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AIR Artist Highlight: Yidan Zeng

TAC AIR 11 resident Yidan Zeng brings a certain sensitivity to tinkering. She studied glass and computer science at the Rhode Island School of Design (’17) and Brown University (’17). While these fields may seem at odds with each other, both allow for experimentation and innovation. They also require paying close attention and working within constraints, two other allures for the young artist. But in our July 2020 Zoom conversation, Yidan explained that glass was difficult to pursue outside of a college setting because of the facility requirements. Hence her shift to textiles, a more sustainable medium with more accessible material and equipment needs. After all, even during the COVID-19 lockdown, Yidan could work on her textile projects from the comfort of her home.

Yidan’s relationship with TAC began with a Spring 2019 internship working on the swatch library. She applied for the Artists in Residence Program (TAC AIR) during her internship because she quickly found her love for textiles growing. Prior to the residency’s October start date, she participated in the annual Chashama Gala! as a featured artist at the One World Trade Center and installed a piece at the Elmhurst Sculpture Garden in Queens. Then it was full force ahead as she juggled the residency and her job at Eyebeam, a Brooklyn nonprofit for art and technology.

Time became a constraint as she balanced her job, the residency, and a long commute. But rather than get discouraged, Yidan rose to the occasion and developed a close relationship with her typewriter. Though she couldn’t always get to the TAC studio or spend as much time there as she wished, she could play with her typewriter at her leisure. The typerwriter became “a really amazing way to ground myself,” she said, likening the relationship to a “love story” that allowed her to use the piece “as a material.” Thus began her practice of typing on fabric. For Inktober, an international web challenge held every October, she made a series of poems and illustrations—one for each day.

Close-up image of Yidan's work space at TAC; swatches of fabric, small poems and sketches tacked to the wall

Yidan also began weaving with her hair, as well as plastic sourced from shopping bags. Hair has long fascinated her because, as she puts it, she is drawn to what disgusts her. Since she dislikes loose hair, she decided to collect her own three years ago and challenge herself to work with it in new ways. She sources her hair from the shower, her hairbrush, and the barber.

“Once your hair is off the body, it becomes something frightfully foreign,” she said, citing the intriguing association with spirituality, identity, and death.

At her first TAC AIR critique, Yidan presented a performance around hair. She spun hair, dyed fabric, and plastic on a spindle while telling a fantastical story of being a child in China trying to take care of plastic bags and waiting for their transformation into containers.

During her TAC residency explorations, Yidan also embroidered her hair on archival paper. She took to this endeavor because of the close attention it required “of every stitch.”

“I love considering when attention is given and when it’s taken,” she says.

Fittingly, she chose hands as her subject for her embroidered pieces.

Embroidering with hair became another space for her desired “meditative way of making” and search for “intention” and “awareness.”

As someone with a computer science degree, the idea of “attention” also speaks to Yidan in terms of technology—how we spend time with social media and the Internet, for example. Programming itself taught her only about constraints but also repetition. How can a modular thing be repeated? What happens when there is a mutation at every turn of a process? She found herself returning to the idea of attention in TAC workshops, particularly the writing instruction, which she said was delivered with “love and sincerity.”

The TAC residency has given Yidan the opportunity to apply many of her creative questions to the realm of natural dyeing. During a critique early on in the new year, she shared small naturally dyed quilts that she fit into the empty spaces between found branches. They echo a project she did in college called “The Eyes of Trees,” wherein she made and fit glass discs into the holes of trees on campus. With a little planning, she continued her pre-pandemic dyeing at home during lockdown. She borrowed a burner, buckets, and a table loom from TAC to set up her studio. Avocado, onion skins, turmeric, and black bean water are among her favorite natural dyes.

Example of Yidan's textile work

For the TAC AIR group exhibition, Yidan plans to show some of her natural dye and typewriter pieces. She will likely hang them from the ceiling to allow viewers to walk through them. Had it not been for TAC, Yidan said she might never have thought to put naturally dyed fabric in her typewriter.

“Silk doesn’t like being in the typewriter,” she chuckled. “Small actions can lead to beautiful surprises.”

Example of Yidan's textile work

Yidan's work was featured in the Subtle Speaks, TAC AIR 11 Final Exhibition (September 19-28, 2020). Check the online exhibition to see more from this artist.


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