We had the good fortune of connecting with Christine Wong Yap and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Christine, we’d love to hear what makes you happy.
This is an interesting question, and it’s implicit in the study of positive psychology, which I’ve studied on my own for over 10 years as research for my art practice. Rather than what makes me happy—which we humans are generally bad at guessing at—I have been thinking about what nourishes my soul and what makes me feel most alive.
For me this looks like having authentic connections with other people, and often there’s some experience that grounds us in our bodies. Maybe that’s walking and people watching, maybe it’s hiking or boxing or dancing, or maybe it’s visiting a museum or architecture site. There’s time, focused attention, exchange, listening, being seen. My brain and body are engaged, and I feel a sense of growth, connection, and satisfaction. Sharing genuine moments makes me happy.
I’ve also thought a lot about flow—losing yourself in a challenging activity that closely matches your skill. This is a primary reason that I’m an artist, because I love that flow-state in making. While flow isn’t correlated with a sense of happiness in the moment (because you’re not conscious of anything, you lose yourself in the activity), it can lead to feelings of satisfaction after the flow-state. In that way, making art makes me happy.
I have also been working on being in right relationship with myself: being kinder to myself, and treating myself the way I’d want a dear friend to treat themselves. That looks like feeling like I am whole, I am enough, and I’m a mess and a work in progress, and that’s OK, and I’m grateful for what I have, not fearful, judgmental, anxious, or needing external validation. When it comes to this, to answer your question simply, mindfulness, therapy, and self-work make me happy.
I’m very proud of a recent residency and commission with the Library Foundation of Los Angeles, Los Angeles Public Library (LAPL), and the Wellcome Trust’s major international cultural program about mental health, called Mindscapes.
I worked with seven clubs and affinity groups that meet at the library to learn how they are spaces of belonging. They range from the Persian Poetry Forum of LA to Adult Literacy Services to Teen Council to a Neuroplasticity Club for seniors. Then I designed banners to commemorate the groups, which were sewn and are now on display.
You can see the banners and pick up a free zine in the Getty Gallery at the LAPL Central Library, through November 6, 2022.
Alright, so let’s move onto what keeps you busy professionally?
I’m an artist and social practitioner. I make projects that involve engaging and learning from communities. When my projects work best, I’m developing creative ways of gathering and disseminating local knowledge. I see myself as an researcher “who can design, experiment, fail, innovate, and contribute to society’s knowledge production” and I believe that artistic practice can help build a “sense of connection, agency, and empathy—which are vital to a just and sustainable society,” in the words of creative producer Louisa MacCall.
This is a very modest dream, but I am living my dream of being a full-time artist right now. This is something I try to hold onto as a reason to be excited everyday. There are a gazillion other reasons to be excited: I have awesome collaborators, I’m always learning, and I have opportunities to travel nationally and internationally for projects. I’m finding audiences who are excited about my work, what I do, and what I share. Most of all, I’m doing it in a way that feels ethical and aligned with my values. I think a lot about who I want to be engaging, where I want my work to be shown, and I’ve been able to gear my projects to partner with communities who are historically marginalized, and to be presented in places that serve multitudes of publics, like the Los Angeles Public Library and in Times Square, so that it’s free and open to the public in ways that are ultra-accessible and non-intimidating.
Hell no, it wasn’t easy to get to where I am at. I worked many years as a freelance art handler and graphic designer. For most of my adult life I intentionally avoided full-time jobs, choosing instead to patchwork my income streams so I had more flexibility to pursue studio practice, residencies, exhibitions, etc. This meant making a lot of sacrifices, financially, personally, relationally, physically. It is a real struggle to sustain oneself financially as an artist in the US, and especially as an artist who doesn’t make artworks that are easily commodified in the gallery system (I mean, I sell $10 zines you know?). I have applied to hundreds of exhibitions, residencies, commissions, etc. If you’re lucky you get a 15% acceptance rate on those, but typically it’s even lower. So life as an artist can be 85% rejection in some ways.
How did I withstand the financial and emotional roller coaster? The self-doubt? I had a good community of artists. I think it helped that I came from the Bay Area art community, where my peers normalized prioritizing artistic growth over financial growth. I think it helped that my colleagues, especially women of color, would talk openly about how it can be a war of attrition for us, so that I felt less alone in the struggle. And I think artists like Hank Willis Thomas, Leah Rosenberg, and Jenifer k Wofford have opened doors for me and for other artists that hack away at the culture of gatekeeping in the art world, and they’ve even created opportunities that didn’t exist, expanding the terrain of possibility. I had persistence, support, fortitude, stubbornness. Maybe I could credit doing Muay Thai for 9 years for giving me a lot of mental strength, or maybe that’s why I took up the study of positive psychology, and especially, of optimism and agency, in the first place, around 2007. And it also comes down to sheer dumb luck, and being in the right place at the right time, and being opportunistic and available and still practicing in order to take advantage of the openings when they arrive. I’m very lucky that I’m still around to show up when seeds that I planted years ago finally come to fruition into partnerships and projects now.
I don’t have a practice or career that is easily commodified or digestible. My practice doesn’t fall under familiar labels. It can take a lot of explanation. I think learning how to communicate what you do, as an artist, can really help when your work is more than what can be seen in a few JPGs. Being an artist is making art, it’s also talking to people, sharing your ideas, conveying your inquiries and findings, and making this information accessible. That’s why I make zines and books and document every project thoroughly on my website. It’s why I choose clarity over obfuscation any time I can.
What I’d want people to know is that ultimately, why I make art, is to create spaces where people can slow down, engage in self-reflection or connection, and create more salient moments in their lives. Too much of life is scrolling, or running around from one thing to the next, or letting our lizard brains take over. We all know we could make more space for gratitude, mindfulness, kindness, authenticity, belonging, resilience. I’m just here to make art and experiences that nudge you along in that direction if you want.
Any places to eat or things to do that you can share with our readers? If they have a friend visiting town, what are some spots they could take them to?
In the San Francisco Bay Area:
Right now my favorite exhibition is Cathy Lu’s Interior Garden (on view through December 17) at the Chinese Culture Center of San Francisco, in San Francisco Chinatown. I also like checking out the art exhibitions at McEvoy Foundation and the CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts.
Hike at Land’s End for great views of the sun setting over the Pacific Ocean, the Golden Gate Bridge, and iconic cypress trees.
Nido’s Backyard is an all-outdoor (perfect for COVID safety), inventive, buzzy Mexican restaurant with fun cocktails and a spacious bar area just off of Jack London Square in Oakland. It’s festive and cute—from the decor to the beautiful-people-of-Oakland people watching.
In Los Angeles:
The Museum of Jurassic Technology is a must-see. I won’t ruin the surprise by saying anything more.
The Hammer Museum is sort of the platonic ideal of museums for me: it’s free (how museums should be); there are interesting, well-curated contemporary art exhibitions; and there are lots of spaces to relax, enjoy fresh air, take a seat, and chill. You shouldn’t feel rushed or pressured in a museum to see as much as you can because you paid $25. Nobody benefits—not artists, not the art, not the audiences—when viewers are hangry and their feet hurt but they keep looking at art out of a sense of getting-your-money’s-worth obligation.
I’m intrigued by the arts district at Santa Monica and North Highland. It sort of sprung up during my 10 years living in NYC. There are a nice mix of established galleries and newer spaces like Bridge Projects. Best of all, on a recent visit, everyone was really friendly—a complete 180 from the type of reception you get in Chelsea galleries.
The Shoutout series is all about recognizing that our success and where we are in life is at least somewhat thanks to the efforts, support, mentorship, love and encouragement of others. So is there someone that you want to dedicate your shoutout to?
I’d like to shout out the Chinese Culture Center of San Francisco. It’s a community-based nonprofit arts organization rooted in San Francisco Chinatown. It’s run by women of color, with LGBTQ+ staff and queer-friendly programming. I’ve had the pleasure of working with and learning from them in the past. Their cultural competency is through the roof. They’re part of an ecology of social service organizations in Chinatown and Manilatown, that form a safety net for the historically marginalized residents, who tend to be older, immigrant, with lower levels of education and lower income levels. One thing I love about CCCSF is how they are invested in longterm relationship building with other organizations and with the community. And their approach is really exchange-based: they see themselves learning from the community. I think they do a great job working work with, rather than for, the community.
Andria Lo, courtesy Avant Arte; Kylie Chevalier and Ian Byers-Gamber courtesy Library Foundation of Los Angeles; Maria Baranova and Mike Vitelli, courtesy Times Square Arts; Eimear Picardo courtesy Palo Alto Art Center.