20 February 2024

Cross Streets

Yuge Zhou animates our
relationships with urban space


by Kate Mothes

During the day, the white panel installed at Olbrich Botanical Gardens in Madison, Wisconsin, stood as an abstract monolith with geometric protrusions against the greenery of surrounding foliage. As the light of the day began to fade, though, a finely calibrated projection emerged, its colors increasingly saturated and its animations more distinct. The piece by Chicago-based artist Yuge Zhou, titled To afar the water flows (2019), transforms into a buzzing metropolis, a digital collage of architecture, trains, roads, and people.

“A decade ago, I left my home in Beijing, where the rapid transformation of the urban landscape dramatically reshaped the city and people’s lives, and I came to America to begin an immigrant’s journey—migrating from the west coast to the east coast, and from the east coast to the Midwest,” Yuge says. “To afar the water flows is both a visual diary of this journey and a loving portrait of American cities.”

Before moving to the U.S., Yuge’s musical work was met with acclaim in China, where she was the singer for a popular children’s television show called Little Dragon Boy. She relocated to pursue a degree in computer science, which led her into the realm of digital video and large-scale projection-mapped installations.

A thematic undercurrent of distance, contrasts, and relationships between Yuge’s current home in Chicago and her life in Beijing runs through much of her work. In pieces like an illustration that accompanied Darran Anderson’s article “Why Every City Feels the Same Now” in The Atlantic in 2020, segments of buildings, sky, green spaces, and thoroughfares stack one on top of the other in a dizzying, looping, animated collage. And a slightly earlier work, Cross Streets (2019), combines activities and textures of the iconic Chicago Loop with the vibrant landscape of one Los Angeles neighborhood, merged into a singular experience.

For Midtown Flutter, Yuge employed a similar to technique with her lens trained on New York City. “I shot a variety of architecture in midtown Manhattan, allowing passersby to interrupt the scene,” she says. “By selecting and then composing the video footage according to the formal qualities of the architecture within the scene, the architecture in turn dictates the patterns and flow of the pedestrians. Midtown becomes a flattened, uniform construct for this play of texture, rhythm and interruptions, leaving a certain sense of emptiness filled by the rush of contemporary people.”

In other works, Yuge explores the possibilities of unspoken communication and a sense of longing for what is both distant and familiar. In 2020, she began a series titled Moon Drawings, which draws on a traditional Chinese spiritual comprehension of the moon as a carrier of human emotions. Every winter, Yuge documented herself pulling a suitcase through the snow around a streetlamp in a parking lot adjacent to her apartment building in Chicago.

Moon Drawings, 2022.

Due to the pandemic, a scheduled trip to visit family in China was indefinitely postponed. “While waiting to go back… I decided to create a video series with the general intention of bringing the moon down to me on the earth, inspired by a Chinese legend of Han dynasty entitled, ‘The lake reflecting the divine moon’:”

Yearning for his lost love, Han dynasty emperor Wu Di had a terrace built in his palace park, which he named Fu Yue Tai (俯月台), meaning ‘for viewing the moon from above.’ To be viewed from above, the moon had to be reflected in water, so the emperor added a lake at the foot of the terrace.

The Moon Drawings comprise a meditation on distance and the migrant experience, pulling at threads that connect one to another home and the family and relationships that remain there. In another video work titled Love Letters, Yuge follows the expressive communication of two dancers amidst the concrete backdrop of Chicago and its river. “(The dancers) improvise a style of wordless language that no person outside of their relationship could understand,” the artist says. “It is inspired by the collective experiences of isolation and separation felt by many during the global pandemic.”

Split into the seasons of summer and winter, the work expresses the duality of not only two distinct individuals within a relationship, but the need for two to communicate, to be apart and to come together at various points as time passes through the year and life more broadly. Yuge adds, “The video series emphasizes the traditional Chinese concept of ‘Yuan 缘,’ a fateful intersection leading to a relationship with an uncertain future.”

Yuge’s work is currently on view in Interreality in Los Angeles through March, and she has work in the 91st member exhibition of The Arts Club of Chicago through February 21. Yuge is also the curator of an installation art project called 150 Media Stream, which has engaged dozens of media artists and cultural institutions to create innovative monthly public art programming in Chicago on a 3,300-square-foot digital canvas.

See more on the artist’s website, and follow updates on Instagram and Vimeo.

Midtown Flutter, 2016. Installation view at Site: Brooklyn Gallery, NY
Underground Circuit, 2017. Projection onto the floor. Photo of the artist with the installation by Rory O'Driscoll
Love Letters (winter) (still), 2021. 4K video, 7m 40s
Love Letters (summer) (still), 2020. 4K video, 8m 40s

All images © Yuge Zhou

Header image: Midtown Flutter, 2016. Installation view at the Blue Star Contemporary Art Museum, San Antonio, Texas

Love Letters:
Director: Yuge Zhou
Choreographer: Hannah Santistevan
Movement artists: Sam Crouch; Rebecca Huang

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