We had the opportunity to interview Yi To, a London-based artist born and raised in Hong Kong. Her practice mixes abstraction with human figures, particularly human gestures. Her focus is the pre-narrative of human existence. But what does that mean? We’ll get to that later on.
Through her work, Yi To inquires into the primordiality of our being that is hidden at the root of our existence. She sees existence as an enigma. She challenges the traditional cycle of life created by traditional societies.
MAD54: Can you tell us about the beginning of your artistic journey?
Yi To: I grew up in a very traditional Chinese family in Hong Kong. The only expectations my parents had of me were to get into college to then be able to get a stable job. I never, ever questioned this, not even for a second. I did not have the time to think about it because I was always fed with fear of failing by the education system, until I was about to graduate. I realized things can be different. I went on a trip to Europe and saw a different reality. I saw all these artworks and the cities and the atmosphere and I realized I’d lived my life the wrong way.
“That’s when I immediately made the decision to make art. It was probably the easiest decision in my life. But as a person from a very traditional upbringing, it was a challenged decision. I never backed off because I kept telling myself: the only difference between me and those great artists is that they have made the decision to make art. I was relieved because I was finally able to make a decision on my own that is outside the box.”
Yi To’s decision to start making art led her to begin sketching, as it was for her the most accessible thing to get started with. All the materials she needed were charcoal or pencil and paper. She began to explore the human body though her sketches and later on decided that she wanted to start using color. She began to teach herself how to paint and transitioned to oil. She spent endless hours at the library, flicking through books, looking at old masters and trying to get a sense of what was going on in the West and in the East.
MAD54: Why did you decide to begin sketching human figures?
Yi To: It was not a conscious decision but our bodies are the most accessible and understood vessel we carry at at all times. It is also an entry point to endless possibilities. I guess that's how my obsession with bodies began. Human bodies are a recurring subject in my practice.
MAD54: Besides the human body as a point of entry, what are other ideas that inform your practice?
Yi To: : I’m intrigued by the idea of "thrownness" addressed by Heideigger. We are constantly being thrown into the world before we’re even aware of it. It’s a question that seldom surfaces unless you’re in complete solitude - but one rarely has space for themselves, often because it’s scary to spend time in solitude. As soon as we sit still long enough, we realize how every single one of us is tied together in this enigma, not knowing where one comes from and where one goes, how things end and how they begin.
“I am always thinking about how human or living beings are all tied down by the cycle of life and death and also how we all breathe the same oxygen. It doesn’t really matter if you are old or If you’re young, where you were born, what your gender is.”
My work is also influenced by the idea of reincarnation. The way I understand our mode of existence is we’re living in this circle. Under popular consciousness, death is thought to be the end of all but is that it? How do we know things that we don’t know? When the end could be the beginning, existence becomes non-linear. When there are more unsolved questions than solved ones, it’s fair to say we are living in an enigma. In fact, we are the enigma.
MAD54: We see an evolution in your work from more figurative to more abstract. Can you tell us more about this?
Yi To: I wanted to loosen up our bodies a bit and "The Geography of Nothingness" was my first experiment on finding a more reductive way of understanding them. What I see from human bodies is that they constantly carry a space within themselves that I call primal vacancy: a void where our bodies are involved in the process of making at a time-before-time in which our being comes to be like a fetus being formed in a uterus. An enigma is being made. My works sit right before a narrative is made so it only makes sense when the time is before time to bring about a pre-narrative.
MAD54: Can you elaborate on this idea of pre-narrative paintings?
"I like to use a spectrum of lights to open up the space in our bodies. Now try to picture a scenario where one is in a basement with no light and there comes a tiny beam of light out of nowhere. Immediately you would turn your head towards the light source without really making a judgement. At that one moment you wouldn’t have the time to think about where the light comes from, whether it is bright, or if it is real. That split moment is what I'm most interested in. That moment in time is the pre-narrative."
I understand that we are sense-making beings that we are always trying to feed our own experience into a painting but, that split second of no judgement, is the most precious. In my work, human figures are something for us to latch onto and feel grounded in a way.
MAD54: How would you describe your way of painting?
Yi To: I dilute the oil paint by using a lot of medium and I'll make different gestures on the surface. You can picture them as information to be received by the canvas and the finished look is how information has been processed. There are a lot of gestures of hands and feet to suggest an undercurrent of our sense-making appetite. If there is a finger pointing at a particular direction, it’s not difficult to imagine that there’s something there. It’s somewhat hinting at a history of seeking answers.
MAD54: Do you paint with a specific audience in mind?
Yi To: I am constantly trying to find the common grounds between individuals. I am less concerned about individuality but more about collectivity. So when I look at you, I want to know what we share rather than what is so different between us because I believe that we are really not that different.
MAD54: What is the impact of us asking these questions to ourselves and our existence?
Yi To: I think by questioning our own existence we are basically digging down to our roots - somewhere primordial and collective. Only through that, we are able to understand and to see the possibilities to what we now call a reality or even to open up an alternative reality. It is a portal to somewhere else and that somewhere, as primordial as it is, is also the present, the now. A lot of the time, we’re unable to live in the present because we’re occupied with tomorrows and the futures. We make money today so we have money to pay rent the next month, and quite often it goes this way for the rest of our lives. The enigma of how we come into existence is something that not everybody is ready to talk about because of how existentially challenging it is and how it doesn’t have an answer. Why are we here? Are we alone in the universe? Is there an after-life? Are we reincarnated?
“Only by questioning, can we finally be grounded in the present and just ‘live’. Through art making, one is inventing a different lens through which a spectrum of possibilities can be opened up. Precisely because our own existence is an enigma, there is hope. And hope is a beautiful ingredient that one can give."
To's incredible reflective way of living life is beautifully conveyed through her enigmatic paintings. Her use of light, color and abstract human figures along with gestures create a cycle within themselves that makes the viewer reflect - if not on life - at least on the present moment.
Yi To's work is currently on view at MAPA Fine Art's group show "Staying @live". Take a moment to view her works there and see more on her website. To is currently completing an MA in Painting at the Royal College of Art and previously received a BA in Fashion & Textile from The Hong Kong Polytechnic University (2017). Her most recent show previous to "Staying @live" was at the Hockney Gallery in London (2020).