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Visualizing Poetics and the Poetics of Visualization: An Interview with Seldon Yuan

Danni Shen, Curatorial Fellow in Visual Arts, organizes and interprets exhibitions at Wave Hill.

Focusing on personal poetics from multiple perspectives and through various mediums, Winter Workspace 2016 artist Seldon Yuan’s work extends across a spectrum that plays on optical effects, absurdity, surrealism, language, familiar objects and spaces that are often in service of a personal narrative. His work typically creates a filter between the viewer and a common object, environment or scene, thereby inventing a lens to see and reinterpret the everyday metaphorically. His hybrid works place poems and words into visual contexts that play with the transitions between image/object and the nuances of language. The form of each work is constructed so that the text and the visual aspects each expand the other conceptually without becoming an illustration, while also activating the act of reading through movement and memorization. At Wave Hill, Yuan continues to integrate his poetry with installation, while further exploring in-camera techniques focusing on plants and landscapes.

Seldon Yuan’s Winter Workspace workshop Typography, Photography & Hashtags will be held on Saturday, March 5, from 10AM to 1PM. It will provide participants with an opportunity to use poetry and typography, the winter landscape of Wave Hill and a social media platform of their choice to create in-situ installations on the grounds, that they can then photograph, publish and print. Seldon-Yuan-drawing-with-ink

Danni Shen: How has your work evolved in terms of what you call “personal poetics”?

Seldon Yuan: I’m not sure if I even know how it has evolved. In the end, as self-involved as it sounds, it’s about me and my world as I have experienced, interpreted and examined it. I suppose the written poems may have been more confessional in the past but have grown to be more conceptual and layered in ideas and word/language play. I will also say that I used to think I had to make art in order to live, but now I think that I have to live life in order to make art. I used to only want to mine and muck around in the misery, but I’m not sure if that is working for me anymore. I am also trying to find more poetry in plainer and simpler language where I am not over-thinking or over-working it, which is most present in my drawings, including the NO PHOTOS series, where I paint images and text about moments when I either had no camera or was not allowed to photograph the scene but still wanted to memorialize it. I am noting personal experiences and memory in both language and image in a way that feels true to mental image of that moment.nophotos_paris

DS: Do you have a poetry practice outside of your art practice?

SY: Yes, I’ve always had a poetry practice outside of my art practice. It took a long while until I found a new, unique and smart way to combine the two without it being illustrative or too similar to graphic design or advertising. Once I started to understand how the two could operate together, I then had a framework to start making more of the visual poetry. However each work is always me reinventing the wheel and coming up with a new pairing of visual and poem. All the visual poetry pieces start with a completed poem and then I try and either pair it with a visual play I have filed away or with a new idea.

DS: Do you make a distinction between language, text and picture? Do you work with only English text? 

SY: I do only work with English, as that is my primary language. My Chinese, French and Spanish are too poor to be able to understand and communicate the subtleties, word play and accuracy that I aim for. There are certainly distinctions between language, text and picture, but I try and conflate all three if I can, where text/language becomes image, language induces imagery, and imagery requires language to decode among other combinations and juxtapositions.

DS: How does your creative process usually begin? Do you start with language first? Or image? How do your projects tend to begin?

SY: There are usually many irons in the fire between words, poems, images and ideas. If we are speaking about the visual poems, it always starts with a completed poem. From there, I pair it with a visual idea that I have either already thought of/played with or a brand new one. I have come to realize that I work perhaps more like an industrial designer in the way that I build a prototype of a prototype of a prototype. It is a series of iterations that help me hone the idea. More often than not these days, I just try and make some version of every idea I have and try to work intuitively at the beginning. I try to give every idea, even the seemingly silly ones, a space and then see where that leads. I believe that every effort has value even if you are copying something, and that through multiple iterations I will find something useful. It’s really just about working regularly.

DS: The act of reading and interpreting often requires a specific way of looking and directs viewers to a certain response. How do you incorporate text into visual work in consideration of how the viewer experiences the language and imagery?

SY: For me, putting my poetry into a visual form is a way to grow the meaning of the text. I had become frustrated with the word on the page and the limitations of alignment, fonts and spacing. I wanted to grow the potential meaning and reading of the poem as a whole, or focus some of its phrases or words while still having them tempered by the whole. Often, the act of reading one of my visual poems becomes part of the experience, as it may require movement or memorization by the viewer, which also plays into the content of the poem. I want the visual poetry works to be unique personal experiences that must be had first-hand and in person and then unfold through interaction, instead of having them on a page that could be read or experienced anywhere. At times, I try to thwart the possibility of simple documentation since that cannot truly relay the qualities and experience of the work. Seldon-Yuan-Behind-the-brush

DS: Can you give an example of one of your poems?

SY: This is a popular one. This one is great for weddings, funerals and divorces.

behind the brush  we could not have seen one
another  then was only sky
we had to leave  wondering
among other things  where
birds came from  where birds go to
camouflaged by our leaving
thoughts  we saw only ourselves
alone  envying stones  we were saddened
by logs as arms cradled down
back  until our branches touched
by chance  there was never chance

DS: Favorite quote?

SY: I don’t have one. Maybe the one I keep telling myself…”Stay off the Internet.”

DS: What are your inspirations? 

SY: As I mentioned earlier, I used to think I had to make art in order to live, but now I think that I have to live life in order to make art. Honestly, I’m not sure what my inspirations are, though. I certainly used to think it was the darker side of life. However, I have found many ideas when I turn off my mind and go for a walk and sit or just meander around with no agenda. Strangely enough, I tend to find a lot of ideas for poetry from visual art, and a lot of ideas for art from reading.Seldon-Yuan-We-are-all-present-at-sunset

DS: Are there any elements of Wave Hill that draw you, and how will that inform your workshop?

SY: The space itself. The space to walk and think and look. The novelty of Wave Hill, with its landscape, greenhouse, plants, the river, is obviously amazing. My initial thoughts for my own work were to create a visual poem embedded in the wooded areas or greenhouse and photograph it. And the workshop I’m leading at Wave Hill will be doing something very similar where participants will be able to make a phrase or a word and then find a location within Wave Hill to place it so that they feel the language relates well to the landscape, then photograph the two together.

DS: Where do you see your practice heading?

SY: I’m not sure. I’ve been drawing more and allowing it to open up my mind and let my hand wander on the page with whatever thoughts, movements and ideas come to mind in the moment, without judgment. I have also finished writing a novel that I am now editing down. I’d also like to incorporate more humor in my work, which is another challenge, because I don’t want it to come off as one-liners. I expect to still be working in many different media, as that is what interests me and will allow me to find new interesting combinations. To me, the whole point of making art is about freedom. Maybe the practice will move toward living more and mining those new and novel experiences?

Pictured above, from the top:
Seldon Yuan drawing with ink in his studio. Image by Wave Hill.
Seldon Yuan, NO PHOTOS: Things are only going to get better (Paris, Passage Jousset), 2008. 50 x 38 inches. Ongoing series. Image courtesy of artist.
Seldon Yuan, Behind the brush, 2006, mirror and cut paper, 35 x 35 x 4 inches. Image courtesy of artist.
Seldon Yuan, We are all present at sunset, 2012. Live plant, dimensions variable. The live plant has a poem cut into its leaves. Image courtesy of the artist.

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