my sketchbook, not really having any concept of drawing into a piece of art. Until one very hot night I woke up from a dream that I was floating in a river of bad things. it was not until I drew this dream out that I realized that it originated from the giant silent shadow over my head. It was only then that I seemed to wake up from the dream, like a tree suddenly blossoming, like the surface of a calm lake suddenly rippling. I began to look at myself carefully, to see as if I were getting to know myself for the first time. I believe therefore I started to be interested in psychology and philosophy to begin with, I wanted to know who I was, where I came from and where I was going.
In my Self and Ego series, I chose to use the shape of the circle and the rectangular geometry of the book shape as the outer border, suggesting that I am personally a complex, a minimal society within the boxed society that bears my name. I place my id and the superego within my frame and use the superego of reason, the giant's hands, to control my mind and body.
Superego I, Ego, Superego II, Yanjun Chen, 2019
Similarly, you used flickering light and tight display cases to express the tension between two women figures in your artwork – how do these wunderkammer display cases represent your own feelings?
I wanted to create a sense of atmosphere where I could live in harmony even with completely opposing colors and positions. Therefore, I made two women, sometimes intimate and sometimes contentious, the main objects of my paintings. I think these two women of different colors represent the dichotomy of my character, the sane and the crazy, the holy and the lustful, as well as my id and superego, while I always let a huge hand hold the frame and suggesting my ego image, caught between the id and the super-ego, grasping these two extreme situations of self-conflict for me.
I have to say that I was inspired by the traditional Chinese philosophy of the taiji diagram, and Jung praises Chinese culture, the taiji diagram and Chinese characters, calling them 'readable archetypes'. So, throughout the picture I used a Tai Chi composition, which hopefully shows that there is white in black, yet there is also black in white. But I think that, like a taiji diagram, my shadow side and the mask side of my personality can be integrated into each other, you in me and me in you.
After each painting I make, I use my free time to write a text for the painting. Here are two excerpts from the text section I wrote for my wunderkammer display case:
"If the "me" is shown in the form of a display case, then you may find the ubiquitous taiji diagram. For example, in this separate section of the display case, the leftmost me with pinkish-blond hair and dark blue skin is hanging for my sins; the rightmost me is the opposite, except that in this case I am dressed as a blue nun, trying to alleviate some of the pain with prayer. And in the four consecutive rows of cabinets located in the middle, we sat across from each other on our knees in uncomfortable positions, seemingly poured and held in place by the cement named after the rule, as we murmured and clung to each other in this narrow display case. "
"In this display case of rare human heads, you can see three rows of plaster heads with skin as smooth as flower petals, and soft hair with a white glow, each beauty's hair well groomed by someone whose name is unknown, placed securely in a different cabinet. And perhaps the second from the left in the third row was quietly tucked into a real soul behind a mask made of all the makeup, grease and light."
Pearls and jewelry seem to play an important role in your illustrations. How do these physical materials interact with your art?
I am quite believing in the occult. I am interested in the I Ching and Buddhism in the East, astrology, and tarot cards in the West. In Eastern occultism, I am told that I am a wood native and need to wear watery accessories around me, such as freshwater pearls, jade, and crystals. I am also naturally drawn to blue and black elements in my daily wear and artwork, and the concept of water appears unconsciously in my previous illustration series such as Hometown: Mountains, Rivers, Lakes and Seas and Nightmare Rivers.
You adopt a wonderfully minimalist approach to one of your posters of The Last Emperor. Could you tell us about the process of diluting such a powerful character as Aisin Gioro Puyi to such dynamic and historical symbolism?
I use the emperor's hat, which represents imperial power, as a power and emperor status symbol, the iconic glasses of Pu Yi in the form of two circles placed under the brim of the hat, the crickets represent the initial rise of a high building and the eventual collapse of the building The crickets represent the witness of the times when the building first rose and eventually collapsed and foretells the destiny of Pu Yi.
The Last Emperor posters, Yanjun Chen, 2020
You mention the Love Death + Robots anthology episode Good Hunting in your series Tiger Inside, in which the son of a spirit hunter forges a bond with a shape-shifting huli jing. How have you interacted with the concept of ‘perverted love’, love and power, to bring your pieces to life?
I drew an emperor in royal robe, and in front of him there are beasts like panthers, tigers, brown bears, and pandas, and they are crossing the road, and we can see a Siamese cat walking in front of the beasts. This is the emperor's love for rare birds and beasts, for their fine furs and wild strength, a perverted love, so to hunt the furs and flesh and bones of the beasts, to take for himself, you know, possessiveness. It's not uncommon throughout the ages for such things to happen, using power and money to hunt what they love. To be the product of this alienated love as the soil and thus growing out of it, this traditional image of feudal centralization is not uncommon in my paintings.
I think this figure comes from my fear that growing up I was in fear of the big dumb object and was constantly worried about whether there was a god watching my mistakes. If our religion is based on salvation, our chief emotions will be fear and trembling, [according to] Jung. Fallaci claimed that true power does not need arrogance, a long beard, and a barking voice. True power strangles you with silk ribbons, charm, and intelligence. The deformed individual disciplined by power and placed in a standardized mold during natural growth eventually grows into something that may be beautiful, exquisite and correct, but this thing nurtured in the name of love is not herself, and this damage, with the passage of time, does not automatically heal.
What project(s) are you working on at the moment?
I'm currently drawing an illustration series about the criminal mind and revenge, which is fun to me.