Art Business

Hung Yi: The Taiwanese Artist Transforming Public Art

Along the Garment District Plaza in Manhattan, Hung Yi, the 47-year-old multidisciplinary Taiwanese artist, has installed eleven pieces of whimsical public art sculptures, titled Fancy Animal Carnival. As winter comes to a close and the weather warms, these massive, fantastical beasts are roaming south, and are now ready to glitter under the sun in downtown Washington for a new upcoming show.

The unveiling of the Fancy Animal Carnival in Washington, D.C.’s CityCenterDC and the DowntownDC Business Improvement District is part of a partnership with the National Park Service, the Government of the District of Columbia and Gould/Oxford Properties, the sculptures will be on display through the end of the year in CityCenter DC, Chinatown Park, and Herald Square. The unveiling celebration will take place on Thursday, May 4.

As the artist embarks on his fourth public art installation in the U.S., critics note there is no art space that Hung has not sought to redefine. From breaking with customary exhibition displays to working in spaces not confined by traditional architectural structures, or streets in the heart of a city, Hung Yi has broken the rules with his signature public art. Given the scope of his vision, it might not be surprising that he is one of the most representative Asian artists of his generation, having exhibited in Hong Kong, China, Japan, San Francisco, New York, and now D.C., where all kinds of landscapes have become part of his creation.

Artrepreneur recently sat down with Hung after the show’s installation to speak about his former career as a restaurateur, why he experiments with art in public places, and his seemingly mystic relationship with animals.

Hung Yi’s Work is Carving its Own Place in the Taiwan Art Landscape

EC: I find that your work almost always seems to have patterns and/or symbols. Is that something you do on purpose?  

HY: Chinese artists tend not to incorporate typography in artworks, except for calligraphy that is usually signed with Chinese seals. However, in western works, spray painting and writing are common. The connection between words and images has always been strong. I want to experiment on this more and create in different forms.

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The artist poses with his intricate animal sculptures.

EC: Is there anything aside from animals that you’d really want to make into sculptures?

HY: I kept on working with animals because such subject matter continues to bring out new ideas. There are still many that I haven’t worked on, like the koala, penguin, squirrel, and kangaroo, for example. The animal realm is broad. Even insects, trees, and flowers could become the source of my inspiration. Human beings, too. August Ou, the director of InSian Gallery, mentioned this before. But human beings could be tricky if made as a theme of my arts. The outlook could be subjective.

Finding the art that works for you, that is resonant, that strikes a responsive chord in the hearts of your viewers, is important. Making art from animals works for me, and I’ve been devoted to it. My art stimulates feel-good chemicals, a universal signal perceived by my audience. Renowned corporations build their brands the same way, too. They understood it’s the key to go beyond.

EC: You’ve brought your Taiwan art to many corners of the earth.

HY: Yes. The whole thing is incredible. In 2013, we brought my works to Japan Hakone Open-Air Museum. It was an important milestone for Taiwanese artists. It all happened with a curator who saw my works when passing by InSian Gallery and later referred me to the museum. I’ve always believed the art will speak for itself.

In 2015, the exhibition in San Francisco was a huge-scaled production where we brought 40 pieces of my works in eight freights. It was also the first time the Civic Center Plaza hosted an art exhibition. Although it only lasted for a month, we brought our a-game. The result was rewarding: the citizens loved us, and so did the director of the Asian Art Museum who included my work in the permanent collection.

In 2016, we came to New York. Armed with the experiences from San Francisco, we were better able to execute the preparations phase, especially when working with Jerry Scupp, the VP of Garment District Alliance. The process was still tough, though. We all do our best.

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Hung Yi’s playful camel is a colorful welcome to Louis Vuitton.

EC: Is there an ideal or dream place that you have in mind for your sculptures?

HY: New York is definitely ideal. It’s an art hub with hot focus. The places I’ve been, New York Broadway, Washington, D.C., the Civic Center Plaza in San Francisco, has its own uniqueness, and thus were all ideal in its way. There is no place where my art couldn’t fit. It’s about having an open-minded vision. The dream place, if I could,  will be the moon. Maybe one day, I’ll  land on the moon with one of my sculptures. We will see.

Hung Yi Relies on Other Artists to Make His Work

EC: You paint all sorts of public spaces, and today you focus on installing public art. Do your prefer public spaces?

HY: My public art is meant to break the fixed constraint of physical spaces. This is a new territory outside of an audience’s inherited thought. The unfamiliar could be somehow frightening and challenging. Step by step, in collaboration with different entities, I’ve exhibited in private spaces, as well as participated in group and invitational shows. Gradually, I’ve pushed arts to wider scale and new spheres.

Whether a public or private site, each has its own advantages. It always comes back to if I can go ahead, boldly, with the curation. In public spaces, the way the artworks are laid out could lead to regulatory difficulties; not to mention structural changes to the site. Private venues, on the contrary, brings out shipping issues. Also, I need to consider the space restoration before really moving further. In the case of the Museum of Contemporary Art Taipei, which is a historical site, I only used special materials, such as museum glue.

EC: Could you walk us through your artistic process?

HY: Brainstorming is the first step. A rough concept is then developed into a draft, that is followed by modeling procedures. The next step is sampling, which takes into account the size and the setting for the showcase. Producing and processing the sheet metal will be the fifth step. Finally, the last step is coloring.

My way of crafting is similar to the old-school method of car making. Even the materials are the same. In fact, the effort and time required to forge curves by hand are very demanding. Each metal sheet has to be joined one by one to make an arched shape.

Recently, I’ve started to try tin plating. In fact, there is one tin-plated sculpture exhibited at Twin Oaks. The texture looks like dancing flames of an aurora, and the approach is similar to charcoal kilns, where every finished piece looks different.

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A shot from “Fancy Animal Carnival” in the Garment District.

EC: How involved are the artisans in crafting your artwork?

HY: Artisans who work with me plate, polish, stain, and wire, as well as paint on the artworks. As I said, this is an era where each profession is a master in one’s own special field. I design, and they execute. They are just like my hands.

EC: Do you manage your studio yourself? 

HY:  While art that involves an appreciation of flat forms and shape in only two dimensions can be done by one person, three-dimensional installation is another story. Such artwork involves manufacturing procedures, which can only be carried out by more than one professional. Before I started to become more recognized, the bronze casting factory I went to wouldn’t really take my request seriously. This led to problems, of course. The experience made me decide to own a studio of my own.

I manage the studio’s overall operation as well as talent curation. I started on my own, recruiting assistants and artisans while training and nurturing each of them. Now there are around 100 people in my studio.

I have more control over my creation with my own people. For example, Murakami Haruki has 300 people in his studio, and there are more in Yayoi Kusama’s. Although it takes time and effort to adjust in terms of the tactics and developing chemistry with teammates, the outcome can be incredible. I am grateful for the cohesion, unity, support, and trust of my team.

Outside the studio, I leave the rest to the professionals, namely, the galleries. They represent me in front of the world. For example, my gallery directs my artwork dealing, exhibition handling and public art show running.

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Hung Yi works with multiple artisans to bring his sculptures to life.

Hung Yi Lends a Commercial Appeal to Public Art

EC: Your career really began to flourish after the 2013 Taipei International Flora Exposition. What was the catalyst?

HY: Working with InSian Gallery and Victor Ou was an important catalyst in my career. With Ou’s connection, an opportunity from Taipei City Hall arose. I’ve always believed, things happen because of the intended engagement from all joint parties. The resonance among audience led us to invitations for more art shows.

“You flaunt what you’ve got,” Ou once said to me. Yes, I agree, the enthusiasm matters.

EC: You work with various curators and arts professionals in addition to InSian gallery. How do you approach those relationships?

HY: Artists tend to have less initiative when interacting with curators. If the curators want you, they want you. It’s hard to say whether a curator you met in the past might come to you 10 years later. You have to be able to bear the loneliness. As long as the connection exists, there will be ideas to develop. When I did a show at the Museum of Contemporary Art Taipei, the director came to me himself to discuss the venue. I told him, “Give me the whole outer wall of the museum.” The museum wall ended up being covered with four hundred thousand pieces of credit cards.

EC: How have you approached making art products for a commercial purpose?

HY: An art derivative product, or what you might call an edition of artworks, may not cost much, yet it could become an invaluable vehicle for art. Such items purchased from The Metropolitan Museum of Art, or The Museum of Modern Art, surely carries a lot of stories that touch people. Those stories are powerful in communicating about the arts and let us think about the next generation. My art products are indeed welcomed by the youngsters, whose passion and interest I believe could develop into something bigger in the future.

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Hung Yi’s artwork evokes a colorful Taiwanese history.

EC: How do you balance that commercial aspect of your work?

HY: This is not deliberately done. Instead, it’s something very down-to-earth and intuitively developed. I have a lot of ideas for my edition. Maybe a mug, or a branded product commissioned by a corporation. For example, I’ve designed dessert deluxe gift sets for Rivon. Sales of three thousand sets were anticipated, especially during the holidays like Moon Festival. I believe that giving gifts is a form of sharing my art. These editions and branded products serve as a brand ambassador for me or a physical Facebook page. Every time people see the gifts, they see me. In a way, then, my art becomes a part of a person’s life.

EC: How about when making your art, do you also think about the commercial aspect?

HY: It’s actually impractical to consider the commercial aspect during art making, because it is swayed by that market. As an artist, we just do our best to express our artistic aesthetic and passion.

Hung Yi’s public art sculptures will be on view in Washington, D.C. through the end of the year. Check out Hung Yi’s Orangenius profile for more information.

About the author

Eva Chang

Eva Chang is a visual strategist specializing in arts marketing and branding.

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