We had the good fortune of connecting with Jiayu Zhang and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Jiayu, how has your perspective on work-life balance evolved over time?
As a video and performance artist who tells stories about collective trauma, intimacy and displacement, I am interested in the idea of the synchronizing my life and my work into one stream of creative energy. I took courage from exploring my inner self, and the perspective from self-ethnography method to constantly observing my surroundings and my inner-self to generating creative actions. From there I transform the material of my political/physical existence into the medium of expression. It’s an adventurous and mostly fun journey but sometimes it can be exhausting and overwhelming. Sometime there is too much to do and sometimes there is nothing, but you have to keep living and keep working. Throughout the pandemic, I have been taking this state of emergency to practice patience and the ability to offer love and support. I initiated a performance group of ethnic Chinese artists to create public performances as a response to the early stage of the pandemic, later I started a documentary project followed through their various life experiences. We became friends for life and our collaboration continues to grow ever since. 2020 definitely taught me the lesson that no path is fixed and guaranteed in both life and work, and as an artist I choose to embrace the uncertainty and difficulties with love and openness.
Can you open up a bit about your work and career? We’re big fans and we’d love for our community to learn more about your work.
My work explores wide-ranging themes including collective memory, intimacy, displacement and cross-cultural studies which unfold in different mediums including photography, film, performance and installation. I recently graduated from Photo&Media MFA program at CalArts. Before that, I studied social work and sociology at Renmin University of China. Coming to LA, I found the urban landscape very much different from cities in China, as LA is a city built mainly for driving instead of walking. Despite what a culturally diverse city LA is, one can easily feel unsupported and isolated because most of the public spaces are actually “anti-social“ spaces. As a young Chinese woman who is also exploring her identity, I decided to make video performances that happen in public places to challenge normality and seek for connections of empathy. In the Beautiful Afar I performed a Russian song I learnt in my childhood on the streets of West Hollywood, trying to find people who share the same dream of exceeding to a dream land afar. In the other part of the video, I walked in the dry river with a suitcase searching for my way back home. In another performance, I walked 15 miles from my place at Van Nuys to present myself in a class at CalArts, which took me 8 hours to manifest the distance. In 2020, at the beginning of the worldly spread of Covid-19, I initiated a series of public performances with Guerrilla’s Song at CalArts’ main lobby. Throughout our 8 weekly performances, we took our body as a witness to hold space in this collapsing presence and express bewilderment, fear(ed), dignity, anger, hope and much more. Our performances shed light on the suffering of the people of Wuhan who was hit hard by the pandemic and educated the public about the pandemic. Furthermore, we stand to fight against discrimination against the Chinese community and called out for solidarity and support to those who were vulnerable. I want to create art that asks questions that expand perspective, sensitivity and empathy. What I learnt especially from the time of pandemic is that, when the institutions failed to hold space and connect with the audiences of the community, we as artists must adapt and continue to make work and make space creatively and proactively.
If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
It’s a shame that I wasn’t able to explore the LA as much because of the pandemic, but I did enjoyed living at Echo Park with energetic streets, stores and, of course, the most beautiful park in LA! I will definitely invite my friend for a picnic in Echo Park in the late afternoon and grab a beer at a local bar. Late at night I will take them to eat street foods at the Guatemalan Night Market on S Bonnie Brae St and W 6th St. I love their chiles rellenos, garnachas and tacos. It’s a rarely friendly place to hangout at night. I would also like to go to the famous Rose Bowl Flea Market with my fiends if they are in town on the second Sunday of the month.
Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
I’d like to give my shoutout to Guerrilla’s Song!!! A performance group of ethnic Chinese artists who helped me get through 2020. Many thanks to Lydia Li, Changting Lu, Xiaoyue Zhang, Yao Chen and many other amazing artists/friends who I truly appreciate their creativity and support. I hope to continue our collaboration even the pandemic has separated many of us apart physically.