Whitehot Magazine

Interview with Yi Hsuan Lai

Gut Feeling. Installation view in NARS Foundation, 2024. Photo courtesy of the artist. 

By CLARE GEMIMA March 25, 2024

Gut Feeling immerses viewers in a labyrinth constructed from the remnants of urban life, skillfully resurrected through Yi Hsuan Lai's lens-based manipulation. Her assemblages, crafted from discarded materials like bubble wrap, resilient foam, stretched balloons, and flowing fabrics manifest as multi-dimensional, printed photographic sculptures. Her work blurs the boundaries that typically distinguish the mundane from the beautiful, as well as the abject from the sensual. 

Throughout our conversation, Lai unveiled the layers of her process, drawing inspiration from Cubism, the organic minimalism of Eva Hesse, and the disquieting narratives of sci-fi auteur David Cronenberg. Emerging from this eclectic mix of influences, Gut Feeling resonates uncomfortably deeply, and confronts viewers with imagery that feels uncannily familiar. Navigating the liminal spaces between the known-self and the foreign-other, Lai's explorations visualize and interrogate her own visceral response to the ever-shifting landscape – or in this case, idea – of existence. 

For her first show of the year, Lai’s Gut Feeling transcends mere abstraction; it unfolds as a multisensory odyssey, where photographs transcend two-dimensional confines to inhabit the palpable realm, beckoning viewers to surrender to the organic, ineffable, and often nonsensical currents of their own intuition. 

Nail Flower, 2024. Dye sub print on aluminum mounted on sintra, paint. 16.25 x 21.625 in. Photo courtesy of the artist. 

Clare Gemima: First of all, congratulations Shan, and thank you for guiding me through your exhibition Gut Feeling. You’ve obviously worked through so many photographic, digital and three dimensional processes in order for this presentation to come together. It has been a true gift to have followed your work for little over a year now, and I want to applaud the unwavering commitment and curiosity that you apply to your practice. 

You let me know that you’d been out of the city recently, spending a month at a residency program upstate. Can you tell me more about where you were, and what your day-to-day experiences were like there? Was Gut Feeling realised during this residency, or had you established ideas for the show before arriving? 

Yi Hsuan Lai: In February, I participated in a residency at Light Work in Syracuse. The residency offered well-equipped printing facilities, a spacious photo studio for experimentation, and a dedicated workspace for managing prints. It was an enriching experience, with the supportive staff providing valuable advice on color-proofing and exhibition arrangements. The month was intense, with the constant back-and-forth between the studio and the apartment. I juggled various tasks, including coordinating with print shops for sculptural collages, creating mock-ups, and planning layouts for upcoming exhibitions in March and April. Amidst those works, I also made decisions on sizing and printing and experimented with new works. While I had a vague idea for my installation arrangement before the residency, the final decisions came together during my time there.

Clare Gemima: Your manipulation of discarded and found materials within the photographic elements of your work, such as bubble wrap, foam, balloons, and fabric create a tactile and visceral quality to your collages. Can you walk me through your process? How do you find these materials? 

Yi Hsuan Lai:I gather materials from daily encounters in random places—on my way to the studio, while walking around the city—such as packaging leftovers or gifts from friends who know about my project. Additionally, being in a large building with various fabricators for furniture, makeup delivery, and woodworking means there are unexpected treasures in the hallway waiting to be discovered. 

Clare Gemima: You told me you were interested in transforming these objects’ sense of agency, turning them from disposable nothings to potentially beautiful or even seductive subjects to look at - to allow them a real purpose. What inspired you to look at these materials in a more compassionate way?  

Yi Hsuan Lai: The materials are truly inspiring in both appearance and texture. They evoke a profound sense of presence when stripped of their functionality and viewed solely for their essence. Many were discarded on the streets, but bringing them to the studio and staging them has allowed them a sense of belonging. Growing up in Taiwan, where the culture perceives objects as imbued with spirits, and where humans and non-humans coexist, has deeply influenced my perspective and encouraged me to approach things with greater empathy. 

Clare Gemima: I am so interested in which artists inspire your practice, especially as there seems to be a combination of both traditional and more contemporary photographic and painterly historic signifiers across your compositions.  

Yi Hsuan Lai:For the painterly quality of my photo collage, I draw inspiration from Cubism, which employs multiple perspectives to depict various views of subjects within a single picture. I'm dissatisfied sometimes with how traditional cameras can only capture one angle of a subject at a time. Eva Hesse's use of unconventional materials, organic shapes, and repetitive structures resonates deeply with me, evoking profound corporeal responses. Her fusion of sculpture and painting also greatly influences my practice. I'm intrigued by the artists whose work explores the relationship between the body and objects, such as Valie Export, Bruce Nauman, Jimmy De Sana, Senga Nengudi, and Franz West. I also enjoy appropriating and utilizing diverse materialities and the sense of dark humor embedded in Mika Rottenberg and Rachel Harrison's work. Additionally, artists such as Lucas Blalock, Rachel de Joode, Kate Steciew, Tishan Hsu, and Rose Marcus, who work at the intersection of photography, virtual manipulation, materiality, and sculpture, truly inspire me. 

[L-R] Avoid and Expansion #1, 2024. Dye sub print on aluminum mounted on sintra, inkjet print on nylon lycra, paint, screws, polyester fiber. 11.5 x 15 x 0.75 in. Avoid and Expansion #2, 2024. Dye sub print on aluminum mounted on sintra, inkjet print on nylon lycra, paint, screws, polyester fiber. 12 x 15 x 0.75 in.  Photo courtesy of the artist. 

Clare Gemima: When transforming disposable materials into bodily and otherworldly representations, what narratives emerge? How do you perceive these dualities, and how do you consider your own body in your approach to constructing your work? 

Yi Hsuan Lai:I am interested in the ambiguity and fluid signifiers of the objects and how they defamiliarize by way of photography. The material’s form, shape, and texture refer to bodily organs or inner structures. Through cut-out and layering imagery panels onto each other, I create the revealing and hidden parts, as if we are gazing or navigating into our interiority. Those materials and my anonymous body parts are like a stand-in to portray some harsh feelings. Photography is a vehicle, a vessel, and a container for mellowing and collapsing the materials – and my body – into one.  

Clare Gemima: You shared with me a list of keywords that you often think about. I picked a few so I could get a better sense of your definition for each, especially within the context of Gut Feeling. What do the terms “unsettling”, “prosthetic”, “abjection”,  “intimacy”, and “transient” conjure for you?

Yi Hsuan Lai: My subject matter revolves around my experiences with transplantation. Through sensual visual language, I utilize bodily signifiers to delve into themes of adaptation, uncertainty, and femininity. Photography is a versatile medium for me to explore these in-betweens. The narrative is examined by selecting materials within the image and the final composition of the photo-object. The incorporation of discarded and found materials symbolizes the fluidity of the body, embodying the transient nature of life as it searches for belonging and definition. In my photo collages, photography is akin to performing surgery, disassembling elements only to fuse them back together like Frankenstein. The physicality of the resulting photo-object acts as a prosthetic, bridging the boundary between the corporeal and the psychological. 

Considering abjection within the realm of Gut Feeling, I am reminded of the visceral reactions and instinctual aversions we encounter in response to particular stimuli or situations. Through evoking such visceral responses, I aim to establish a connection with my audience, inviting them to engage with intimate moments of their own. Engaging with abstraction and ambiguity, I employ a process of collaging, reconstructing, and printing diverse materials to create assemblages within the photograph. This approach results in an ever-shifting interplay of optical and physical perspectives, cultivating an unsettling viewing experience for the audience.

Cave, 2024. Dye sub print on aluminum mounted on sintra. 16.5 x 21 in. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Clare Gemima: Unpacking the more personal concepts that underpin your exhibition, do you look to writers, poets, or filmmakers that follow similar veins of thought, or write on topics that are integral to Gut Feeling?

Yi Hsuan Lai: I'm deeply drawn to sci-fi horror, and psycho thriller films, and David Cronenberg's work particularly resonates with me. His films, in which the deformation of the body is intricately linked to psychological turmoil, have left a lasting impression on my mind. The movies depict eerily unsettling situations within the backdrop of an otherwise normal day, effectively blurring the lines between physical and psychological realms.  

Clare Gemima: Can you share insights into your layering process and how it contributes to the sculptural quality of your final sculptures? 

Yi Hsuan Lai:I arranged discarded materials to form assemblages, capturing the construction from various angles, micro and macro perspectives. Subsequently, I digitally disassembled and reconstructed the images before printing them on various surfaces such as metal, vinyl, and fabric. Layering each panel creates continuous shifts in both optical and tactile qualities. At the same time, careful consideration was given to the materialities of the printing surface—whether soft or hard, glassy or matte, metallic or velvety. Additional components such as screws, paint, and the thickness of mounting materials also played a crucial role in shaping the resulting sculptural quality of the final pieces.

Echo, 2023. Inkjet print on vinyl on MDF, inkjet print on nylon lycra, paint, screws, polyester fiber, synthetic hair. 12 x 15 x 0.5 in. Photo courtesy of the artist. 

Clare Gemima: Your show blurs boundaries between 2/3 - dimensional realms. How did you prepare for Gut Feeling’s installation at NARS, and how does the show’s spatial installation allow viewers to deeper understand your studio experimentation?

Yi Hsuan Lai: I created a 1/10 scale mock-up reference based on the floor plan. This aided in visualizing the work's proportions once installed in the space, and helped determine its compatibility with other sculptural elements in the installation. The utilitarian materials seen in the photographs shift between two and three dimensions, existing physically within the gallery space. This experiment delves into how the altered perception from viewing images relates to experiencing the tactile qualities of actual objects firsthand. 

Clare Gemima: You also have a floor installation, and sculptural embellishment that line the gallery walls. Could you discuss the significance of incorporating sprayed foam flowers and the central crate piece made out of piled foam? How do these particular interventions relate to your works on the wall? 

Yi Hsuan Lai: Spray foam, featured in staged photographs for the collage, is transformed into tangible objects installed in the space. The fluid form of the flowers symbolizes dispersion and unsettling states, echoing the subjects in the photographs. Its organic shape invites varied interpretations from viewers. A crate filled with piled foam serves as a soft base for a photograph, allowing it with a vase to rest within it. Ten-foot-tall planks wrapped in flesh-tone fabric embody emotions and are signifiers to the body, and additionally reflect the color palette of the photographs. The artwork on the wall and sculptural components within the gallery merge with the subject matter, and provide both a  visual and tangible experience.

Gut Feeling by Yi Hsuan Lai is on view March 8 through March 20, 2024 at NARS FoundationNew York. WM

Clare Gemima

Clare Gemima contributes art criticism to The Brooklyn Rail, Contemporary HUM, and other international art journals with a particular focus on immigrant painters and sculptors who have moved their practice to New York. She is currently a visual artist mentee in the New York Foundation of Art’s 2023 Immigrant mentorship program.

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