This conversation took place in Lai’s studio and over email. Recently graduated from SVA, she currently works out of a small, tall studio up four flights of stairs at the end of a long hall in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. She brought me a cheddar scone and — it being a heatwave — a lemonade espresso. She sat/stood in three, maybe four, different places throughout our interview, and was by turns eager and deliberate in her responses: at one moment jumping up to pull an old piece off the shelf, the next pausing, with a hand on the table, to consider a question.
That same balance of quickness and thoughtfulness is in her work, too: proof that it can be fun to be careful. She makes only very light edits to her photographs, preferring instead to meticulously stage, build, and sculpt for each one. Learning this, her work stopped feeling casually unreal and started feeling bafflingly real. Look again at the sluglike kneecaps, glowing gumdrops, and fleshy hairbrush in her Corporeal Signal series. Those things really happened, and the “uncertainty about reality,” that knowing that provokes — the uncomfortable feeling of reality creeping up on fiction — is, as Lai told me, exactly the point.
Joe Brommel: On your site, you talk about how the notion of home “perplexed” you before starting on your Back to Home series, in which you recreated old photos of your grandfather and your family. In another series, A Cactus in the Chimney, you explore “the anxiety and insecurity felt as a foreigner living in New York City.” And then in Corporeal Signal, which is on view in Wassaic, you talk about the uncertainty and fluidity you experience both psychologically and physically as a woman and an Other.
That’s a lot of things all at once, but it seems like there's a guiding thread of thinking about home and your identity throughout your work. So I guess the simple question is: what is home to you? And what has it been over time?
Yi Hsuan Lai: It’s a tough question, especially since I’m renewing my visa right now. This uncertainty about the future is always chasing me.
I think home is an environment where you can recognize yourself, where you can present your vulnerability. It’s an anchor of your value system. But home is a fluid concept because every physical thing will change through time, and one day you won’t even recognize it anymore. Home is more like an abstract space/database to store connections.
Growing up, there was this constant disconnection with my family emotionally and with the education system in Asian society. It was very blurry. For me, my biological family is like a distorting mirror. There is bitterness and sweetness, acceptance and rejection, repression but also unconditional love.
Back to Home was the beginning of understanding my family history. The performative photography brought me back to the clothing, locations, objects, gestures from my family’s experience. In A Cactus in the Chimney and Corporeal Signal, world-building became a temporary home to reflect my consciousness and sensitivity. I build up immersive installations as a net for the empathic sensations I would like to share.
How did A Cactus in the Chimney come about?
It started from a cactus.
Oh, it literally started from a cactus?
[Laughs.] Yeah, I got a cactus. I sometimes talk with my plants. I don’t have family here, and I know very few people here. Sometimes I’m very introverted and I feel kind of uncomfortable in a crowd. And so, I don't know, I just think I wanted to become a cactus and be friends with my little cactus. Then I had more and more characters that’d knock on my head and say, Hey, make me!
I actually always feel very nervous to take pictures in public. But every time I do take them I feel very happy. I feel a kind of stress release. Sometimes those characters come back to teach me. The world in which these characters are performing has a wider perspective than the real world.
How has your relationship to using your body in your work evolved over time? In Back to Home you’re reenacting family photos as a man, in A Cactus in the Chimney you’re wearing costumes that mostly erase any sense of who you are as a person, and in Corporeal Signal you use yourself as a nude figure. It feels like you’ve gone from one end of a spectrum to the other.
At a certain point I felt I didn’t want to wear a mask anymore. And my characters were not coming to knock on my door. [Laughs.] Maybe they will come someday.
But I think it's just a transition of time. I wanted to approach this psychological feeling in a more straightforward way — more like peeling the skin off instead of covering something and trying to be something else. There was a period of failed experiments where I kept the theatrical and colorful still life setups, but it turned out way too surreal and lost its believability. So I kept the original fleshy color of polymer clay. It shows a certain intimacy that isn’t present in A Cactus in the Chimney. When the sculpture sits with my body, it transforms my body into another message. And because I am not performing a character, I look through the female body as a site to create the series. With Corporeal Signal, you might not feel something weird in the moment, but when you take a second look at it you feel, Oh, something’s wrong there. You may not be sure what is real or fake, animate or inanimate.
I want to root the difference between those two series in the two installations you’ve done of them. You had an installation of the work in A Cactus in the Chimney at SPRING/BREAK 2020, and Corporeal Signal is in Wassaic now. Some things are the same, some things are different: both of them have colored vinyl on the walls and are giving these photos a world to live in, but the work in the series are totally different, the colors are different, etc. How did you approach each of those two installations?
SPRING/BREAK was my first experiment in trying to build out a world to accommodate my work. I took the color from the photography — the organic shape of the paint responds to the sculptural elements in my photos. It also taught me how to combine the architecture of a space with your work, because I had this huge column in my space and this very low ceiling.
For the installation in Wassaic, I was more conscious of making every decision in the space. Like the carpet under the stairs, the direction of this shape around the windows, the color of that shape on the columns — every part really works together to bring the world and the photographs out. I wanted the space to somehow feel like it’s breathing on its own. I had a mock-up, but when I got into the space, there was more to take care of. It's organic. You can’t feel rushed. You need to feel: Is this shape right?
How did you think about representing sensation in the installation? The thing I really get from it is a distinct sense of touch, more so than I get in a lot of photography.
Touch is important because it approaches this shared psychological experience. My body unites the handmade sculptures and turns to sculpture itself. The materials show my body reacting to the sculptures, and unlike in A Cactus in the Chimney, the images are imperfect: you can see fingerprints on the clay, dust, hair from the environment. The carpet under your feet provides this homey, comfy feeling and directs you towards places to view the installation from — it’s like some hidden guidance for connecting with the space. And the vinyl is actually a close-up photo of my sculpture. I printed the vinyl at a lab in Quebec, and the staff there opened my file and said, “There’s so much dust on the image, do you want that?” I was like, “Yes, keep it.” [Laughs.]
It’s about believability, how to make people really engage with a photo and feel something, rather than just feeling distanced by an image. If my work is overly beautiful, there's no space for my audience to have a different interpretation of it. The imperfections create an uncomfortable but empathetic reaction to the feeling. Your skin starts feeling the same things.
Yi Hsuan Lai (b. 1988) is a visual artist from Taiwan currently working in New York. She recently completed her MFA in Photography, Video, and Related Media from the School of Visual Arts. Her graphic design and live theatre documentation background led her to develop an artistic process that combines performance, staged self-portraiture, installation, and sculpture-based photography. Yi Hsuan Lai combines photography and sculpture to create work that speaks to the physical and psychological experiences that reflect the complexity of self-identity and the Otherness. Lai also experiments with the representation of sensations through physical materials to capture an imagined world. By incorporating costumes and sculptures she makes for her self-portraits, her photographs validate the bodily transformation to respond and reflect the exterior and interior worlds.
Her work has been shown in If You Lived Here You’d Be Home By Now at the Wassaic Project (2021, Wassaic), Anonymous Town at SPRING/BREAK Art Show (2020, New York), The Thing in Itself at NARS Residency (2020, New York), Seasonal Repression at Field project (2020, New York), Visible Space at Here Art (2020, New York), Body Language at Deer studio (2020, New York), Break A Leg at sUgAR Gallery (2019, Fayetteville) and WONDER FOTO Day (2019, Taiwan). She has been the recipient of SVA Alumni Scholarship Award (2020), the SVA Scheimpflug Award (2020), and the SVA Alice Beck-Odette Award Scholarship (2020, 2019, 2018). She will be an artist-in-residence at The Studios at MASS MoCA in 2022.