Interviewing Yanxian Zhao - Winner of EKP Excellence in Research Award 2020


Yanxian Zhao is a visual artist who after living in China and Bangladesh, now calls the Netherlands home. Yan graduated from the MIVC Visual Arts and Post-Contemporary Practice at MIVC in 2020 and was awarded with the first EKP Excellence in Research Award; an annual award of €2,500 for the best master graduate research in collaboration with SDK Vastgoed. In this interview, Yan shares many things surrounding her work and experience at the institute; from the various impacts of artistic research, to the power of storytelling, to personal reflections about her own regard as an artist.


What is your project about, and how did you come across it? 


My project is about trauma and legacies, love and violence of females in the family space. It started from an intangible feeling that something was not right in my family - that the female figures in my family have an unspeakable hatred of their gender, and that it extended over generations in all daily settings. I express it as being a sort of self-cannibalism living inside of them that gets transferred to the next generation in the name of love. With this phenomena being rooted to their past, it has a strong relation with political, social and communal factors they live with in the present. 

Generational trauma is simple to understand. It is the trauma that our ancestors experienced first hand, that is carried to the generations to come via our unconscious or epigenetic. They are different things; but it is when trauma can’t evacuate and it’s embedded in memories, stories, moods, living behaviours and thinking patterns - all taken by generations after.

What was your goal with the study?

My goal is simple. I have the feeling that our past influences our present, and that our consciousness is altered accordingly - and not quite right. So I wanted to find a way to bring the past into the present, and the conscious into the unconscious so that I become aware of what in the past is still haunting us today.


What is the consequence of not dealing with generational trauma?

It depends on what level you are on. For example, you might have impulsive thoughts you can’t explain - depressive or suicidal for instance. I talked to a psychologist, and she said that eventually, next generations will have higher chances of being born with psychological problems such as autism. On the other hand, Aleida Assman, a scholar in history and memory study says that trauma can be forgotten and healed within 100 years, so in 3 to 4 generations. They’re very different opinions but, if you can evacuate this generational trauma, then you can also fight away these involuntary impulses as well.


It seems that storytelling has a vital presence in your research. What is the power of storytelling, and why is it important to implement in other aspects of life?

I have a nice quote from a video production company that really answers your question: “Nations, religions, cultures, identities, revolutions and relations are constructed by how we tell stories''. I think this is why storytelling is so important in my work. It is part of the power of representation.

One aspect of my work is taking a very personal approach to storytelling. It follows an approach of Aleida Assmann - she says that the current grand narrative that we are following is a process of dehumanization. She says that if you want to rethink history today, we should look at history from the perspective of the experience of trauma in individuals.  Sure, you could say that personal stories are not part of history, but it's important to know that the personal bears the political, social and communal memories, and so does trauma. So when you are putting the personal pains and sufferings into the presentation, it’s also a process of humanisation as well. That is the kind of storytelling I'm trying to do in my work.

This is why storytelling is so important in my work. It is part of the power of representation.

Yanxian Zhao,


What makes an artist?

I think creativity. Of course, in studies like journalism or others there is a certain creativity there, but you are not very autonomous - your work relies a lot on others. But as an artist you have so much more freedom to create, that makes the biggest difference.


What challenges do you face as an artist, how do you deal with them?

How to be seen and how to make yourself sustainable. It’s always the biggest challenge for all artists.  In my case, I think I’ve been relatively lucky. I have a residency,I was invited by the Nederland Fotomuseum to plan an exhibition and other exhibitions. I got into the second round of Rijksakademie - so I’ve been seen, but also not so much at a wider range.

I keep myself motivated by thinking that I have to get something, and working towards it. I want to keep myself busy and with pressure. Actually, I wasn't too comfortable about graduating. I really love school and I really like to study, so when there’s so much freedom I don’t know what to do, so I want to make some deadlines and motivations for myself to keep working.

The process of learning brings you new experiences and thoughts that you can apply back to your own work.

Yanxian Zhao,

What would you say to other artists struggling with the same challenges?

I don't know. It’s so personal, and we have so many reasons to feel this way, and the way of getting out of it can be so different. For example, I'm married to a man that constantly encourages me to do something; that was my first step to step out of this insecurity and feeling impotence. Maybe they can find someone who constantly gives you compliments, it’s like a brainwash. It really helps.

Someone there to be there to tell you that what you're doing is ok is very relieving. Today, I realize that I can't express so much of my negativity to others because of how a single word can make such a huge impact to others, even to strangers. So stay positive, and keep yourself surrounded by positive people, is what I would say.

How can you relate this to your experience at MIVC?

When I enrolled, I was very practice-based. But Una, the Head of MIVC brought a huge change. I like Una’s vision, we believe in similar things concerning art and research. She pushes the multicultural scenario which I appreciate a lot. My teachers really encouraged me to go outside of my comfort zone - I followed their advice and I realized that even if you’re not good at something, the process of learning brings you new experiences and thoughts that you can apply back to your own work.


Sometimes it’s not about the result, it’s about the process - something that our school encourages us to share. The process is part of the research, right? The artwork is only a pinch of your research. There are many things left untold. But the research is so much bigger.

What does artistic research mean to you and why do you think it's important?

It’s a difficult question. I think artistic research lets me have a greater understanding of myself, my culture, my society and also the greater whole that I'm part of. It’s a very tolerant kind of research. You can include so many different studies; psychology, sociology, archeology, journalism, anthropology, so I think it's a melting pot for all, and artistic research is what binds everything together and makes it into a whole.


When we talk about it being beneficial, we’re talking about the functionality of research. I don't think it has such a solid function like other subjects like biology or physics or anthropology. No, art doesn’t have such a clear function. But I think I can refer artistic research to philosophy research. It gives you a moment of clarity, which is why I think artistic research is so beneficial to society.


What are your future plans?

I think I’m still really attached to this topic (generational trauma), and I'm thinking to start a relationship between food and generational trauma. I'm researching the relationship between tea and trauma. I'm now going to Croatia to put research into a physical form - I'm doing a two month residency there, with my teacher during the BA. They have the Woman To Woman Collective and the Tea Society; so I collaborate with his atelier; I’ll be able to give something to them, but also work on my own things.

To know more about Yan's graduation project 'Sheng!', visit the current.is.