Yan Yan Mao

Interview by Kevin Chi

Kevin Chi: Tell me a little bit about your work. I’ve seen it on display at the Sert Gallery. It’s gorgeous.

Yan Yan Mao:  My idea behind my tree was a play on dimensionality. In photo, we take the three-dimensional world and make it two-dimensional. I also really like to make sculptures. So my process was to make the two dimensional photograph back to the three dimensional, to create a different form of reality. While I was making the 3d object, I kept a photographic documentary of what I was doing. As I was installing my tree, I kept on taking photographs of the process. It’s a continuous play between 2d and 3d. Usually with a sculpture, you always only see the final object. But with paper sculptures, you actually experience the process.

KC: What was the inspiration behind it? Gingko leaves?

YM: Let me think about that. I always imagined photography as more than just taking a picture. It was my view on the world in the 2d sense. One of my previous projects was inverting my images below the horizon, which I thought was an interesting way to see the world. With my gingko, I wanted to represent how I saw the gingko tree and I wanted a more permanent representation of the tree. Whereas the real tree dies throughout the seasons, a sculpture never fades. The paper/leaves will never fade- they’re printed on archival paper. When I worked with the actual leaves, it would eventually die. This was my way of preserving a 3d object. This project actually came about during my sophomore year- I really wanted to make a gingko tree. I just really liked the tree and the shape of the leaves.

KC: How many gingko trees are here? How did you have access to them?

YM: My first one was a gingko tree in China, at a Suzhou Buddhist temple. It was over a thousand years old and it was huge! I also took some pictures of gingko trees in California, where I live. At Harvard, I found gingko trees on Church Street, Brattle Street, and in front of the Natural History Museum. I began to notice all the trees in the Harvard vicinity.

KC: What were the kind of issues you ran into? Did you ever get sick of your project?

YM: Oh yeah, I’ve spend 5 to 6 hundred hours on my thesis. It’s been very tiresome. I was mostly done but I still had things to install for my final review and the thesis show. There I ran into a lot of structural issues (for example, photo paper cannot withhold an actual tree trunk). But I made over 500 leaves and I had two drafts of the trunk. I liked the process though- a lot of it was problem solving and how I would be able to make the tree “work.” The leaves actually fit into nubs on my tree, which is actually how it really is in real life. I did this by cutting slits with a knife, creating a pocket into which the leaves could slide. Nature is amazing- it’s really hard to replicate what nature does so easily.

KC: How have you seen your work evolve through the years? What was your first project?

YM: I started sophomore year with just taking photos. I was purely using photography to make interesting 2d images of everyday life. In junior year, I began to experiment with different forms of photography (like my inversions). I was also making compositions with taillights of cars to make patterns and animals. I made beetles and swans and butterflies- it was a little nuts. Senior year, I went for a multi-media approach, combining photography and sculpture, the two mediums I enjoyed the most.

KC: What does it mean for you to have your work on display now? How do you feel about it?

YM: I like having it on display because I want to show what I wanted to express conceptually. It’s nice to have it in a final form and have others appreciate it. I’m at the point that I’m done but it’s been very encouraging to me that my thesis advisors and reviewers have really liked it. Others have also deemed it interesting and cool. It makes the process worthwhile when my work has more meaning to just myself but for others as well.

KC: How do you see your work advancing in the future? Where do you plan to take it?

YM: Frankly, I’m not sure. I’ll continue to do more work that incorporates sculpture and photography. But it really depends on what inspires me. The gingko tree has been my work for several years. I think I’ll continue to work with inversions though- I really enjoy working with colors. In terms of something specific, I have no idea.

Come see my tree! You can see it from outside the Carpenter Center, even from across the street!

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