Skin on Skin – Photographs by John Yuyi | Essay by Joanna L. Cresswell

“I’ve always somehow felt more related to art with a human face,” says Taiwanese visual artist John Yuyi. She is referring, in the first instance, to the sorts of pictures she’s been inspired by since she was young, but so too is she describing her own visual style, and the work she likes to make herself. Many of Yuyi’s images focus on skin and the body, and particularly on facial features like eyes, noses and lips—the sensory parts of us, those that see and taste and figure out how to connect with the world, because connection, and the ways we might get to know each other, are central to her practice.

“I think growing up in Taiwan, surrounded by people of only one race, with so few people of different ethnicities, meant I waited until I was grown-up and had boyfriends to really see how different people are. Skin, pores, eyebrows; everything,” she says. “I found it so interesting. Even now, when I think I am over a relationship I will find myself still thinking about that person’s skin, their moles, those parts of them. I think that’s why faces, and skin, have a really deep meaning for me.”

All you see is me, 2020 © John Yuyi

Born in 1991, Yuyi grew up online in the post-Internet generation, and that experience has consistently filtered back into the way she makes work. In fact, before being an artist or a photographer, she worked in the fashion world, and gained a following as an influencer, styling herself in outfits and posting the images on social media. It was only later though, when she sought a different creative outlet, that she went viral.

In 2015, Yuyi was travelling between Taiwan, where she had been working as a stylist, and New York, where she had been interning at a design studio. She wanted to move to New York more permanently, and that meant applying for an artist visa, which in turn meant raising the funds for it. The idea came to her to make temporary tattoos and sell them online to make some cash, so she bought the machine to do so and got to work. At first, she made them from her own illustrations, and then later, from photographs of a swimsuit collection she had designed. From here, her ideas tumbled into ever-more conceptual realms, and she began making tattoos out of social media-related symbols, like Facebook logos and ‘like’ buttons. She transferred them all over her own body, photographed herself and created new images out of them. Later, she used friends as models too. Both the tattoos and the resulting images were wildly popular, and the artist soon made a name for herself.

The New York Times “Welcome to the Post-Text future”, 2018 © John Yuyi

Yuyi’s work explores the body as both canvas and subject, and her temporary tattoos have seen several iterations in the years since. This includes one in which self-portraits were placed onto the flesh of raw meat cuts, and screenshots of dating app profiles put on human skin—“I was playing with putting faces on faces,” she says, probing the masks we wear to present ourselves to the outside world—and she’s since recreated it for magazine stories too. Commissions from magazines are actually how a lot of her projects come about, including one of her most recent bodies of work in which her images are temporarily transferred not upon the body, but on commonplace objects such as lipsticks and cigarettes, contact lenses and knives, as well as cut out and crafted into earrings. Each of them speaks to the commodification of bodies.

Smoke me, 2019 © John Yuyi

“That project was originally commissioned by Self Service magazine, and the direction they gave me was to create something to do with consumer culture,” Yuyi recalls. “So when I was thinking about that subject, I was thinking how brands digitize their products so differently now. It used to be that advertising would be on TV or billboards, but now it’s all things like micro-influencing.” By this, Yuyi means that content creators with relatively small but highly engaged followings—say 10k people—are gifted products and then they sell them to their audiences via videos of themselves using them on their social platforms.

“In this way, I feel like now people’s faces have to be put onto products,” she says, and so she took that literally and began to place female bodies and faces upon collected objects. “I was in Tokyo at the time, so I went to their equivalent of a 99 cent store and bought stuff that I thought would be approachable for every class—objects from daily life.” Many of the items in Yuyi’s images are stereotypically feminine, and the images she places upon them are all female too—nudes, to be more precise, as a way to subvert the representation of the female body across the history of art and advertising.

Narcissism, 2019 © John Yuyi

Consumer culture is something Yuyi has toyed with across her career, from that early idea to sell tattoos, to later products she’s emblazoned with her art and sold on her online shop. From key chains to stickers and tiny photobooks that fit in the palm of a hand, what unites all of them is affordability, which seems to suit Yuyi’s broader message, and playfulness too. When asked why that is, she says emphatically, “I think having a sense of humor is the most important thing in the world.”

One of her most popular objects was an action figure of herself, based on a project she created in aeroplane bathrooms. Bored on a flight, she stripped off in the toilet cubicle and took selfies, using paper seat covers to reveal and conceal different parts of her body. It’s witty work—genuinely comical, even—and the resulting doll is too. “Just like I made a swimsuit collection, I also like to make some products whenever a good idea comes to me,” she says. And it’s different from selling high-end prints or editions. “I guess I am making a bit of money, but I’m not making a living from it—mostly it’s a way to have fun with my art. I made my first tiny book years ago, and the idea for my action figure came from me thinking about extending my aeroplane selfies in some way. I am always trying to think of interesting ways to further my work.”

“Naked selfie on airplane” action figure, 2021 © John Yuyi

Yuyi is undoubtedly a product of her generation, and the impact of the digital world upon our collective psyche runs beneath everything she makes, but there are also references to a whole constellation of moments from art history to be unearthed in her pictures. In some ways, for instance, her cut-and-paste approach picks up on the feminist surrealist artists of the 80s and beyond—collagists such as Linder Sterling—and her repurposing of hyper-feminine symbols is reminiscent of female artists who made a name for themselves in the previous decade—Juno Calypso, for instance, and Mari Katayama. Elsewhere, her work seems to subvert the style of the overtly male fashion photography of the 90s—in her recurred use of bright red lips, we might see the glossy world of Helmut Newton, and Nobuyoshi Araki too.

Narcissism, 2019 © John Yuyi

Yuyi began making art, she says, as a therapeutic response to her anxiety and depression, and while she still feels like she has trouble fully expressing herself, images have been a way to convey more of her emotions. “It’s my way of shouting, ‘listen to me!’” she says. And on that note, one of her biggest career highlights to date is being shown on the big screens in Times Square. “That was a crazy moment, standing there, unable to even speak fluent English yet. It was surreal,” she remembers warmly. “My goal now is to try and find a balance between fashion and art,” she says, “and to keep working on my new project—a very personal, emotional piece that is maybe one of the least relatable pieces I’ve ever made.” While it is important to make relatable work most of the time, she says, occasionally an artist feels pulled to plumb their own depths and share something unique of themselves with the world.

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