Creative Quarantine: Artist Yuge Zhou

Underground Circuit, Video, 3 minutes infinite loop, 2020 | ©Yuge Zhou

Yuge Zhou recently shared with Esthetic Lens a wonderful sampling of recent work and her insight on continuing to be productive during the pandemic. Although the state of the world has put parts of projects into limbo, she has been able to pivot and continue making work locally and at the same time be a support and inspiration you younger artists.

1. How are you holding up?

This year has undoubtedly been disastrous, given the forces of nature and the turmoil in our society. In Chinese, the word crisis also can mean opportunity. We can either give in to the crisis or use it as an opportunity to grow and learn. We can’t control a lot of elements, but we can control our reactions. I’m trying to stay positive and creative by continuing to make work that responds to the current reality. Luckily, my medium (video/time-based art) has a certain agility with online platforms and can be adapted easily into virtual experiences.


Deep Ends, Video, 5 minutes, 2016 | ©Yuge Zhou

2. Has Covid-19 had an effect on your work? If so, in what way?

Covid-19 has definitely changed my work in different aspects. One of my current projects when the East of the day meets the West of the night is a two-part video series that explores my personal history as an immigrant and the bonds between my homeland and adopted country. Part one of the project was filmed last fall from both sides of the Pacific Ocean near my hometown Beijing and on the coast of California. Part two was supposed to be filmed in the mountain ranges of both countries. While my team and I have finished the American portion in April 2020 in the Rocky Mountains, the Chinese part (near the Himalayan Plateau) is in an indefinite pause due to the travel and immigration ban between China and America. In the interim, I plan to turn my inability to see and film in China into an invitation to my family and friends to create temporary “placeholder” footage for the project until I can travel again.


when the East of the day meets the West of the night (excerpt) Filmed in one continuous take in two locations in Beijing and California, looking across from both sides of the Pacific Ocean. The cameras slowly move laterally as the sun descends and ascends in two skies to create an arc-shaped trajectory.

when the East of the day meets the West of the night, Video, 13 minutes 50 seconds, 2020 | ©Yuge Zhou

On a positive spin, the few months of quarantine life has inspired a new direction. I, like many other people, have been longing for a sense of community and collaboration. I also want to create work that is unitive rather than divisive. So I’ve started a four-part video series entitled Love Letters with choreographer Hannah Santistevan and movement artists Sam Crouch and Rebecca Huang. The series features a blossoming relationship between a couple, set against various sites that are emblematic of Chicago, a love letter to the city where I live, and dream.


Midtown Flutter, Video, 5 minutes, 2016 | ©Yuge Zhou

For the first episode of the video series, the two dancers stood on the opposite sides of the Chicago river and faced each other, creating an intimate back-and-forth “dialogue” using gestures, against the industrial backdrop of a South Side neighborhood.  Hannah’s choreography was both expressive and rhythmic, almost like a kind of sign language. Sam and Rebecca inserted their own interpretations with elements of improvisation and mimicking. The work is obviously inspired by the quarantine with its elements of separation and isolation. The concept is about interacting from afar and longing to make a connection. Working with the three collaborators and sharing our creativity with each other has been one of the most fulfilling experiences for me during the quarantine. We are scheduled to film the next episode in late October on the narrow North Branch of the river during the peak of the fall colors, and the third episode will be a duet in winter snowfall. (More info about these projects can be found on my website: yugezhou.com).


Love Letters: The First Encounter (excerpt) The first episode of a four-part video series with choreographer Hannah Santistevan and movement artists Sam Crouch and Rebecca Huang. The piece features two dancers standing on opposite banks of the Chicago River, creating a ‘dialogue’ with each other and interacting from afar using gestures, against the industrial backdrop of Chicago’s South Side neighborhood.

3. Is there anything you’ve added to your practice that you’d like to keep after this is over?

To expand on the previous answer, I am incorporating choreographed dance in my new work as a vehicle to explore the intersection between performance and video art.

My work is also moving towards personal reflection, a stillness in time, and a desire for a world in harmony. My video series when the East of the day meets the West of the night is a good example of this. I intend to produce more introspective works like that in order to explore the hybrid cultural influences in my life.


Green Play, Video, 3 minutes, 2016 | ©Yuge Zhou

On another note, I recently started a year-long program at the NYC based NEW INC, the first museum-led art, design, and technology incubator founded by the New Museum. I’m thrilled to be part of a vibrant community and to delve deeper into new technological aspects of my work within a diverse and multidisciplinary environment.


Underground Circuit, Video projection, 2017 | ©Yuge Zhou

In addition to being an artist, I am also the curator and director for the 150 Media Stream, a uniquely structured, public digital art installation located in the lobby of a high-profile office tower, 150 N Riverside Plaza, in Chicago. Since its launch in 2017, the 150 Media Stream showcases commissioned work by emerging and renowned media artists on a monthly basis. Its art program also includes partnerships with many major cultural institutions and universities and provides a forum for faculty and students to exhibit their work in a dynamic environment. To respond to the current social movements, we’ve striven to collaborate with organizations to promote the work of diverse artists. An upcoming project, which will be launched on November 16th, features African-American fiber artist Bisa Butler’s work in conjunction with her solo exhibition “Portraits” at the Art Institute of Chicago.


Pale Patrol, Video, 3 minutes, 2019 | ©Yuge Zhou

4. Of the artists you follow, who is handling this particularly well?

I’ve seen so many artists in my community who are adopting to the situation and producing amazing work. A lot of my artist friends have taken upon themselves to create online exhibition spaces, apps, and programs so people can enjoy art virtually.


Soft Plots, Video, 3 minutes, 2017 | ©Yuge Zhou

But I particularly want to mention two talented artists Patrick Steppan and Odessa Sagli who are recent graduates from Knox College (Galesburg, IL). Their collaborative proposal reflecting ecological concerns was selected by me from among 27 schools within the Associated Colleges of Illinois to receive the 150 Media Stream Scholarship for Digital Art.  I’ve had the privilege to work with them since the beginning of the quarantine to develop their project. This is a particularly tough time for graduates but they found a way to keep motivated, as well as voice their ideas on a timely topic. They executed a technologically challenging project with a great work ethic despite all the social restrictions.

Their project was recently launched at the 150 Media Stream. More info can be found on the 150 Media Stream’s website: 150mediastream.com.


150 Media Stream, Shrouded in Smoke by Patrick Steppan and Odessa Sagli, 2020 | Photo Credit: Yuge Zhou

At the age of five, Yuge Zhou (周雨歌) became a household name in China as the singer for a popular children’s TV series. Yuge came to the US a decade ago to earn a degree in computer science and subsequently moved into video art and installations. Motivated to transform herself into a hybrid of two cultures, Yuge’s work addresses connections, isolation, and longing across urban and natural environments. She creates immersive experiences through digital collaging and sculptural reliefs. Her recent projects explore metaphorically her personal history as an immigrant and the bond between her homeland and adopted country. She is also incorporating live choreographed dancers as a vehicle to explore the intersection between performance and video art. In addition to her art practice, she curates the 3300-square foot 150 Media Stream, a unique public digital art installation in Chicago. Yuge’s work has been featured in various publications such as the New York Magazine, The Huffington Post, and The Atlantic. Yuge received the Santo Foundation Individual Artist Award and Honorary Mention in the 2020 Prix Ars Electronica. She is currently an artist at NEW INC, the world’s first museum-led incubator for art, technology, and design founded by New Museum in 2014.


Yuge Zhou | Photo Credit: Jiabao Zhou

Yuge Zhou’s work can be found on her Website, Instagram and Vimeo