Yawen Zheng is a well traveled photographer and sculpture who uses her background in biochemistry to create unique and thought provoking photographs. The following is a transcript of an interview conducted by Annissa Carter as a part of our Artists of New Haven program.
I grew up in China, and after graduating high school I traveled to the US and spent about 7 years there. Before I became an artist I was more of a science person, I got a B.S. in Biochemistry from UC Davis, so I am interested in environmental concepts and animal rights. After graduating from UC Davis, I went to San Francisco Art Institute to study photography. My work explores the relationship between nature and humans. Most of my work is essentially performance for the camera, for example one of my photos about human intervention was ice put in the hands of another person. I wanted it to feel like the person holding the ice was bearing the pain of holding it which is similar to people bearing the pain of lacking resources and global warming.
What made you get into photography?
My parents are both photographers. When I was little they would let me handle the camera and play with it so I started very young. They often took me to a lot of exhibitions, where I got familiar with many artworks of inspiring photographers, like Hiroshi Sugimoto and Richard Learoyd. The idea that using photography as a medium to condense and materialize the invisible realm of artists’ thoughts attracts me. At first they didn’t want me to study photography because they thought if I made it into a career then I wouldn’t like it anymore, But, I insisted on seeing the art world with my own eyes and persuaded them.
What’s been inspiring your recent work
Mostly animals and nature, they’re the main models of my work. I usually take apart ideas from enthralling phenomena that I observed in daily life and reconstruct mundane scenes and perform for the camera in my studio. Sometimes I’ll go to the ocean to get ideas since I’ve spent a lot of years living near coastal cities.
It’s really interesting that you’re someone who has both an art and science background and you’re able to combine that in your work.
Well they’re both important to me. I think being able to combine the two, that’s what makes me unique. I think art is a very efficient way to spread scientific knowledge because science sometimes is monotonous and complex, and photography can help express ideas a lot easier and in a more interesting way.
What kind of details do you look for when you start to edit your photos?
I don’t like to make my photos “unreal”, I like to keep them grounded in reality. It’s very important that my photos show clarity and I pay a lot of attention to lighting and the color around them. The Human Intervention photo for example, I’ve made it so the warmer light shines towards the right while to the left there was a cooler light. Below the hand was another cool light to show the little droplets better. I had to do a lot of retakes to get this one right.
So you travel a lot! How did you get familiar with Artspace?
I got to know Yale first because my husband planned to study there so I wanted to get familiar with New Haven. I was looking at galleries around New Haven to find a job and I found an artist calling at Artspace, so I applied. After about half a year I got a response, though I was very confused at first. However, because of COVID-19, we had to cancel the study plan and left the US.
Can you tell me in what ways things have changed for you since the start of the pandemic?
COVID forced a lot of changes in my life. Because of COVID, my career plan is slowed down. Also, because of travel restrictions, I am stuck in place. I have to change my plans all the time. But, I try to move my life forward and spend more time with family, even though COVID put us all in bad shape. In the meantime, I will continue making works, maybe in other forms.