Project Unity: Ten Miles of Track in One Day memorializes 20,000 Chinese emigrants who built the transcontinental railroad.
When watching one of Yuge Zhou’s short films or video installations, you might find yourself immersed in layers of emotion overlaid with movement. Or you might fall into the waters of the Pacific Ocean, where East meets West, where a natural terrain of the illusory dreams that Yuge creates adds depth to her composition.
Project Unity: Ten Miles of Track in One Day is a three-channel video projection, an art installation in collaboration with Hwa-Jeen Na, who designed and fabricated the physical sculpture. It won the Juried Award in the installation category at ArtPrize 2021.
What looks like a reel, the multimedia structure is made up of 36 pillars set a few feet apart. Names of Chinese emigrant workers flash in classic Hollywood sign font before your eyes. Yuge positions their names so that you feel like you’re riding a train through the desert, observing the scenery outside your window as you’re passing through Sacramento, California, all the way to Promontory, Utah. She lays bare the experience of the Chinese American laborers, who emigrated with hopes for a better future and who were systematically silenced by history itself. America stripped these men of their names, their identities, and any evidence of their physical labor that paved the road for the rest of us. To complete the 1800-mile track, Central Pacific Railroad hired 20,000 Chinese laborers, who, to this day, are largely unidentified.
I was curious about Yuge’s creative process and what inspired her to work on this project, and curious about her personal relationship to the very idea of displacement and alienation. Is the separation between the pillars meant to represent a disconnect, our disconnect from these workers’ displacement and eventual erasure? Is the circular installation intended to confine us to the Central Pacific legacy?
Born to creative parents in Beijing in 1985 (her mother is a cellist and a collaborator with Yuge on a video project), Yuge became a famous singer for one of the most popular children’s series in Chinese TV history, Little Dragon Boy (小龙人), when she was only five years old. I wondered if being a famous kid might have given Yuge a better understanding of what it means to be seen, acknowledged, identified. Object/subject permanence and the notion of recognition play an important role in Project Unity.
Perhaps the movement in her video, this abrupt shift in dynamism that strikes you, vis a vis the installation itself that’s grounded, symbolizes object/subject permanence. And the circular format gives the effect of a neverending reel of names, signs of those workers who have now been identified. Meanwhile, identity erasure is simultaneously evolving within the context of the observer. I connect this very experience to the rapid transformation of the urban landscape that Yuge herself witnessed when moving across the ocean from her home in Beijing to Chicago to pursue her dream of being an artist. It split her open. And yet, her rootedness in the self, her tradition, culture, and relation to her past translates directly into her work, bridging the gap between existential displacement and her place within her own art.
Nevertheless, the movement in her work creates a sense of erosion, defamiliarization. Because for the Chinese workers who have been forgotten, being alienated meant being estranged from a place, something, or someone. In some sense, art itself is a form of alienation. Some might say art is distinct or separate from other forms of culture and life experience. Not everyone understands art, and not every piece of art is meant to be understood.
However, Project Unity lends us a symbolic landscape, a place of belonging, even for those of us who were not part of that history. Yuge’s installation draws us closer in, forces us to pay attention to the connections she makes here in this open space, this dry desert, where loneliness is transmitted. And you feel it deeply, this isolation residing in the names she displays. The idea of belonging, embodied here through this vacuous realm like a gateway, a road to nowhere forcing us to look closer, deeper even.
Project Unity: Ten Miles of Track in One Day. Artists: Yuge Zhou (Concept and Video) + Hwa-Jeen Na (Sculpture concept and Fabrication). The piece won the ArtPrize 2021 Juried Award in the installation category.
The Daring: The movement in your work is kind of erratic, chaotic, like in Underground Circuit. Can you talk about that? And your relation to the chaos when you’re holding your camera?
Yuge Zhou: I am an outsider, and the camera movement is like a gaze. I am observing characters on stage. You can see the people waiting and going in and out, and to me it’s like theater. I am detached from the scene, but at the same time, people observe me as well. There is an interesting duality. I wanted to have this cube as part of the installation, for the viewer to watch from above, almost Godly like, observing this labyrinth of creatures in a structure that’s in motion, gaining access to the living from birds-eye view.
TD: There are many kinds of loneliness and detachment, separateness and isolation. How do you define loneliness in your work? How do you create organic connections between day-to-day spaces amidst loneliness?
YZ: Living “in-between” prompts the whole idea of loneliness. I have been in this country for over ten years, and as time passes, I feel like I have always heard that I am too Chinese to be American and too American to be Chinese. I feel like I am not part of this conversation here, and also, in China, I feel a huge sense of displacement.
For a while now, I have been trying so hard to find a rootedness here and there. However, since I started doing my creative work and traveling, experiencing the pandemic, all these circumstances made me realize I am in this gray area, the in-between, and I finally have concluded that I don’t have to be one or the other. It’s ok to be in between. That’s a space too. But to speak to the detachment, I think this is the loneliness I experience, of being in this gray area and on my own.
TD: In The Magic Hour, you’re collaging different scenes and allowing for the idea that endless worlds can coexist. There is tension…you are not really sure what is going to take place, a suspense component to the piece. Can you talk more about it?
YZ: In Chinese philosophy, the chi, our spiritual vital life force or energy, is important and something I think about in connection to my work. We, as human beings, are not really fully separated. The underlying idea is that we are somehow always connected…something is happening in the universe that connects everything. This idea is very much living and breathing in my art pieces. Especially in some of the earlier works, I created collages where there is a scene of meaningful coincidence, creating micro-narratives, almost like a mental map.
Especially in urban environments, there’s so much going on. You encounter so many people, and there’s so much intersection between stories, all kinds of stories. So for me, it’s interesting to weave them together and create a map of different stories in an absurd way, because there is no logic here, really, and it’s simply part of the imagination.
TD: Yes, I agree, there is a synchronicity in your compositions, and it works. I particularly enjoyed Moon Drawings. Can you tell me where you shot that and what idea is behind it?
YZ: The title is because in Chinese tradition the moon carries human emotions and the full moon symbolizes family reunion. The project is very much done in the context of separation from my family during the pandemic.
I often like to film in two locations. Here, I shot from my high-rise building. In the back, there’s a parking lot. This parking lot is so out of place, and there’s a highway right next to it. When it snows, it’s like the parking lot doesn’t belong to this world. It’s still, quiet, and pure — so that’s one place. I’ve stayed in this apartment just for this purpose, because of the view. And I have a friend whose apartment faces the East to Lake Michigan, it’s right next to the beach, and I film there too. So, again, bringing East and West.
TD: I want to talk about how Covid has influenced your artwork. Has it added layers to your concept of longing and isolation? Or has it given you space to re-evaluate the idea?
YZ: I had a call with my mom one day, and it inspired this project When the East of the Day Meets the West of the Night. We were talking about the emotional challenges of the distance between us, and it sparked a picture in my mind of two people standing on opposite ends of the Pacific Ocean, looking out. At the same time, feeling connected and separated. Important about the gaze, like a person looking slowly into the horizon. And the sun goes down and up on the other side, and I am the protagonist. I feel like an outsider in many of my projects, looking in. Well, because of Covid, I had to put the project on hold. There’s a second part of the piece about the moon setting, which I was supposed to film, but I had to cancel the trip because of the lockdown.
I feel the whole world is now in a state of loneliness, so it made me look for collaboration in my local community to create a more universal piece. Love Letters talks about feeling isolated but connected. I did it by the Chicago River, with dancers using body language to communicate and improvisation to relay the idea that even though we cannot physically touch because there is a barrier, we still want to and find ways to communicate. How do we do that? By using gestures more than language, gestures are more universal and a more intimate form of communication.
For example, when I speak Chinese, it’s not always accurate, so with gestures, there is a more accurate delivery. Sometimes I want to create something that expresses my feelings and then see how I can connect that to others. Staying open-minded, not forcing any feelings on anyone, but if they look at my work and take something away from it — that’s what matters.
TD: Getting back to Project Unity: Ten Miles of Track in One Day, memorializing the Chinese workers. How did the project come to be?
YZ: Well, I was doing this project in Utah, and my assistant was driving. I was watching the road, the same track as in the film where the laborers worked. That’s how I came up with the idea for the landscape as the backdrop. The eternity of desert and amidst the landscape full of dreams and personal stories and history and the conflicts and battles that occurred. History and time erased the tracks of those Chinese laborers. The weather and natural floods washed the past away. The stories and the people who worked and died there are ghosts. I really wanted to create memories through the images displayed. The ghosts of the people who were there are forever living there, and I wanted to give them life. It is quite sad but an important form of remembering in a way, recreating memories through the images I project.
TD: Where did you find the names of the Chinese workers?
YZ: My friend Hwa-Jeen Na, who built the structure for the installation, invited me to create a video projection to display onto the structure at night. I realized I wanted to create something on this topic, especially now, with the anti-Asian sentiment that’s going on. I really wanted to do something related to the Chinese community in America.
It didn’t take me long to look through books into the history of these 20,000 Chinese immigrants who built the transcontinental railroad. They worked in horrible conditions, doing slave labor, and many of them died. Their bodies were buried in the snow. They did not have a proper burial.
When researching, I learned many people of all backgrounds died there, not just Chinese but African American, Mexican, and Hispanic. In a way, there is universality. The whole process took a couple of months. My primary source was the Chinese Railroad Workers in North American Project at Stanford University. They obtained a lot of documents about the Chinese workers. Many of their names were anglicized. They were called John Chan or China man, not even by their real names. So most [birth] names could not be retrieved, but we did find about two hundred — because people identified them, or knew their family members who worked on the railroad, or their names and stories are written in books. It’s not just a Chinese story, it’s a human story. For me, it’s important to tell these stories.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity. The Love Letters project mentioned in this interview was created in collaboration with: Hannah Santistevan, Choreography. Sam Crouch; Rebecca Huang, Movement Artists.
Yuge Zhou has exhibited nationally and internationally in prominent art and public venues and is currently an artist at NEW INC, New Museum’s art and technology incubator. Recent awards include Juried Award in the installation category at ArtPrize 2021, Artist Fellowship Award in Media Arts from the Illinois Arts Council, and Honorary Mention in the 2020 Prix Ars Electronica in Linz, Austria. Her work has been featured in various publications such as the New York Magazine, Colossal, and The Atlantic Monthly. Yuge holds an MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago as well as a Master of Science from Syracuse University. Visit yugezhou.com.