Tuesday, 24 December 2013

5 Questions With... artist Yang-En Hume

Yang-En Hume. Courtesy of the artist.

On first appearance your work, in particular the installation pieces with dolls heads, is quite unnerving - did you ever intend for your work to evoke a visceral response?

Yes, that was a deliberate decision. I’d been reading about Julia Kristeva’s writings on the abject. She argues that abjection defies divisions between the proper and improper, and between the clean and unclean. The abject is ambiguous; disturbing identity, order, and boundaries. I think that’s what makes it ideal imagery for critiquing notions of femininity and beauty.

I thought that making reference to bodily fluids (the yellow-brown liquid in the jars) in order to evoke a physical response of disgust in the viewer would be an interesting way to defy appropriate boundaries. I was also thinking of other artists who utilise abjection or dismemberment in order to transgress social norms. I think Jenny Saville’s work in particular, effectively critiques the cultural fixation on female thinness and the social preference for a tightly managed and sealed female body.

Your work focuses on preconceived notions of femininity - what interests you about this area?

The project started with the dolls. I knew I wanted to use dolls, but wasn't sure specifically how I would incorporate them into an artwork. As I began researching the historical and contemporary uses for dolls, their links to femininity and gender roles became clear, and my interest in the area grew through further research of the topic.

Historically, playing with dolls reiterated the values of modesty, maternity, obedience, submissiveness and chastity in young girls. Contemporary theorists have argued that dolls continue to play a role in teaching girls gender norms. They idealise the nuclear family and normalise certain physical traits, creating a limited concept of beauty. I think it’s interesting to analyse the social significance behind elements of popular culture, and to think about why, as a society and as individuals we hold certain preferences and inclinations.

Yang-En Hume, Polyps. Courtesy of the artist.

Yang-En Hume, Polyps (detail). Courtesy of the artist.

Why specifically do you use the dolls heads? What process do you go through when creating a work?

The faces seemed to be the most anthropomorphic aspect of the doll, giving the work a greater connection between the doll and the human body. There is also an eerie, unnerving aspect to facing hundreds of dolls heads staring at you. It places the viewer in the role of both voyeur and object of the gaze, fracturing the conventional relationship between artwork and audience.

However, I have also been making work, which also uses the dolls limbs and bodies. My work is about more than the gaze, or the face, so I felt it was important to use the whole doll. My installation Polyps features hundreds of heads, limbs and torsos, bound up in plastic bags.

My process changes for every project. I spend a lot of time reading about other artists and theorists in the hope that this will reveal a direction to take. I’m constantly brainstorming ideas, and often I will just start making things and see where that takes me.I also like to get feedback from others, as seeing my own work all the time means it can lose it’s impact on me. If a number of people seem to react strongly to certain strands of my work I may investigate that aspect further, or neglect it, depending on the nature of the responses. That’s how my installation Collector’s Addiction came about. I had a few decapitated dolls in jars sitting in my studio, which nearly everyone who came in gravitated towards.

Yang-En Hume, Collector's Addiction (detail). Courtesy of the artist.

Yang-En Hume, Collector's Addiction (detail). Courtesy of the artist.

You mention on your website that the doll as motif is significant in "shaping girls' experiences of being female" - can you elaborate? How do you feel it effects women's perceptions of being female?

Dolls are one of a number of factors, which teach girls how they should behave and to what they should aspire. They train girls to associate certain characteristics with being female. From the second half of the 18th century, they were used as a form of education to teach girls how to dress, and to foster maternal aspirations. Paintings of dolls from this period depict them as an aid in developing girls into docile women, probably indicative of underlying fears that women have innate unruly passions that could threaten the social order.

More recently, a number of writers and theorists have argued that dolls continue to teach girls’ gender norms and social expectations such as maternity, domesticity and beauty. Barbie reinforces a white-skinned, thin, fashionable beauty ideal, which when internalised has been shown by some studies to contribute to the development of body dissatisfaction in girls. Barbie and other dolls reinforce to girls that their primary social value is the attainment of beauty, encouraging insecure consumerism. Furthermore, Barbie represents a physical ideal, which extends the idea of beauty to characteristics such as skin colour, marginalising girls of non-Caucasian ethnicity. Even though they are not the only contributing factor, dolls, I think, act as a symbol of broader social and cultural expectations to which children are exposed from a very young age. They are a tool used to inculcate girls with certain ‘feminine’ values, and to train them to aspire to a narrow beauty ideal.

Describe your work in 5 words.

Anthropomorphic, Abject, collection, dismembered, taxonomic.

Yang-En Hume, Collector's Addiction. Courtesy of the artist.

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