Michelle Yee (2015 cohort): An impromptu trip to New York City to interview Malaysian artist Yee I-Lann

News about: 
Michelle Yee

Spring 2016

My research in contemporary Asian American and Asian Diasporic Art led me to the Visual Studies doctoral program in the History of Art and Visual Culture department at UC Santa Cruz, in order to study with Professor Boreth Ly. Although I have only just finished my first year, it has already become very clear to me just how fortunate I am to be in this program.Prior to attending UC Santa Cruz, I was enrolled in another doctoral program that, while notable for its extensive resources, its admirable faculty and its disciplinarian reputation, was nevertheless lacking in mentorship for me and was not a suitable environment for my research and professional goals. When the HAVC faculty welcomed my cohort and myself with open arms, I was thrilled and grateful. Professor Ly’s generosity with his time, his knowledge, his network and his wit and humor has challenged me to become the best scholar that I can be. Even the faculty with whom I am not specifically working have been thoughtfully supportive and have encouraged my research in many unique ways.

 

Although I am still at a nascent stage of my dissertation research, with the encouragement of Professor Ly and with the support of the Visual Studies Graduate Student Research and Travel Grant, I visited with Malaysian artist Yee I-Lann in New York City. Yee was in New York to install her latest exhibition at Tyler Rollins Fine Art, a one-of-a-kind gallery in Chelsea that specializes in contemporary artists from Southeast Asia.  Professor Ly encouraged my visit and contacted Tyler Rollins in order to introduce me to this pioneering gallerist, who in turn arranged a meeting with the artist.

 

I researched and wrote my seminar paper on two of Yee’s projects, Tabled and Projecting Power in Professor Ly’s course in the winter quarter of 2016, (Re)Framing Visual Culture in Post-Colonial and Post-Cold War Asia and Beyond. Although I had seen her work before, it wasn’t until I looked more closely that I began to find incredibly interesting themes that form the basis of my research interests, such as postcolonial nation-development, nationalism, issues of race and identity and gender relations. Yee’s oeuvre of complex, multi-layered photographic objects, images and videos negotiate the lived realities of a twenty-first century populace.  Through looking at her art, I am now expanding my research interests particularly in the Chinese populations of Southeast Asia, a theme that complements my research on “diaspora” and the art of Asian Americans in the United States.

 

I am always nervous when I meet artists whose work I admire deeply.  For me, it is much like meeting a celebrity or someone who is bigger than life. Thus, it was with trembling anticipation that I made my way to Chelsea to meet with Yee I-Lann. In truth, there was no need for my trepidation. Yee met me with open arms, and we immediately settled in on Tyler Rollins’ couch and had an incredible conversation in which she offered me insight into her work, life as a Malaysian, and her own personal history. This Malaysian artist, who is part-New Zealander, part Malay, part Chinese, is a truly cosmopolitan figure in my eyes – the contemporary individual who is at home everywhere and nowhere, who exists in the in-between of defined identities. Yee's cosmopolitan sensibility serves to explain the thrilling complexity of her work.

 

The meeting concluded with Yee extending an invitation to me to join herself and members of her family and childhood friends for a joyful and merry dinner at a nearby restaurant. It is truly a testament to Yee that in gathering together a table of several strangers from the world over, she facilitated an encounter where conversation never ceased and hilarity abounded. Meeting Yee, her family, and friends whom she has known for most of her life was an honor and a privilege and truly reinforced my motivation to pursue my scholarly goals. For me, research in the visual arts is as much about people and their relationships as about the art that they create, which in turn often reflects those identities and relationships.  The heartwarming generosity with which the artist welcomed me, a young and emerging scholar, was entirely unexpected and wholly appreciated. The gallerist, Tyler Rollins, also met me with kindness and generosity. His staff offered me literature for my research, even taking the time to send me the e-catalogue for Yee’s new exhibition that had just been completed that day.

 

My goal for this trip to New York was to meet the artist and possibly establish a working relationship with her, since I envision that a life-long study of Yee’s art will be central to my scholarly career. Academia has a reputation of being a lonely world, an ivory tower where the scholar’s only friends are books.  I find the contrary to be true. To access the material that I need for my research, to reach the level of analysis and comprehension necessary to truly give justice to a great artist’s work, requires the time, help, support and generosity of many people. For this reason, I am so grateful for the faculty and staff of HAVC, for my advisor Professor Boreth Ly who embodies this generosity, for the artist Yee I-Lann who invited me into her inner circle when she had no reason to trust me, and for the gallerist Tyler Rollins, for giving value to the work of a brand new scholar.

 

Image caption: Artist Yee I-Lann in front of the poster for her 2016 exhibition, Like the Banana Tree at the Gate, at Tyler Rollins Fine Art, New York City.