Pop-up Art: Christine Wong Yap at Chinese Arts Centre.

Oly Bliss

We talk to New York artist Christine Wong Yap about her pop-up art shop and why Mancunians like to play things down

The New York-based artist Christine Wong Yap has turned the interior of the Chinese Arts Centre into a bright, playful pop-up shop. It’s her take on consumer culture; that irresistible impulse to decorate and the pursuit of happiness via consumption, here expressed via cheery images and striking, fluorescent patterns. Wong Yap has shown her work across the world (she’s currently based in San Franscisco); Oly Bliss spoke to her as she was installing her exhibition in Manchester.

Oly Bliss: So you were previously in Manchester in 2009 and now you’re back in 2012. How has your practice developed in this time?

Christine Wong Yap: This body of work has developed from my 2009 residency at Chinese Arts Centre where I was able to delve deeper into positive psychology. My ideas were previously very raw, but I’ve now been able to develop them into more articulate concepts. My ideas are a lot more about happiness now. I read this book call Sex, Drugs and Chocolate by Paul Martin and it got me thinking about happiness. He suggests three elements for happiness: pleasure, satisfaction and the absence of displeasure. Pleasure is most relevant to this show. Previously, my works were based on the duality of optimism and pessimism – some of the works were more sceptical – whereas now these pieces are unabashedly positive and enthusiastic.

OB: So your work is now all about the glass being half full?

CWY: It’s funny, I think all the work can sit between the two. Some people will react strongly against very happy work; some think I’m being ironic. Some are suspicious of the pursuit of happiness. So I think it can be interpreted very differently.

OB: Are there differences you’ve noticed between audiences here and in the US?

CWY: Contemporary art audiences tend to be more cynical in general, and I find being so expressive does make me stand out. I think Mancunian’s can act understated. From the residency, for example, I came to realise ‘all right’ is just an understated way of saying you’re enjoying something, whereas in America it would mean you’re politely saying you don’t actually like something. At first I thought people didn’t like the same things I did when actually they did.

OB: There are a lot of psychological and social references within your work which make people look at the consumer environment that surrounds them. What sparked this?

CWY: I was always interested in consumer culture. Growing up when I did, looking at ‘zines and just being aware of corporations in the 1990s, it all lead me to consider this area. I’ve been inspired by colleagues such as Stephanie Syjuco and Michael Arcega, and their interest in objects and materials has been a strong influence on my practice. There is a Hungarian psychologist called Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi who talks about the need for symbolic ecology in the home; how this helps build your sense of identity. Now, my work has changed. I have embraced discount store culture and how the discount store has become a means by which people access pleasure. People of all classes have this need to decorate, and we comment on each other’s sense of taste.

OB: Are you a bit of a compulsive shopper?

CWY: No, I really don’t like shopping that much and actually procurement is one of my least favourite parts of making art. I’m interested in things and how they have lives of their own, objects that are traded globally and end up in discount shops for a minimal price. With discount stores, there are simple pleasures that are easily available to all. Pleasure can be found in the everyday; from lawn ornament windmills to rhinestones for your fingernails. I find it interesting to identify the roles that these objects fulfil.

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