Interview with Yue Nakayama

by Sarah Kim

Yue Nakayama is a video and performance artist based in Philadelphia. With humor and surrealism, she grapples with the individual’s role in the politically absurd world. She is currently an MFA candidate at the Penn School of Design. Her website is


Sarah Kim: Could you give us a brief introduction to your work as an artist?


Yue Nakayama: I was into drawing and painting when I was a younger kid, like 5 years old. Then I eventually started getting into writing; I wanted to be a writer when I was in elementary school. And I had this ice age of creativity. I was raised by these really traditional, strict Asian parents, and what I wanted to do versus where they saw my future were different. By the time I was going to college, I had to make my own decisions. I got a scholarship from the liberal arts college where I eventually made art. My initial intention was filmmaking because I liked art, I liked the storytelling, and I thought filmmaking kind of combined everything I liked — photography and storytelling — together. But the program was a little conventional. I was more into experimental films and I liked the conversation that was happening in the fine arts program much better than in the cinema-making department. I made photos, video installations, and art videos. I finished my degree, did my thesis, then moved to New York. HBO’s Girls: my life was exactly like that. It’s interesting how people of a certain generation and at a certain place really share the same or similar lifestyles.


SK: You’ve lived in multiple places with very different creative communities–obviously the one in Ohio would be different from the one in New York, as well as in China and Japan. It seems like you are very aware of the performative aspects of existing in all of these different spaces. How do you try to integrate all of these elements into your artwork, or is it even a concern? How much are you consciously aware of this process?


YN: It’s hard to move in between different media or different spaces, and I do struggle. I’m mid-twenties, emerging, a younger artist, and I think it’s natural and normal to be figuring out what your outcome is or what your voice is. I think at the end of the day what I find most important is the thought in the art or, as I said, the storytelling part in the piece. Even if it’s a performance piece or a video piece, I think the story or the narrative hidden within that piece is the core of my work. The act of storytelling has become more and more important in my work.


SK: I’m interested in what you think of storytelling because a lot of your works seem very non-narrative or very visually driven. Especially in your most recent piece [Dreaming tracks for pedagogical purpose (2015)], which involved a triad of screens with interactive objects on the floor. How do you define storytelling? How do you try to impart a palpable line of thought to your audience?


YN: Whether it’s video or performance, my work forms around the stories and essays that I write. These writings are based on my own memories, fictional stories, and imagination. Personal writing is also combined with found writing, such as newspaper articles, magazines, and sometimes historical novels. The writing doesn’t follow any specific structure. The flow of thoughts is non-linear, and topics jump from one to another. However, it forms one united piece in the end. For example, when I’m telling a story about an ‘apple,’ I am more interested in thoughts and ideas surrounding the apple rather than the meaning of the apple itself. I question how much significance one can put on nonsense and, in doing so, how one can change the viewer’s perspective on different subjects. I start to lose my interests and belief in the formality, materiality, and object hood of the work. I try to arrange images as signifiers of information and thoughts. The viewer has to investigate each idea or thought or language and connect them together in the end of the viewing. I think the viewer has to actively investigate what’s in front of them–the color, shape–and try to connect them together to find their own understanding. I don’t feed the idea to viewers’ mouths.



Still from Ramen being the source of our communal rhythm of existence (2014), courtesy of artist.


SK: Could you describe a possible example, specifically the ramen piece?


YN: The ramen piece was one of my transitional pieces from my early work. But, ramen piece…(laugh) I guess it’s more like a bridge….I guess I was thinking about humor in the arts, obviously, I guess that piece was made at the time when I was trying to depart from old practice, my former art practice, when I used a lot of red color and I was always talking about feminism, the female body, and self-portraits, and I was still using those elements but I wanted to leave that area and try to find a new step for myself. It was more a self-exercise or self-practice rather than something that I had a significant thought to convey to a huge audience. But then it’s always personal. It’s for the artist–him or herself–before the viewer.


SK: What caused this change in your work? What themes do you focus on now versus in the past?


YN: I think it’s a stage of life and how you grow out of your old self. I think as for the feminist part, I guess I’ll always be and still am feminist, but after certain points…I was really influenced by seventies, eighties Second Wave feminist artists strongly as an undergraduate, but after certain pieces, you start hitting a wall and think, ‘How far can feminism take you?’ I’m all about gender equality and female rights, but is that all I want to talk about or is that my most significant thing? I guess I became more open to the world than I used to be, whereas in high school or college, I was still dragging my teenage self. You know, the teenage girl thing. Reading the newspaper became a really significant part of my daily life. I read like 3, 4 newspapers a day, and all the information and politics start to really hit me, and as an artist you have to reflect on the time and the world and that started to open up my works into a different direction. I gather mundane incidents that happen around me, and also historically significant incidents that happen around world.


SK: Would you say that your most recent work has a very political dimension? Or more introspective?


YN: Both. Even with journalism or politics, it’s always personal to a certain extent. But my newer works definitely. It’s so interesting when I think about it, how our minds are so controlled by the newspaper and journalists, because ISIS still exists and nothing has improved, but people just kind of got over it and started broadcasting different stuff because new things happening in the world. But when I was making those pieces (which ones?), it was the time when the beheading was happening and the hostage was being captured and all that. So all those religious wars, and how the world repeats history over and over–those things were definitely on my mind. Those themes are combined with my personal memories and histories. I constantly think about how to be culturally, sexually, and politically transgressive. How one can convey a politically correct idea while also telling politically wrong stories or vise versa.


Excerpt from Dreaming tracks for pedagogical purpose (2015), courtesy of artist.


SK: So many of the topics you’re exploring in your work are incredibly serious, but when you look at it–


YN: When you look at the work, it doesn’t look serious at all


SK:  I don’t mean this in a derogatory way. It recalls the tone of a lot of contemporary art, which is ironic, self-referential, even farcical. That isn’t bad, but to audiences who aren’t versed in fine arts or new media, it can come off as overly flippant. How do you still create a narrative that’s legible to the average viewer who may not have that cultural context?

YN: For the recent piece [Dreaming…] I was really influenced by Hito Steyerl. I heard her talk and one of the things she said was that over seriousness in contemporary art or in general paralyzes people. I don’t remember in the context but that sentence really hit me. I realized that many of those performances from the sixties and seventies were really straightforward–really dramatic. When you walk into those performances you’d be quietly looking at absurd motions or situations. After that talk, I went to Aki Sasamoto’s performance and that was serious, but also really funny. It really traps the viewer into this interesting dynamic of emotional movement. I was thinking about this almost entertainment aspect in art, which is usually, often seen as a taboo, because entertainment is not art. I was really thinking about humor, funniness in art, and how that could actually shift viewers to a different dimension where they probably wouldn’t go. Humor also functions as a neutralizer for some serious political and social topics that I discuss in my works.
Sarah Kim is an art critic and artist based in Philadelphia, PA. She is a regular contributor to ArtSlant Contemporary Art Network, Philadelphia Printworks, and mono.kultur (DE).