Zhejiang, China, 1973
Currently lives and works in Hangzhou and Berlin.
Hangzhou artist Yuan Yuan (b. 1973) is gaining critical acclaim on the international art scene thanks to his distinctive paintings focusing on architectural subjects, executed with impeccable technique and conveying a unique atmosphere.
Born in Zhejiang, Yuan Yuan studied in the Oil Painting Department of the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou, where he gained a Bachelor of Fine Arts in 1996 and a Master of Fine Arts in 2008. As a secondary school student, he also studied traditional Chinese painting which influences his thinking. The Academy, founded in 1928, was the seedbed of modern Chinese art after its founder Lin Fengmian turned to the West in a bid to reinvigorate Chinese painting. When Yuan Yuan was studying there, while Chinese society was still very conservative, the Academy was “like a sunroof, always open for us” and he benefited from a library well stocked with foreign periodicals.
Yuan Yuan is inspired by Western artists such as Richard Long (b. 1945), who creates “art made by walking in landscapes” – sculptures which are lines or circles made from natural materials, and photographs of them. Yuan Yuan admires Long’s ability to go to places other people cannot reach, and awaken the viewer by letting them experience such places. He also cites the late Cuban-born American artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres (1957-1996), whose work “successfully places private sentiment in the common consciousness.”
Yuan Yuan’s subjects are mainly interiors, some once very grand such as great halls with neo-classical arches and balconies, others more modest such as entrances and corridors of old apartment buildings. These are based on real places, with some imaginary elements added, as he wishes to impose his own system of design.
All share a sense of abandonment and dereliction, offering just a glimpse of their former glory. Yuan Yuan says, “Ruins give us a sense of security, they are living spaces without a sense of pressure so you can do whatever you want. Abandoned places are also public, meaning that you may enter and visit. This is similar to the process of a viewer who is looking at an artwork. I am trying my best to identify the residual traces left behind – not so much what the place has now, but rather what this place used to be for a long time, which no one can take away and cannot be seen.”
In his most recent work, Yuan Yuan focuses further on enclosed spaces, such as the narrow alleyways between old buildings, or the stairwells in old apartment blocks with worn steps and ancient lift shafts. Frequently, the viewer looks through a gate, window bars, or a wire screen, at whatever lies beyond in a receding perspective. Yuan Yuan seems intent on creating an atmosphere that is closed in, even claustrophobic. Sometimes he manipulates architectural details, leaves spaces empty, or merges elements of different places to create new spaces of his own through the process of painting. As a result, the scenes he depicts seem to lie somewhere between reality and illusion.
Yuan Yuan’s compositions are highly structured and orderly, dictated by the geometric details of the architecture depicted. This may be an entire room, or a detail of a building such as a row of doors, a horizontal view of one floor of an apartment block, or a Gothic stained glass window. However, what sets Yuan Yuan’s paintings apart is the incredible detail with which he describes every individual surface within the composition. In particular, Yuan Yuan is fascinated by mosaics and patterns of tiles, whether on floors, walls, or lining pools and showers.
Yuan Yuan’s meticulous skill in depicting mosaics is unparalleled. Not only capturing thousands and thousands of tiny individual tiles in a single composition, he is able to play with an infinite variety of hues within the same colour scheme to produce a stunning visual effect. The atmosphere often feels humid in his paintings, with water in pools or dripping from the ceiling or decaying walls, and the mood is slightly wistful and melancholy. In order to achieve the effect of wet surfaces, he applies several layers of diluted pigment, a classical Chinese painting technique.
At first glance, Yuan Yuan’s paintings seem devoid of any human presence, like forgotten stage sets without any actors. Yet this is not quite true. Yuan Yuan wants to represent people by depicting traces of human activity, which heighten our curiosity. Thus, at the same time as describing in microscopic detail every element in a scene, Yuan Yuan also conveys a sense of passing time, of transition and history. He says, “What I mean by invisible things is time. People are afraid of it.”