At the age of 23, Taiwanese artist John Yuyi went viral for the first of what would be many times. Then, it was for her dreamy swimwear collection, Clay Project, released in 2014. At the age of 27, the young artist transformed her bold fashion aesthetic into striking, playful photography that nearly captivated her. Internet. Her work went viral again, landing her a collaboration with Gucci, a spot on the Forbes 30 Under 30 list in 2018, and her first solo show. Now, at 32, the New York-based artist is adding another vibrant project to her highly decorated career: a collaboration with Skateroom, an arts organization that combines skate culture and art history to advocate for social justice.
The recently released collaborative collection, which transforms skateboards into canvases featuring Yuyi’s sleek and glossy photos, fits right in with the organization’s previous collaborations with the work of Jeff Koons, Yoshitomo Nara, Andy Warhol, and other acclaimed artists. Poised between provocative ads, fashion editorials and one-of-a-kind portraits, the decks delve into consumerism and identity in the post-internet age, themes that have underscored her work since the days of fashion.
Yuyi’s road to virality is a winding one. After graduating from Shih Chien University in Taipei with a degree in fashion design, she switched from fashion to fine art by accident. While working on Clay Project, her line of bubblegum-colored swimwear featuring digital Dada-style images of her pottery, she sold temporary tattoos of social media iconography.
I was promoting the swimwear collection during the Facebook era and Instagram was still quite niche, Yuyi says Observer. I took computer symbols and turned them into temporary tattoos and put them on my back, then posted a picture on Facebook, but that was just to promote my swimwear collection.
However, the post garnered so much attention that Yuyi went viral again, kickstarting a new direction for her career. She snapped the temporary tattoos on other subjects, sourcing models on Tinder or Instagram and covering them with their digital profile emblems. At a time when influencer culture and social media were just starting to take off, the work became a prescient look at how what happens on the internet and who you are online doesn’t exist in a vacuum.
The temporary tattoo project looked not unlike an episode of Black mirror where digital identities, online weight, and follower count follow we, influencing how others treat us in real life. In Yuyi’s photos, subject and object become one, just as people become a brand, a commodity to be sold online.
It has been nearly a decade since Yuyi started shooting with temporary tattoos and the distance from the project allows her to see how she has inadvertently captured the frenetic hype cycles we now live in. With the advent of digital platforms, she explains, everyone has had a ticket to become famous, to become relevant, but also to be forgotten in the next second. Such is the short life span of our hype-driven economy.
Yuyi points to the death of online platforms as an example: One day I realized that all these social media will be irrelevant, which is true. Now, only Boomers use Facebook and Snapchat nobody really uses it.
Over time, the project has become an internet archive, where the platforms, people and things that mattered so much to us now feel nostalgic. In one sense, the project is a warning: things that were once beautiful easily become embarrassing.
If the first half of Yuyi’s art involved placing objects on people, the second half, captured from the collection with Skateroom, does the opposite. She places women, usually herself and usually naked, on objects. In Smoke me, Yuyi transfers his body to a set of cigarettes and catches them as they begin to burn. The merging of women and objects creates a visual commentary on the objectification of women and the ways they are exploited for marketing.
It’s about consumer culture, he says. I was thinking a lot about how people advertised so differently in the past. Back then, the product and the face of the product itself weren’t so related to each other. Now, it’s all micro-influence, being so loyal to influencers that maybe they only have 80,000 followers. What I hear now about that consumer culture is that a lot of things are accessible. You can be the recipient and you can also be the provider in this advertising system.
While there is a certain surreal and dystopian quality to elegant decks, there is also a sense of power. Here, Yuyi and the naked women she shoots are unapologetically sultry, staring into the camera lens. For Asian women in particular, their object likeness adds another way to read the work as a visualization of how Asian women in America are often fetishized, an experience Yuyi didn’t have until she moved to New York from Taipei when he was 20 years old.
In her work, Asian bodies replace each other and become images of desire, but these are images she can control. Yuyi, who in her early career often had to fight against brands to be both the photographer and the model, owns her image of her and her body as she reclaims her sexual objectification of her. In one piece, she projects a nude mirror selfie onto a knife. The title: I stab you.
In less than a decade, Yuyi has transformed a side hustle into an art practice that warps the internet’s instinct for self-commodification and the objectification of women inherent within. All this time, she’s been thinking about post-internet misogyny and her own repressive upbringing.
Being naked is a way of expressing my anger, Yuyi says. There is certainly a lot to be angry about.
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