Almost 10 years ago, Chinese artist Leo Wang moved from his native country to the U.S., where the language barrier that he faced led him to the visual arts, a language with almost no barriers at all. Amazed by its universality ever since, Leo makes use of it in his pieces, talking about global topics such as pop culture, capitalism & social media.
In late December 2022, Leo and I met via Zoom to talk about his well conceptualized and carefully materialized pieces, clubbing culture as a form of modern utopia and the importance of reaching the viewer with you art, even if it’s just for two seconds. Enjoy!
Hi Leo, thanks so much for taking your time to talk to me today. For people who don’t know you, could you please introduce yourself briefly?
Absolutely! I consider myself as a Chicago-based artists but I was born in China. My art practice mostly focuses on culture, including the clubbing culture and the social media culture, all these things that have been getting popular over the recent years. I’m trying to focus on these elements by exposing them and showing multiple sides of them, also complicated sides.
You were born in China, spent your childhood there and then moved to the U.S. Please tell me a bit more about that and most of all, how you got into art.
I started High School in Florida, that was my first time studying in the U.S. Since English is not my first language, sometimes it was unavoidable that the language just created a barrier, and so, at some point I started to create. Ceramic & sculptures were the first things I actually made and it really amazed me how it was (and is) a universal language. How people just see the art, without the need to listen to me, without the need to understand me, just seeing my work. It’s a visual language that is spoken universally, and I’m also amazed by how art can open multiple dimension of everything. I think in that case, it’s also a conversation. People will see the work for 5 seconds or they will stay and see the work for half an hour, seeing multiple layers of the work, and they’ll read them all differently. But even the people who’ll only see the work for 5 or even only 2 seconds, they’ll have a visual understanding of at least some part of what I’m trying to express, which I think is even more powerful than languages made from words and normal conversations. And so, that’s how I got into art.
Since English is not my first language, sometimes it was unavoidable that the language created a barrier. So, I started to create. I’ve been amazed every since by how art is a visual language that is spoken universally.
You are not only an artist but you also study, you work as a teacher and as a curator – how to you benefit from all these different types of jobs, in regards to your practice?
I’m in grade school now, and what I’m studying right now is the highest degree that I can get, there is no doctor degree after that, at least not in the U.S., I don’t know how it’s elsewhere. So, that’s the last part of my academic career and after that, there is no more school (laughs). So, as for me, I want my artwork to actually show what I experience in my life, to show what I actually want to communicate, especially since my thesis & research is about Pop Culture. I wanted and want to understand the Pop Culture as much as possible and yes, reading and doing research is one part, but I also want to have the conversations and the actual experience with the newer generation about how their experiences. Sure, I’m young, I’m 26 now, but there are even younger people than me (laughs), and that’s the cool part about Pop Culture, it always has something new, something special, always unique thoughts keep coming up.
I feel that the teacher and also the curator job have given me a lot of opportunities to start this communication, this talk with people, the opportunity to see what people are doing. And that really inspires me in my art practice, it helps me conceptually.
While doing my research for this interview, I came across your work P(r)ay for Luck, which spoke to me in many ways. Could you please tell me more about it?
So, I’m Chinese, and I grew up in China, my childhood and my teenage hood was also in China. One culture shock when I got to the U.S., especially when Trump was president, and I don’t want to get too political, it’s just to get an idea, was that the Western World has been critiquing how China has been the world factory, how Chinese labours steal other people’s jobs. But I feel that, on the other hand, after all, from what I see on the Chinese side, all this minimum pay, or even underpaid Chinese labour- they just want to make a living. So, in that piece, I talk about how making statues of Jesus is the same as making statues of Donald Trump or of Mickey Mouse, because for the workers it’s just a piece of plastic. So making statues of Jesus, being on the producing line, is just a way of making money. Jesus doesn’t have any special holy façade to those workers, but it’s not their fault.
Regarding my piece, the paint on these statues that I made are the same as the one on the scratch-off lottery tickets, and the coin on the side is the Chinese Yuen, the Chinese currency. The idea here is to show how the paint or the façade of Jesus got scratched off by the coins. It’s like scratching off lottery tickets, and scratching lottery tickets means to get money. So, it’s to show what is actually inside of the Jesus, and inside of the Jesus statue is actually a “Made in China” label floating around in the plastic. That’s why this piece is called Pray for Luck, but also Pay for luck.
Could you please share your Creative Process?
Oh yeah, sure. So, overall I’d say that I don’t limit myself in a medium. I mean, I totally support those artists who stick to one medium, but I don’t see myself like that. For me it’s more to come up with an idea, and that might be an experience that I’ve lived or a topic that interests me, and then I think about what kind of material would be best to express this topic. Even fun material. For example, with the Jesus piece, I was like, “Okay, I want to create a piece that represents a culture barrier in some way”, so I thought about something that was so special in the Western World and at the same time not so special at all in the Eastern World, especially in the factories. Then, I cast them in a mold-casting process, which also represents the manufactured produce line, but the Jesus was made from a Jesus statue that I found in a second hand store, something like “Goodwill”. I don’t know if you’ve heard about the brand “Goodwill”…
…it’s like a really cheap, non-profit, second hand store. So, I would say, I don’t mind using fun material, even buying it and adding it to my work. Overall I’d say my process is that I come from an idea, then I find whatever medium and material that idea fits in and then I go to the next step forward.
I saw many of your projects on your website, is there any that you’d like to talk about in addition to “P(r)ay for Luck”?
Sure! So, I would say that recently, I’ve been really interested in the clubbing culture, partially because I feel like, damn, I want to do to it before I get too old (laughs). But also because I feel club as a kind of Utopia. Let me share my screen with you.
So, I made this piece with 40 to 50 quilts (at the beginning it was 29 but there has been a second version of it). I really see clubbing and the clubbing environment working as a human made, artificial Utopia. How we go into the club, and how we feel it is real. It’s all about being happy, it’s all about the joy, it’s a painkiller in that way, it freezes all these real life struggles. It makes your brain step away from all these issues, but without solving any issues. Now, when the issue cannot be solved anyway, we just have to live with the painkiller. But sometimes, when the pain gets frozen, it can lead to a worse situation, because it’s actually not being cured or fixed. And also, just how clubbing can get so addictive, again, just like a pain killer (laughs). In a way, it’s functioning both like a refuge but also like a cage.
So, this piece was a performance. With the projection in the back, I recreated a clubbing scene in a completely empty gallery room and instead of a DJ table and DJ set I used a sewing machine. And I was dancing and drinking while I was sewing those quilts. After that, I installed the piece from the ceiling to recreate this colourful, vibrant clubbing scene. These quilts look visually very warm, but the way they hang and the size of them makes that when people walk by, the wind and the flow makes them rotate a bit without actually being able to provide any warmth to the viewers and participants. So, they’re only visually warm without actually providing any warmth and that reflects the club, and utopia, which don’t resolve any issue. In this piece, I’ve been trying to show these multiple sides of it.