Photography by John Yuyi
When John Yuyi stuck temporary tattoos of nude self-portraits onto the skin of pork cuts as part of a photo project, the world could not get enough of her raw, unapologetic, and artful interpretations of her surroundings. Focusing on millennial culture, Yuyi’s work explores aspects of social media, the human as a form, and the vastness of the post-internet world. The Taipei-native artist, who has a background in fashion and once interned for Jason Wu, quickly gained online traction from her unconventional practices as a digital artist. Today, she has collaborated with the likes of Gucci, Nike, Maison Margiela, and Carven for creative campaigns and commercial projects.
For our winter 2019/20 issue, Yuyi shot and directed a series of self-portraits taking Gucci's latest bags around Tokyo. Yuyi spoke with L'Officiel USA about the special project, the intersection of fashion and art, and being an artist in the digital age. Read on to learn more about the mesmerizing creative whose work will lull you into her extraordinary universe.
How did you come up with the concept for this shoot?
Initially, I wanted to hold the bags by the hair and shoot them against different views of Tokyo, but there was a technical problem since the bags were too heavy. But I really like to play around with different parts of the human body, and hair, for many, is a way for people to identify—people have different hairstyles and hair colors. I remember doing a project in the past where I created a perfume bottle made out of eyelashes. For this project, I photoshopped the super long hair because I like to play around with human parts.
What did you want to show with the handbags? How did you want to display them? What kind of mood were you trying to capture?
I wanted to capture a girl doing “normal” things in a city, like climbing up the stairs, taking the bus, things that ordinary people do in this city. But something about this girl is weird; she has this super long hair and it all just feels kind of surreal. I guess that’s the vibe I was trying to capture. Without too much posing because I want it to feel more like, “She’s doing ordinary things but her hair is odd.” That’s the vibe I was trying to capture.
Like magic realism?
Yeah, like a modern-day Rapunzel that lives in a big city and that has to go to work and take public transportation like everyone else.
You have collaborated on campaigns with high-end luxury brands like Gucci. Where do you think fashion and art intersect?
I think I used to think about this question a lot. Fashion is kind of weird because I was majoring in fashion design; I didn’t go to art school, I went to study fashion design. So I was thinking about all that when I was in school. I felt like there are so many problems in the world that aren’t solved yet. Like poverty, global warming, everything. But then here we are designing all this fancy, impractical luxury clothing for people. A couple of years ago, I went to the Metropolitan Museum and I saw the Comme des Garçons exhibition that year from the Met Gala’s Costume Institute, and that’s when I realized how art and fashion are related—in healing people’s hearts even when sometimes they can’t afford it. But I think fashion, in the catalog of art, is necessary because when you have food to eat and a place to sleep, you want something more inside. You want something for your mental [fulfillment] and I think art is for healing people’s hearts, and fashion is one of the ways to do so.
You studied fashion design at university. Do you think this type of training shapes your work and artistic process in any way, as opposed to if you had had a more traditional training in fine arts?
I’m not sure because as you said, I never had a fine arts training so I can’t compare them. But I guess sometimes whenever I do the setup or idea concept, I do kind of use the way that my teacher taught me. I will always do sketches for the shooting and it will come out quite the same. They taught me to think about the more practical side of things as a fashion design student. I guess also the more commercial aspects of the industry because teachers always told me that as crazy as it sounds, I had to design clothing for people to be able to wear them. So when I do my own work, I always think, especially when collaborating with brands, will this project do anything for them, not just in terms of income, but whether it is eye-catching enough for them? Is it cool enough for them? Did I reach the standard of what they wanted? Is this what they wanted? I guess that’s what interests me by being a fashion design student.
If you had to caption this series on Instagram, what would it be?
Impractical Long Hair in the City.
Some of your work explores how social media is ingrained in our everyday lives and the overwhelming amount of content we encounter daily. How does your social media presence and experience with Instagram influence your work as a digital artist, and vice versa? Do you ever feel like you need to take a break from it?
I do. I’ve been taking a break, not a “goodbye” break, but since last October, I’ve been doing that on social media. I think that everyone is kind of doing the same thing. I feel that at some point, everyone was really crazy and the information was so saturated because everyone was posting one post a day or one post every other day. That’s what I feel, and now I feel like everyone is slowing down already. I don’t know; I don’t like it. As someone with a decent following on social media, and who received a lot of attention from it, I can easily tell when people are producing content for the sake of doing content. They are not showing their work practices, instead, they’re creating the work for the platform. So I feel trapped in the social media game and all the work created is not pure anymore. I can tell and I really hate it, and I feel like everyone is kind of tired of it right now.
As a millennial artist with a significant following on Instagram, what do you think are some of the pros and cons of such platforms for the artists and creatives of your generation?
[I see both sides] because I think in the beginning, it’s better that we all live in this era because you can get exposure even if you don’t live in a big city. You don’t have to come to New York for people to know who you are. But if success is so immediate, it doesn’t last as long. The harder the hustle, the stronger and more interesting it makes people. But now, you can just be online, and if you’re good enough you can be famous really quickly and everyone will be able to see you in a different kind of way. But that doesn’t last; the energy will fade quickly and head towards another direction.
Do you have any dream collaborations?
I wanna work with Kim Jong-Un because I guess nobody wants to work with him. I’d like to work with someone who is not related to fashion, someone with a different background than mine. Someone who isn’t necessarily internet famous, a singer, a fashion magazine, or a fashion brand. I want to jump out of this box.
You have done many projects in a wide range of mediums. Do you have anything exciting upcoming?
I’ve been designing toys that I want to sell in the near future. I want to make my work into a toy that people can afford to buy. That’s what I’m working on right now. I also want to publish a book and do another gallery show.
Any advice for young emerging creatives?
I think there are so many phases and different steps and mindsets along the journey when you start your creative work and life. So I guess my advice would be to see the value in every step along the way. I never thought I would have a day where I’d feel shy about showing people how I am; I always felt quite confident. I kind of feel now that I don’t want to show myself to everyone as much anymore. I want to hide behind the camera right now, which is unusual because I always felt so comfortable in front of the camera. I think it's just all about following the path because you don’t know what will happen in the future. Follow your heart, be mentally healthy, and do what you think is right. Don’t listen or care about people you don’t care that much about because you won’t feel happy if you listen to other people’s opinions all the time.