YUN BAI aka:
“The men were beasts. They would call you a "whore" because you refused to sleep with them.”
January 2007, 5:28 am in Los Angeles: transcript:
Noah Becker: Hello welcome to whitehot magazine of contemporary art. Yun Bai, What did you eat for breakfast?
Yunny Bunny: I had leftover hot and sour soup, and house chow mein at 7pm today. Didn't go to bed until noon today..was up thinking. so have we started the interview?
YB: This is so fun, Noah! I'm so excited for your magazine! It's gonna be soo hott.
NB: was it american chinese?
YB: Naw man, it was the real thing....Sam Woo's BBQ here in the Valley....
NB: Where are you right now?
YB: sitting in my jammies in my apartment infront of the laptop....
NB: No like where in the planet?
YB: Los Angeles
NB: where in LA?
YB: Van Nuys, in the Valley
NB: Where did you grow up and at what point in your childhood did you know you were an artist?"
YB: I was born in Beijing, and moved to the when I was five. We moved to Tallahassee, Florida and I lived there for twelve years. I loved that city because it was a collegetown, and the people you went to school with all knew everybody. I especially missed the lush trees...in nearby Wakulla County. We'd have keg parties by the sinkholes, swinging off vines, riding horses, running around cowfields....it was fun. Then as soon as I turned 18, I left and went to college in Atlanta, the nearest major city and lived there for seven years. Yup, I'm a Southern girl.
It's weird, because my family calls me "niu-niu", a nickname meaning "innocent country girl". I really love the South, the people are so gracious. And it's so awfully nice to have your doors opened for you as you run your errands throughout the day by random gentlemen. I knew I loved art at age four. Being Asian, my mother made me participate in all these extracurricular activities growing up -- martial arts, synchronized swimming, piano, violin, jazz, tap, ballet school, Chinese school, and art classes. She stuck me in a Chinese brush painting class when I was four and I remember painting pandas and bamboo. But I didn't seriously start pursuing art until I was in highschool, freshman year. I hung out with these skater kids and that's how I became obsessed with it. Art, hip hop, skater culture, seemed right at home for me, versus the traditional conservative background I was raised in...and the expectation of my parents wanting to be a lawyer, doctor, or accountant. I had an amazing art teacher in highschool, Ms. Debbie Barrett-Hayes. I credit her influencing me the most in my art. I really focused and took art classes every semester, taking AP art. The curriculum was very progressive. We learned about Barbara Kruger, did installations, graffiti and murals, and it's been an obsession ever since.
“I was in a dark place in the first round of Porn Flowers, and recently the flowers stand for healing, growth, courage.”
NB: Do you remember the first thing that really moved you as a child?
YB: We have this mythical character in Chinese storytelling, the Monkey King. I wanted to be him when I was a little kid...really bad. and I was really into martial arts. Do you know what I'm talking about? There was this pig character....they were all monks, the four of them, and they were on some buddhist crusade and fought off evil demons and such while they did it. The main one was human, and everyone else were part spirit, and they had to protect the human from being eaten....it's a really famous story...but it could be for children. but the monkey king was the most advanced in his fighting and protection skills. He was the badass....and i wanted to be him.
NB: So you really got into mythological stories early on?
YB: Yeah and I loved storytelling. hearing mythical stories....of dragons and such. My dad used to make up stories before I went to bed of the fierce three headed dragons....and barrels of liquor buried under the ground...all kinds of stories my parents would tell me.
NB: I know where you can find barrels of liquor hidden underground but that’s another article. Your work retains the tradition of chinese brush painting have you studied it?
YB: Yeah, a little bit. Not formally. I haven't studied it formally. but there are traces of it in my work. I love the brush stroke, my grandmother is a calligrapher, and so when i was little I would do calligraphy with her .
NB: How would you describe your work?
YB: They don't know where to put me...one minute it's "pop" then it's "feminist" then it's "low brow", etc. I don't really care. Yeah but the pink, it's something I'm drawn to. it's feminine, has pussy power...its light and delicate.
NB: I guess my question is about the connection between your experience with contemporary art in relation to your color sense. Specifically with the porn flower works.
YB: With the porn flowers, there are different styles within the Porn flowers. I mean, the paintings styles are different. some are silhouettes.
NB: But there are deeper levels to it. The manner in which you apply the linear aspects is out of the chinese brush painting tradition. But historical reference is not my main focus at this moment. I'm less curious about your connection to a genre such as pop art or a historical technique. Where do you find your inspiration in terms of the decorative aspects of your paintings, specifically the colors?
YB: The work changed upon me moving to LA two years ago. As soon as I got here, the work became more design oriented, and I moved to pastel colors. The weather influenced it a bit. but mostly, flora. plants and flora. I was in a dark place in the first round of Porn Flowers, and recently the flowers stand for healing, growth, courage, hope....so I've moved to softer colors such as pinks, blues, light greens, yellows, whites. My lastest thing has been white....there are different styles within the porn flowers, some have design and graffiti influences, some are more painterly than others, some are more representation and asian inspired, some are soft and minimalist...some are ultra feminine. I've always used text in my works, the four recent works are done under my alter ego, Yunny Bunny. The curator of my recent show wanted the artists to explore what "puzzles" them in life, thus the name of the show was named "Puzzles" Language and text has always been a part off my work.
NB: Yes, but i'm also interested in the porn flower works, in terms of their meaning. The porn flowers are something you seem to be abandoning temporarily in favor of the Yunny Bunny persona. Can you talk a bit about this shift? How does your alter ego as she or "it" re-invent Yun Bai's practice? Or is it just a character, a means of Yun Bai gaining freedom from the past?
YB: I haven't abandoned the porn flowers, they will constantly be a development and i still have much to say before i run out of content. The porn flowers are serious. The Yunny Bunny work is fun work. It's whimsical, it's highly experimental, The transition from porn flowers to yunny bunny is a really potent shift. Yah it's a real dramatic shift.
NB: Was your body taken over by the ghost of the chinese mythological Monkey King from childhood?
YB: (laughs) but more feminine, and sexualized...(laughs)
NB: Your experiece with sexuality is different then most girls experiences. Femininity is a central topic in your work.
YB: Absolutely. So A little background of how the porn flowers came to be....6 years ago, during college, my first love dumped me. um, we all know how your heart burns with the first one. then mom was diagnosed with cancer. then parents filed for bankruptcy within a really short period of time. I was going to private college, which was pretty expensive, and my scholarships didn't quite cover
everything....so I needed money to finish. I needed to come up with money fast. I was stuck, what was a girl to do? I wasn't smart or slick enough to sell drugs...(laughs) and for the record, I didn't, because it wasn't worth going to jail. So I worked as an exotic dancer to make money. I thought it'd be all glamorous....and was actually pretty excited about it. But it was one of the toughest times in my life. I would get about 3-4 hours of sleep every night, go to school, do an internship, work study, and go to "work" I've always had short hair, and so I became the "male asian fantasy" acting submissive...bought a long black wig....dressed as a little china doll. and had an identity crisis. The men were beasts. They would call you a "whore" because you refused to sleep with them. The girls were nice there. There was a sisterhood. But almost everyone there was there because they were in a bad situation, like me. I was focused, I knew I couldn't stay in that world. Drugs, sex, prostitution...I didn't do drugs, didn't sleep with anyone...just made my money and got out of there and walked with my class.
NB: But were you fucked up?
YB: Define fucked up? No. I was clear headed, I wanted this art thing to happen even more....I wrote all my experiences down in my journal.
NB: Did you feel mentally unstable or suicidal?
YB: I knew I would make art about it one day, but I didn't know how, or what would come of it I tried to make the most fun of it....I had an identity crisis. One day I was a normal college kid...the next I was in this dark thing....and a few times because I hung out with those girls, who would hang around drug dealers, I found myself in some weird circumstances....and i learned how to be HARD. I learned how to protect myself. You have to understand, that I was always the goodie goodie Asian girl growing up. well, the artsy weird rebellious goodie goodie.
YB: but still a goodie goodie in highschool. But the girls were nice. I befriended almost all of them. There was a camaderie, but it fucks with your self worth, because you would be called a "whore" everyday.
NB: So maybe Yunny Bunny is a result of learning to be a chameleon during your dancing days?
YB: and one time some guy stole everything I'd made that night because I wouldn't sleep with him not really. We'll talk about Bunny later. I learned about women and desperation during my time there. I counted down the days to my finals, I was actually excited about it. After i left I was sitting in my room one day, and I got bored with oil painting. I didn't know what conceptual art was, or how to convey a concept so I thought, bam! I'm gonna make flowers out of porn because that's what I am. I am a flower.
NB: If I could compare your work to a living artist I would say that the porn flowers have a similar resonance to the work of chris offili.
YB: yes, they do, but they are expressed from a WOMAN's point of view...so its message, and perspective, meaning, and symbolism is completely different. I would say, similar to Wangechi Mutu....I love her work.
NB: OK, Thanks for joining us.