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Picturing Alienation

Tianyuan Hu is a student at Goldsmiths, University of London. Her practice explores alienation, traversing spaces between “the lucid and the lunatic.” The Amorph series expresses these themes as drawn from observations during lockdown; the works depict unsystematic moments when identities and perceptions haven’t been theorised into any definitive meaning or criteria.

A: In Issue 102 of Aesthetica, we feature a piece from the Amorph series. Have you always expressed notions of alienation through art?
TH:
I’m always drawn to the otherness lurking in daily life, along with other related notions such as alienation. Alienation is not just a feeling, but also a phenomenon of bordering. To some extent, I feel we should celebrate otherness and alienation, as they imply diversity and the power of becoming. They set new paths – disrupting boundaries within the predominant norms and majoritarian structures.

In the series Amorph, I explore otherness and alienation by portraying the disintegration of the mundane. I hope to give voices to the uncategorised and the marginalised, to depict those unsystematic moments when linguistic structure fails and language loses its anchor, where identities and perceptions haven’t been theorised into any definitive meaning or criteria.

People sometimes think of alienation in terms of anomaly. I believe the best way to perceive a being is to understand its anomalous state. Therefore, I’m always wondering: what can morbidity tell us about wellbeing? What can cracks tell us about the ground? And maybe the only way to portray myself, is to portray my interior mutations and alienation. I’m looking for a spectral narration in which different impulses and symptoms are developed, where what we see every day is combined and displayed in many different ways: reconfigured and decoded within a diverse spectrum.

A: Are feelings of alienation personal to you? In what context? 
TH:
Yes. Actually, I named this series Amorph because, for me, the sense of alienation is just like being an amorph – a mutated gene without determinable effect. I always feel somewhat alienated and find it difficult to fit into surroundings no matter where I am. Mentally, I live like a forever nomad. On the inside, sometimes I feel I’m like a stranger to myself, and I’m dissociated from my own perceptions. I have a history of affective blunting, which means that from time to time I lose the ability to experience emotions – just like being placed in a vacuum.

I hope my works can evoke a spectrum of intermingling emotions. One of the impetuses to create art is my longing for intensity and perception, seeking to exorcise myself from self-detachment and numbness. What I try to perceive and portray in my works are the forces caged in my body, the sealed intensity and echoes.

As a female, I feel alienated from the social categories and identities indoctrinated by patriarchy. Particularly in China, feminists are still in a position of marginalised otherness. Women’s voices are severely marginalised and repressed. I guess it’s just hard to not experience alienation. In some senses, I don’t mind feeling alienated, as it reminds me to be critical about the roles and expectations of mainstream culture and society.

Alienation can be an everyday feeling for many people; for others it is more profound. In psychiatry, it can sometimes be seen as: “a state of depersonalisation or loss of identity in which the self seems unreal, thought to be caused by difficulties in relating to society and the resulting prolonged inhibition of emotion.”

A: You’ve mentioned that your work “traverses spaces between the lucid and the lunatic” – which works in the Amorph series do you think best reflect this?
TH:
To some extent, Amorph attempts to meditate on a liminal and transitional space between tangible and intangible presences, the elusive intersection between different states of being. What I try to portray is an uncategorised state between the lucid and lunatic, normalities and anomalies. I think Untitled 02 (below left) can best reflect this. It’s also the very first image of the series: magmas are bleeding from the depth of darkness into a red eerie lake, waves are rolling ahead in the sky. The man seems to dwell on a zone of discernibility. Though the street light temporarily offers him a lucid moment, soon he’ll be drowned away in the night.


A: What is it about fire that helps express your ideas in the series?
TH:
Fire symbolises a revealing moment when hidden power is released and marginal beauties manifest. I attempt to depict the flesh of the invisible, I set mundane scenes on fire, burn them, but also manifest their potentials. I like it when fire is concocted with dark imagery: everything becomes less discernible but more intense. They’re burning and heaving, sometimes wrestling and tumbling. In Untitled 03 (below), flames are licking the firmament. An electric pole stands out of the darkness, it dangles in the middle like a bigoted outsider, like a sharp blade. Besides, I like playing with the palette, experimenting with bold colours and hazy tints to help express ideas. Strident colours reconfigure everything we’ve gotten accustomed to.

A: How are the people portrayed? Do you know them or are observes strangers? Are any of the works self-portraits? Is the series reflective of personal experiences or is it part of a wider exploration of the people and situations around you during lockdown? 
TH:
Actually it can be said to be both a reflective of personal experiences and wider observations. Though the people portrayed in my photos are always strangers, when I’m staring at others, I’m spying on myself as well. A photographer seems to be an outsider forever hiding behind the lens, yet every photo is inevitably autobiographical. There is always a piece of self that can only be found exteriorly, just like one can only see one’s eyeball from a mirror. To some extent, I is an other.

A child and a man are contemplating on a ladder that looks like a half-sinking boat (Untitled 04, below). They reflect on their existences but there is always a missing piece of the self elsewhere. Residing in liminal space, they are constantly in search of this missing piece, attempting to trace it in the eccentric blue mirror. By depicting these unsettling scenes and human figures, I’m simultaneously questioning, confronting, or staging my identities and alienations. I always see myself as a self-revolting vortex, spying on a world where people are unhinged, dissolving and swirling into tunnels and gyres.

A: How have your observations changed since lockdown ended in the UK?
TH:
I realised that under lockdowns lots of people were feeling alienated due to the lack of direct contact with others. Therefore, in post-lockdown life, I have started observing and thinking about the role of connections in our lives. Most of what we do and believe is motivated by the desire for connection. Only through different connections is life able to preserve and grow in strength. In Deleuze’s view, desire begins from connection rather than lacking. And there can be many possibilities for connection, and not merely towards other humans, but also with nature or a deeper self, etc. As an introvert, I prefer connecting through observing and listening rather than engaging in big gatherings.

The image below was finished after the lockdown: The fisherman is pointing at the storm; is it the storm that he really desires? I believe he desires a sharp confrontation. What he desires, at that moment, is a potent connection, a clash, a reciprocal irritation and attunement. Connection is an undiluted ecstatic moment. Without it, we would be at a loss and unable to function.

A: You recently participated in the group exhibition The Absurd, curated by the FUBAR Collective, held at the Crypt Gallery, London. You mentioned “Now it’s time to give voices to those absurd beings, to dissolve ourselves in a world that is spinning off its axis.” Is it important to you that you participate in exhibitions that reflect your personal views and values?
TH:
I like participating in group exhibitions that are based on themes I’m interested in. They usually link diverse works, and it is motivating to see how different artists anatomise and interpret the same theme. Art is built on perspective. The image below is one of the works exhibited in the show.

A: Do you explore absurdism in art and literature? If so, is it harnessed as an inspiration for your art practice or do you simply find it interesting?
TH:
I didn’t explore it particularly in art and literature, but I have been intrigued by absurdism since I was a kid: the uncanny metaphors in Frida’s paintings, the preposterous narratives in Kafka’s books, unsettling scenes and oneiric imageries in Shuji Terayama’s films, those biomorphic structures in Francis Bacon’s paintings, etc. All of these more or less convey the conception of absurdity. And when looking at my works again, I realise that biomorphism unconsciously hovered in many scenes. There’re many organic-like patterns emerging in the images.

Vessels sprout from the lungs and crawl along the pale wall, they’re about to coil around the old lady (Untitled 06, above). A heart-like organ is hanging and wavering in the air above a kid shrouded by flocculent feathers (Untitled 07, below). Our existence is no heavier than these golden feathers, being blown in the wind of fate. In Untitled 01, a skulking eye grows out of some soft and wiggly limbs which tangle with the fence like a mollusk. Those anatomical structures are goading us to shed their skins; they’re like buoys alluding to submerged tumult and upheaval.

A: Do you ever verge towards nihilism or do you think that you strongly remain an absurdist?
TH
: Honestly I’m not sure if I’m a nihilist or absurdist. I assume one of the intersections between nihilism and absurdism is that they both defy existing social norms and categories. I always try to resist categorisation and labels, to remain critical about those values indoctrinated by dominant culture. This is a liquid reality, and categorisation always causes prejudice and marginalisation.


A: How has your work evolved over time spent at Goldsmiths, University of London? To what extent do you think you have evolved alongside your work?
TH:
My works have become more experimental during my time at Goldsmiths. I experimented with alternative ways to practice photography. Moreover, I started to re-examine the relationships between photography, reality and memories.

I regard photographs as self-sufficient dimensions which don’t equal with reality. We don’t have a gauge for reality. To some extent, ‘the real’ remains impenetrable and inaccessible. Reality is an empty space forever goading photography, but when we try to reach the real, it only reinforces our delusion. Unlike most people using photos to preserve moments, most of the time I take photos because I want to provoke and distort one moment, transfix it, charge it with new possibilities.

A: How do you think your practice will evolve throughout the next two years?
TH:
I’m bad at making plans, my work usually starts without pre-set aims and is developed in a wandering manner. The theme can only be figured out throughout the process. One thing for sure is that I’ll keep exploring photography as a system of potentials rather than a system of judgement. I believe photography has the power of transcending our eyes to deterritorialise what we see every day, to tell occult stories of invisible perceptions and forces that exist beyond our eyes.

I hope to use photography to provide humans with a pair of ‘anomalous’ eyes. Photos are like ‘abnormal’ versions of the human sensory system; they could expand the parameter of human cognition. My photographs are sentient beings, I may set a path for them, but it’s still unknown how many terrains this path will cross. Will it be tranquil? Will it be sinister?


tianyuan.online

Instagram: @oldastrotooth

The work of Tianyuan Hu appears in the Artists’ Directory in Issue 102 of Aesthetica. Click here to visit our online shop.


All images courtesy Tianyuan Hu.