Curated Conversations: Cyber YuYu
YuLiang Liu, better known online as Cyber YuYu, is a Berlin-based multidisciplinary artist whose work comments on the relationships between identity, society, and exclusion. Utilizing his own image, he directly confronts and exposes the types of gazes and subjects that have traditionally been granted the privilege of representation throughout art history, and draws explicit attention to those that have been intentionally suppressed.
SuperRare Labs Content Strategist Oli Scialdone interviewed YuYu about power, pain, appropriation, and his new collection, “GAG.”
Oli Scialdone: In your artwork, you recontextualize pieces from the Western canon by inserting yourself into the frame. Can you tell me a little about what it means to juxtapose yourself with these works?
Cyber YuYu: Professor Jun once wrote in the context of my work, “a queer and post-colonial rewriting of the loving, desiring, warlike body, which deconstructs the visual representations at the foundation of hetero-centric Western cultures,” and I have never felt more understood before. For centuries, art has been a matrix of fabrication, reinforcement, and embellishment of social norms, norms that often saw danger in representation and intentionally excluded people like me. Through my practice, I position myself as an intruder, a character that does not belong yet somehow tricks the viewer to believe it has always been there, to pinpoint those manifestations.
Looking back to when I first started exploring this method, I realize I wasn’t fully aware of the conceptual layers I could develop with it. At first, it seemed like a protest, a way for me to navigate living in a new environment different from what I was accustomed to. Having just moved to Germany from Taiwan, where I was born and raised, creative expression seemed to be the only outlet I could use to express my emotional frustration. Art offers a unique way of communicating universally—even without being able to properly speak a language, you know you can be seen and heard.
As the first cultural shocks started to recede and I got the chance to delve deeper into the fundamentals of the issues I was exploring, it became apparent that I was not just looking to denounce or criticize the norms that regulate our behaviors, but instead, I am more intrigued by the idea of inventing alternative and provocative identifications to resist dominant patterns and narratives. In juxtaposing myself with these works I have found a balanced way to disturb perceptions and provoke reactions, but in parallel, to study and understand the culture of the place I live my life and build my career. For some, it might seem as if I denounce the cultural validity of those works, or the historical significance of the artists behind them. In reality, I have an immense amount of respect for the artists’ crafts, I am in love with the works I am re-interpreting. And part of this new interpretation is an homage, an attempt to bring them to today and allow them to re-flourish, centuries after their initial creation.
CYY: “GAG” is situated within the current socio-political climate, which is marked by ongoing
debates surrounding issues of power, control, and identity. Naturally, as both my work and myself mature, the themes I explore become less superficial and instead focus on underlying social structures that are not always apparent at first glance. Considering the severity of the topics I am touching on, I find it extremely important to approach them with a sense of humility and humor, to strip them of their inherent meanings and allow myself to review them in a new light that craves reinterpretation. As an extension, the three works in this collection utilize elements, such as the BDSM accessories, to soften the torturing depictions and act as armor to empower oneself.
The foundation of this collection lies within a conceptual visualization of power dynamics between artists and society at large, whether we talk about the general perception of what constitutes an artist, or more specifically how the relationship between artist and market unfolds in contemporary times. Building upon the concept of the “tortured genius,” a phrase that implies that an individual’s genius and their suffering are interconnected, with the creative output being inextricably linked to inner turmoil, this collection exaggerates societal perceptions of what comprises art by establishing a haunting imagery of amplified pain and suffering. In a way, it questions the limits of our definition of art by amplifying the dramaturgy and trauma to the extreme, blurring the lines between pain and pleasure under the omnipresent sight of the viewer. While the imagery draws inspiration from the centuries of persecution of marginalized individuals, the collection as a whole uses the concept of the “tortured genius” as a lens through which to explore the broader themes of dominance and submission, establishing a visual representation of how power is wielded and controlled in different contexts. Despite my voice being seemingly silenced, and gagged, throughout this collection, my message aims to transcend the digital and physical displays and demonstrate how individual presence can not be forced to oblivion.
OS: The BDSM imagery really drives home the point of power and submission. What representations of power are you addressing in these works? What do you think is the relationship between artists and pain?
CYY: Pain is a fundamental emotion of human existence. While happiness comes briefly and disappears shortly after, pain and sorrow create cracks that never fully heal. Pain is what makes us human, to experience multiple layers of it and continue living. The relationship between artists and pain is complex and multifaceted, yet above all, deeply personal. Whether approached in an autobiographical way, as a source of motivation to express inner turmoil, or as a thematic element in their work, pain in the art can take many forms depending on the individual’s practice and perspective.
What is particularly interesting to me and a main topic of investigation through this collection, is how this deeply personal relationship becomes a commodity. Is pain what creates art and thus; is pain the art? The three works address this question through different perspectives, discussing both external and internal factors causing pain, setting them in parallel to the suggestion that creators must suffer in order to achieve artistic excellence. Submissive – Dominant power structures are not always easy to distinguish, with energy flowing both ways and a mutual acceptance of the exchange in place, those perplexing relationships were pivotal to the development of “GAG.”
CYY: All three works that constitute “GAG” have been developed under the same concept and the idea of visualizing a complex interplay of power dynamics. The artworks draw upon borrowed elements from both classical paintings and BDSM culture references inspired by the place I call home, Berlin. Each of the works presented in this collection approaches the concept of the “tortured genius” as it relates to the three main pillars of a) society, b) religion, and c) the self.
Representing society, “Bad Bunny, Dead Bunny” references the Mandarin slang term “Rabbit,” a derogatory label aimed at the queer community. The work takes inspiration from Solomon J Solomon’s “Samson,” depicting the biblical hero weakened and bound after revealing the source of his strength to his lover Delilah. The work symbolizes the oppressive norms of society and comments on the ongoing persecution of minority groups.
“Praise be,” a work inspired by “The Martyr of Fanaticism” by Jose de Britoc, approaches the topic of dominance from the perspective of religion, the ruler of our social norms for centuries. Perhaps the most emotionally charged out of the three works, “Praise Be” depicts, through my portraiture, the martyrdom of countless “divergent” individuals that have found themselves against the wheels of religious righteousness.
Lastly, “Jokes on You” is the final piece of this three-piece collection, serving as a self-reflection statement. Based on “Stańczyk” by Jan Matejko, I position myself as the sad clown gagged and soon-to-be-consumed by the skeletons surrounding me. The piece questions whether someone gagged me by force or I gagged myself, offering a moment of retrospection regarding how societal expectations affect individual decisions.
The three works together offer a narrational journey into the complexities of human societies and explore socio-political manifestations of dominance over the less privileged bodies. They aim to destabilize our “truths” and to reveal the ways in which cultural codes are constructed.
CYY: To begin with, “GAG” was initiated as a project meant to manifest in a physical space. When IHAM invited me to present a solo exhibition with them I instantly thought how this was an incredible opportunity to approach my work in a less digitally-focused manner. To give you a bit of context, prior to my involvement with the Web3 space and in parallel to establishing my artistic identity, my main occupation was in the fields of cultural and electronic music event production. As a result, and regardless of my adoration of our digital utopia, I highly value the impact and immersive potential of the physical space. In real life, the artist sets a stage, and for as long as you are in it, you are bound by them. Precisely due to this unique role allocation, the contradiction between the power dynamics within the works versus the ones manifesting in the physical gallery creates the perfect playground to express the fragility of the concept of power.
The whole concept of this collection/exhibition has been built in a way that allows the topics to reflect in three dimensions, making the exhibition a complete manifestation of my conceptual input, and placing the viewers at the epicenter of it. For the past couple of months I have worked with a team of people, to name a few my two curators Grida and Sixela who helped bring the idea to life, and the London-based music producer MarcelDune who created an hour-long soundscape, to collectively transform the entire gallery grounds into a visceral experience that echo the individual themes explored through the three main artworks of the exhibition.
I could continue rambling forever but I have to maintain an element of surprise for those planning to attend the show (lol). For those interested, the exhibition will last from the 10th to the 20th of May, and I will be physically there from 10 to 13. Come!
CYY: As a millennial, I was born into digital art. We might have not fully realized it, but every experience we had growing up has been infused with large amounts of digitalization. Even how we experience traditional, physical art, for its majority, has been through digital lenses. Art that would normally be experienced inside the halls of esteemed museums located in the most elite capitals of the West, was at the same time available to access from anywhere in the world as long as there was an internet connection. When I felt the need to start exploring creative outlets for my thoughts and fears, digital experimentation seemed like a no-brainer.
I think like most of us, the pandemic has been a pivotal moment in my life. I was already working on my creations for a couple of years by that time, having participated in multiple international exhibitions and publications, but in no way I was yet able to fully sustain myself from it. While things were moving in a good direction, COVID-19 brought everything to an absolute standstill. For the bigger part of 2020, I went into a rabbit hole of self-doubting and questioning what happens next. I was extremely lucky to have a partner who pushed me through and introduced me to the concept of blockchain and NFTs. It was a revelation. Not only because I could start filling the financial gaps caused by the pandemic, but because, for the first time since I started creating art, I felt there was an alternative to the traditional art markets that can often feel excluding for queer, non-white individuals. It only took me a few months of learning more about the technicalities of blockchain before I decided to fully join in 2021.
CYY: Forcing yourself on a table that traditionally rejects or ignores you comes with a heavy emotional weight, as you will often witness yourself dimming your light or silencing your voice before being able to fully embrace your ways of expression and being. “GAG” explores this exact topic, the instances under which, whether as a forced or self-caused result, an individual voice becomes muted under the pressure and expectations of others. Due to the nature of those interactions, allow me to rephrase your question to “What does it mean to create a place for yourself” rather than “find”. I feel “create” describes the journey of belonging more accurately, as it entails the tremendous amounts of physical and emotional labor that goes into it. Speaking for myself, I know I have a long way to go to be considered and feel equal to those in more privileged positions, but for one thing, I feel proud of myself for my perseverance and determination to not just be a queer Asian token but instead acknowledged for my contribution in the space and the art canon as a whole. Somehow similar to my work, an invader holds the power to disturb pre-established structures and I like to think of my presence inside West-centric, heteronormative spaces as a manifestation of this exact disturbance.
OS: Are you working on anything else you’re excited about?
CYY: Of course! I wake up every day feeling excited about the projects I have in the pipeline. At the moment, I am most excited about my upcoming participation in the Non-Fungible Conference as a speaker and a showcasing artist, where I will be presenting a completely new side of who YuYu is! I cannot wait to show everyone how layered my brand is and of course, enjoy engaging with the community under the blazing Lisbon sun!
Beyond that, I am currently working with the Jane Goodall Institute, one of the largest environmental causes in the globe, for a fundraising event taking place during the Cannes Film Festival, while also discussing some incredibly exciting things for Asia in Q3 2023!
Can not share more for now but I am sure 2023 will be a year to remember!
Oliver Scialdone is a queer writer and artist based in Brooklyn, NY. They earned a dual-MFA from The New School, and their work can be found in Peach Mag, ImageOut Write, and elsewhere. They used to host the reading series Satellite Lit and they're the Associate Editor at SuperRare Magazine.
SuperRare editor Oli Scialdone considers the social experience of provenance and its relationship with community in the Web3 space.