Stalked: Vivien Zhang, Emerging Artist

25 May 2015

Born in Beijing and raised in both Nairobi and Bangkok, the Royal College of Art graduate Vivien Zhang is definitely an artist on the rise and one to keep on your 'artists to watch' list. I first came across her work at her graduate show and then later on at the London Gallery Rook & Raven. I caught up with her recently to find out more about her work and her plans for the future.

When did you first know you wanted to be an artist?

When I was a kid I thought about becoming an art teacher, a detective, and an orchestra timpani player. In my opinion, an artist is the amalgamation of all three – unravelling the challenges which one sets for oneself, whilst juggling a multitude of activities at the same time. I don’t think I ever had second thoughts about doing art and applying for art school. I went to international schools and completed the International Baccalaureate Diploma. Several subjects had been my strong point, but when it came to choosing a subject for university, I simply felt art was the “correct” choice. I did wonder though, for a while, if other people’s encouragement also contributed to my own decision to not think twice about doing art.

A lot of unexpected and frustrating things about being an artist revealed themselves only after I started pursuing the path of being an artist. There’s more at stake than what I imagine, always, but all the discomfort genuinely makes it feel like yet a further life-challenge

What inspires you and your work? 

A lot of the time I find myself dwelling on the ideas of third culture, energy and adrenaline, and over-exoticism. This is probably because of my background – where international schools have taught me to be open-minded (but does that make me overly-susceptible and less aware of certain issues?) – and because of my constant reflection of what an “artistic practice” means. I can also pinpoint to specific objects as inspiration, and it usually comes down to things I feel I can ethically claim.

I collect un-methodologically – from 19th century prints of skin-discolouration caused by syphilis, to Korean traditional drawings of watermelons – and these form some of the motifs in my work. I find myself often attracted to things with multiple layers of ambiguity. Other inspirations come from artefacts in my parents’ house, like African furniture with metal studs (my mother traded her Chinese furniture for those when we left Kenya after having lived there for almost four years), stone lion-shaped paper-weights from Okinawa, and Iranian kilims…

The best moment is when I encounter something new that refreshes my relationship with something I’ve had before. For example, two years ago I saw a Hannah Höch collage in the Whitechapel Gallery, and that nudged my memory of this porcupine spike I had. The spike was picked up by a safari guide for me on an evening expedition, and now sits in my Kenyan pen basket. This was translated into a large painting I did titled Porcupine Hair, which incorporated all sorts of materials including chameleon flip paint and image transfer.

I’ve also started to invent my own set of motifs in my work. They would metamorphose from one work to the next. I see this as a way of establishing a logical ground to a working process, and to think about how artists today can maintain their practice (or “activities in the studio”), and how this rational lineage changes the relationship between the three subjects – the artwork, the audience, and the artist.

Why did you choose London over other cities to study in? 

Having lived abroad for so long, it wasn’t really a choice to return to China to complete my further education. The systems there are vastly different. Instead, I applied to both the US and the UK, and was given offers by Parsons, Chicago Institute, Edinburgh, and several others. When I was accepted by the Slade School Fine Art (UCL), though, I just knew this was the one. The Slade is the ace for undergraduate studies in Fine Art in the UK, so there was no hesitation. My stepdad is English, so I have family in the UK; perhaps this somewhat pragmatic consideration also affected my decision.

Where do you shop and where to you eat in London?

I found myself last week at the opening of a show I was in, wearing three COS pieces… So I’m big on COS and its sister store &Other Stories. Occasionally I’d treat myself to something from J. Crew, Hobbs (for shoes), and flea markets for silver rings!

I lived in South East Asia for four years as a teenager, and this has really created phases of cravings for Thai or Vietnamese. Addie’s in Earl’s Court is where my Thai high-school friends and I would always meet up. Patara is great too. Sometimes Shoreditch for Korean street food, tapas, and Pizza East. Often Soho – I’ve been meaning to find a time to try Bao! I’ve also just started doing breakfast gatherings instead of dinner with friends visiting from overseas – Kaffeine in Fitzrovia is amazeballs.

Who are your favourite emerging artists at the moment? 

Timur Si-Qin and Sanya Kantarovsky.

Five items you can't live without? 

Hand cream and nitrile gloves – the salvation for painters;
The silver-inlay bracelet my mother got for me from Hydrabad;
Lipstick, and my pink lipstick-shaped external battery…


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