Jackie Milad interviews Yeni Mao
J: Where do you live and how has that affected your work?
Y: I live in Mexico City. I moved here five years ago. I’d been coming here for about a year or two before that.
This is a loaded question, there’s several reasons why I moved. Of course there’s a financial reason, because I was in New York where it’s really hard to make ends meet, just busting your ass to pay the bills–and my practice really suffered during that. Logistically and physically, production here is easier. I can have a bigger studio where I can make sculptures, where I couldn’t do that in New York because of time, money, and just being tired all the time. Besides that, In a more conceptual sense, the market is so strong there, and there’s so many artists and galleries, that you end up having to self-represent in a way that’s unhealthy. Especially for artists of color, it’s a step more complicated. Leaving the US, I could just be a foreigner, and there’s some sort of truth in that existence, because in the states I was always trying not to be a foreigner, and here I just am. There’s a truth to it that’s really comfortable and freeing. There’s this toxic aspect of being socially outside of where I came up, after a while you just want a new way to look at yourself- a gaze other than what was taught to you. Mexico can be really raw, the history is more prevalent than it is in the states or Europe. All the histories of how groups of people came here, even if it’s not talked about, it’s apparent in the food, language, people, crafts–everything is an amalgamation like it is in the states, except here it’s kind of messy so you see all of it right in front of you. I’m really interested in this multiplicity of identities or these fragmented ideas of where things come from, and in a really narcissistic sense, where I come from.
J: Can you talk about your being in Mexico and the relationship to Chinese immigrants historically?
I could talk about this for hours, but will answer more generally because this is a short interview! For me, looking at that information is a given, because when you grow up as an immigrant in the United States you already know everything is from somewhere else. It’s a given, we’ve been there. That research stems from a personal interest to figure out where I’m from and the environment that I’m in. Of course a lot of it is not buried information, it’s just out there on Wikipedia. And then you can start to talk to people and figure out where these stories are from. In the larger picture, in relation to Canada, the United States, and Mexico–those borders are fairly new. The way people have been coming to this continent are all completely intermixed, but history writes it within the borders.
When Atlanta happened, there were all these stories on social media of injustices against Asian Americans and the hidden histories surrounding Anti-Asian violence, but those histories stopped at the current northern and southern borders. However, 100 years ago, the continental borders were still in flux, there were different laws for different people, much as there are now, just more blatant. There were different groups trying to stand up for themselves and create nations, pushing and pulling against each other. All of that mixing is of course very interesting, delving deeper, being more specific, is a way of trying to figure out the true history we’re living. The second thing I have to say about that, is that while that’s all a very general picture of what I’m looking at, I’ve realized gradually (in the past year during covid it kind of gelled) that these larger stories can only be told through our own personal stories. When we talk about our ancestors, it’s not just some girl with a nose piercing in mythic mountains- it’s my mom. That idea of ancestry and ancestral intelligence is much closer to us than we believe. With people who make art, if we want to be touching people or having people react, you have to be personal about it. It’s not even just in art–it’s in general. If you come at me with, say, Trump’s policies, I just want to hear, how does that affect someone’s real life? What does that really feel like viscerally?
That was one of the things about being in New York, the market really wants to come at things from the top down, outside-in, while it’s our responsibility as artists to come at things from an inside-out perspective. I needed to go through a lot of introspection for me to realize that, to understand that completely not just paying lip service, but really putting that into my life and work and practice.
J: How are you drawn to the materials that you use? How do you know what is right at any given time?
I can say that my studio is a big mess and I’m a Virgo, so everything is within a system. So it looks like a mess, but it’s actually a library. And the way that library is accumulated is through intuition. Intuition is based on an internal aesthetic history. Because of my background in craft, building, architecture, and construction, I want to see what happens to the material when my hand intervenes in it, so it’s really about the transformation, from one point to another. I’m a bit of a luddite about it, in that it’s part of the practice that it’s my hand doing it. A lot of people think I have fabricators do my work, but it’s an essentially important thing in my practice to have my direct intervention in the materials. I think that’s the case with a lot of artists.
The way the materials are chosen is pretty intuitive, as is the way the work comes about. It’s a meditative practice, you’re trying to get out of your head. When I’m in the studio I want to eliminate that and purely work with physicality. You kind of shit this thing out, you assemble the parts for whatever you made, and then it becomes a mirror of what you’re talking about and what you are. It’s the opposite of didactic, pretty much anti-pedagogical. It’s not like I’m going to think about making a piece about immigration from China, and then make something that directly says that. I’m not interested in that sort of equation, I’m interested in this connection that runs through the spinal cord and the hand–between the making and your spirit; the messy part we’re trying to avoid is what I’m trying to deal with. That’s what I think art is supposed to deal with. We’re supposed to be asking the questions about the dirty shit, in a non-preachy way. It’s complicated in that when you go from the inside-out, it’s all gray areas. Yea you can say “racism is bad”, but what does that really mean and how does that really actuate in our lives? How are our lives affected by it? Those are actual things that are actually happening, instead of a dogma.
J: What is your attraction to materiality and physicality?
It’s about the potential of those materials. Even though I reference the body as a central component, I’m always trying to take the body out of it. I’m creating this non-anthropomorphic world–this world where we’re living in now where we’re not the center of the universe, but materials are, and we are material. We’re all stardust, that kind of bullshit.
In post-industrial society, most people assume that materials come to you just like it is and it should stay like that forever, so “why is this steel rusting?” Even the most industrial material is organic because it’s the basis of everything. I want to explore this idea of primal transformation–like how some grass can become a cow that gets skinned, tanned and then cut into strips to be woven into something else; these paths of materials, even if it’s just a slice of the whole progression.
It’s really from my personal experience or things I’ve observed around me, of how to work with material. So I walk into my studio and see a pile of steel- I follow the curiosity of what I can do with this piece of steel and just my hands, a welder, and a grinder, not with a huge punching or multiple axis milling machine. That’s what I meant earlier about being a luddite. It’s really about my personal interaction with the material. With sculpture, you immediately relate it to your own body and see physicality in it. For some people, that reads as sexual. For me, it’s about putting my hands into it and I don’t see it happening any other way. Maybe in the future I’d want to have more stuff fabricated and explore weirder finishes, but at the moment that’s what I really enjoy in my studio.
J: Would you describe the problem solving of being an artist as a struggle?
The studio is a struggle for me because before I work with a material, I sit there and stare at it for a couple days. What I mean by struggle is that sometimes I don’t really know what I’m doing and it is this thing where you have to stop yourself from stopping yourself. If anyone has a meditative practice, they know what that is. You have to reach a state–you can even call it bored- but a state where you just have to do it, an emptiness that pushes you to fill it. So if I have a pile of steel and I want to build a cube in a certain way with two curved corners, and then I start doing it, and then get more ideas about what to do first, but what if I want to add this to it, etc.–I start getting lost in the steps of things. It happens all the time and is a constant struggle. I just have to put something down on the table. I have to put two things together and take it a step at a time. You can’t react to something when there’s nothing to react to. You have to start the conversation, otherwise the train’s not going anywhere. It’s stalled at the station, and I spend a lot of time in that station.
When I go to the studio, I usually have to sit there for a long time, just smoking cigarettes and looking at instagram, just sitting and looking around me for a long time. If I go away, coming back is so hard to get back into it. Now that I have more experience, I know the first day is just going to be a nothing day. Don’t expect anything from yourself, just go and watch TV there or whatever. Nothing good is going to come out of it, you just have to be there. There’s a lot of outside shit you have to ignore. Like in the states, you have to package yourself in a certain way (not that you don’t have to in other countries), but this idea of self-representing; that’s all outside things. Studio is supposed to be the inside thing. That’s the track you’re supposed to be on and what works best.
J: Do you have any tricks for motivating in the studio or when you are feeling frustrated?
No. I really don’t! You just gotta walk through the fire and deal with it. It’s a personal adjustment.
I guess the trick is not to punish yourself. Say to yourself that it’s okay if I don’t produce anything today. It’s okay if I don’t produce anything good today. I have a lot of self-doubt if I don’t know what my work is about today. That’s all okay and fine for now until you figure it out–which is the fire you gotta walk through.
J: Is there anything that you are really excited about right now? Studio or exhibitions to promote?
After coming off of two shows and being away for a while, I’m excited to get back into my studio and get back into some rhythm. All that is part of the practice. This summer is looking crazy because I’m going to visit family for a bit, then I have a public sculpture in London with Brooke Benington, then after in September I’ll be in Texas at Co-Lab. So I’m really valuing this time to just be at home with my dog and boyfriend. It’s really invaluable. It’s the most valuable thing for me–that stability is something I really need as an artist. I think it gets harder and harder to maintain a steady baseline. It starts to become about distributing your energy in the right way or keeping some sort of balance to preserve yourself.