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Dialogue | Yaozhi Liu——Follow curious visual animals

April 12, 2022

Interview: Rikki Cui

Artist: Yaozhi Liu

Editor: Tong Su


Yaozhi Liu is a photographer who is Beijing-born and based in Los Angeles now. He focuses on the topics of urbanization, environmental change, and protection by using landscape photography and multimedia installations.


Instagram @yaozhiliu


Follow curious visual animals

Cui: Where did you come from, what hobbies did you have, and where would you like to go?

Liu: I'm from Beijing, I have a lot of hobbies, and maybe I want to be a hermit?

Cui: What are your identities and roles?

Liu: When it comes to characters, I am a photographer, one of my jobs is to pick up the camera to shoot, the process of shooting is to use the camera to observe the world, so my role is to constantly observe the world and everything that I am interested in. I'm a visually conscious person myself, and it's hard to read text, but reading images is very easy.

Cui: The Owens River project you recently did was to go to California as a foreigner to observe these things. Did your identity inspire you when you were creating?

Liu: Since you live as a foreigner in another land, the perspective itself may be different from some locals. There is no denying that there must be some subtle influence on the identity in the creation, but I don't particularly care about the definition of this identity, I just want to shoot something that interests me.

Yaozhi Liu, Will I See You Again, 2019

Cui: How did you start creating?

Liu: At the beginning, I thought that where it looked good, I would shoot it. I would shoot where I thought was good. For a while, I tried to make the material for the gallery, and I shot the scenery very commercially, but I didn't sell much money. At the end of my sophomore year, I switched from biology to art and began to get on the right track.

Cui: Does using different equipment have an impact on your creation?

Liu: No matter what project you do, the tools will affect the working state and efficiency. Creating with a large-format camera or with a 35mm camera is a completely different state.

Cui: Did you get inspiration from any painters or photographers from the early West?

Liu: Yes, and it's the kind that can't be bypassed, but very indirect. At the beginning of the Westward Expansion Movement in the United States, the painters of that time would present the vast scenery of the West to people in other places, in fact, this can also be said to be a kind of political propaganda, people who saw these paintings would yearn for those scenes, and then flock to them. This was the political imperative of the time, because the country needed a population to fill the vacant lots that the United States had just acquired. Of course, the painters themselves may not have collected money for political tasks, but their work did have a political impact, and then the Hudson River School, which was inseparable from the birth of the National Park. The reason why the national park can be born is largely because these paintings showed natural landscape and resources of the west to the government in the east to establish the national park. Then there's the Impressionism that I really like, and although these Impressionist paintings don't have a direct effect on me, indirectly when I edit my photos, I am more or less influenced by Impressionist tones.

Albert Bierstadt, In the Mountains,1867

Cui: Why don't you shoot people, or do you present them in other ways?

Liu: I think it's good to describe it as "presented in another way." In fact, there are some people in my other works, but in this work, there are several reasons not to shoot people: one is my own shooting habits, that is, I am willing to drive around alone, and then look for my target everywhere; Especially when conducting a preliminary investigation of the shooting location, I will do all my homework in the early stage, and I will do it after I have a clear shooting plan. It is rare to ask for directions on the spot, and there is less possibility of a talk with people.

And my understanding of portraits in landscape photography is that people just play a supporting role. If you only use landscape photos, then the landscape is only your personal choice of perspective, and its persuasiveness is not very high, because if you want the work to present a very objective state, then only the landscape from a personal perspective is not enough; However, if you want the work to present a more sensual poetic state, it is obvious that only the landscape is not enough, then the portrait actually plays a reinforcing role in the new terrain photography. However, another reason I don't use portraits is that the work not only has a geographical line, but also a timeline that spans a lot. The objects in it date back to 1906, and there are many stories that continue to happen until now. If I take a portrait, which point in history does it represent? Moreover, what happened in the 1900s, and what happened in the next 1920s and 300s, those related people have long since ceased to be alive, and naturally they cannot talk about taking portraits. Portrait enhancement to this theme is limited, so I chose to use archives anyway.

Yaozhi Liu, There it is, Take it!, 2019-Current


Reproducible contemporary art

Cui: How do you explain contemporary art to different people?

Liu: For me, it is more expressive than aesthetic. In many categories of contemporary art, such as some performance art and documentaries, they will present some of the real state of themselves or human nature in a bloody, even straightforward and ugly way. This is a true expression, but it is also difficult to understand from an aesthetic scope of traditional art.

Cui: How do you think about reproducibility and non-reproducibility of art?

Liu: This is very important for the medium of photography. First of all, art was once a luxury in the service of theology, princes and nobles, and the invention of photography led to the birth of contemporary art. The reproducibility of photography liberates art from its ceremonial nature, increases the opportunities for art to be displayed, and pushes art into the field of mass. For me personally, it is precisely because of the birth of reproducible works of art that I have this creative model today, and even the opportunity to engage in art.

Cui: If the film is properly preserved, it can be copied many times in the future. What do you think this means in archival photography?

Liu: A photograph is a literal reproduction of a moment directly through the machine of the world. Although theoretically it can be changed, retouched, and chosen by the subjective perspective of the photographer, its authenticity is greater than any traditional medium like painting, oral narration, etc. Then there's the fact that a photograph can be kept for many years, so in fact it gives us a window into the world before we were born. Because there may be no other information on the history of those times, only vague black-and-white photographs remain in the end.

Personal biases or emotions will always appear inevitably in the work. I wanted to remain neutral, but in the end I found that it was impossible to maintain complete objectivity, because your growth and original intentions will definitely affect you subtly, and sometimes you yourself may not realize that there is a subjective bias in your perspective. My definition of a work now is to present some of the facts of both sides as comprehensively as possible, if it has a conflict in it, to the audience, and then I don't judge, and the audience can decide for themselves what position this thing takes. Of course, having a certain emotion may not be a bad thing, a person's emotions, experiences, perspectives are irreplaceable.

Yaozhi Liu, Fairmont Tufa Mill 1

Cui: What do you think of "boundaries"?

Liu: The word boundary first comes to my mind as "transition," a transition between several states, forms, or several spaces. In the past years, the gap between China and the United States has become wider and wider, and the political and economic ideological differences have also become wider and wider, so why are we artists who have temporarily lived abroad in the middle of nowhere? Another noteworthy mention is that the more popular art style on the Internet in the past two years is called liminal space, although they do not mean a word, but this concept I think can be put together to talk about. Threshold space emphasizes a critical, surreal experience in which a visually common style is the lack of human presence in man-made space. I often take photos with this feature in photography, and this kind of photography can also be seen as a kind of threshold space. The boundaries of the photographic frame are the so-called thresholds, and what is formed in the picture is a space that does not pass time.

Cui: Will film as a medium slowly be used only for works of art, only archival records, or simply disappear from the public eye, or will it slowly get better and better?

Liu: I think film should not disappear, but whether it will get better and better is another question. There are many examples that can be found in history. What is eliminated by the mainstream will not disappear immediately, but will exist in a small circle; After this small circle stabilizes, it will continue to exist like a subculture. Although it has long since left the mainstream, it will always exist. For example, vinyl has been obsolete for many years, but there are still new records that will release vinyl versions, so I think film will always exist. In the past two years, from the perspective of Kodak sales, the sales of film have been falling, but since the fall, it has stabilized in the small circle. In the future, the number of films may be less and less, unlike in the eighties and nineties, there are various manufacturers, a variety of models can be chosen, and the possibility of issuing new products is minimal, but it will always exist.

Yaozhi Liu, There it is, Take it!, 2019-Current


Editor's Comment

Liu's collection, There it is, Take it! , documents the natural environmental impact of Los Angeles' aqueduct project since 1913 on the Owens valley, where the water source comes. In his photos, we can clearly see the meandering, long rainbow-like aqueduct, in a humanistic and non-harmonious form with the man-made highway, as well as nature integrated: may be technical requirements, may also be for aesthetic considerations, the trend and extension of the aqueduct seems to imitate the mountains and rivers, but presumably many people in the photo at the moment, the brain will release contradictory and bizarre signals.

Yaozhi Liu, There it is, Take it!, 2019-Current

In contrast to the aqueduct, the plants present us with other natural scenery and a vision of human traces. Such a contrast also makes this series of pictures have vivid language and profound meaning. As the interview said, this has happened in the last century, and we can't trace back to those who have long since rested. However, Yao Zhi uses an instantaneous record of a sequence of spaces to effectively restore the impact of old human engineering on nature. Reflecting on the present, will what we do to nature today have the same impact on future generations?

Yaozhi Liu, There it is, Take it!, 2019-Current

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