Mainland artist Zhou Yi turns multitasking into an art form

Zhou Yi is a woman of many talents: artist, designer, filmmaker, businesswoman and polyglot, writes Fionnuala McHugh

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 29 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 03 September, 2013, 6:20pm

YOU COULD EXHAUST yourself simply by reading the press releases for Zhou Yi's activities. She recently designed a collection of "affordable couture jewellery" for the Italian website; the French label Each X Other has created a collaborative clothing line based on her 3-D animation Unexpected Hero that goes on sale in Lane Crawford in autumn; and she's creating a capsule collection for fashion label Iceberg that will be available by the end of the year.

The Hotel Lutetia in Paris has lined her up to reconfigure one of its suites; it will be finished by October. Meanwhile, Zhou unveiled a short film at the Cannes Film Festival in May - Hollowness - a new 3-D work premiered at the Vladivostok Biennale in Russia last week and a public exhibition opening at the Venice Lido today.

Zhou is, of course, an artist. In the old days (say, 20 years ago), artists tended to be hermitic beings, useless with money and technology, but soulfully committed to their lonely medium. But Zhou is a thirty-something multitasker, who is multilingual and so wired into social media that if you ask her how many followers she has, she says, "It depends on which platform". She exemplifies how far that notion has shifted.

She's made films for Hogan shoes and Persol sunglasses; she's been an "artist-ambassador" for Clarins; she posed for Karl Lagerfeld's book on Chanel's The Little Black Jacket ("it was like an art performance," she said ). She's an art director for video-sharing site and an art and fashion adviser to Somewhere in there, perhaps fighting for its identity, is the work. The hype is so considerable, the public construct so artful, that she's a slight surprise in the flesh: lovely, like a Chinese Modigliani, but intense, more vulnerable and less of a diva than expected. She arrives late for this interview, having got lost on the MTR, apologetic, alone and mildly anxious. She speaks such perfect English - also Putonghua, French, Italian and Spanish - that you can hear, as well as see, why she's an ideal global commodity.

In the Pedder Building's Hanart TZ Gallery, where her January 2012 exhibition "Sculpture Labyrinth: A Journey of My Mind" was held, she plugs in her phone, perches formally on an antique Chinese chair, next to a beeping video game installation - Long March: Restart (Arcade Version) by Feng Meng-bo - and remarks, companionably: "It's a nice spot - I like our area."

She's just returned from Cannes, where Hollowness was shown as part of the Short Film Corner. "Cannes was great, very new for me, it's a scene, and, as an artist, we're not used to that," she says. Really? "So many things have changed in the art world, we find ourselves in a much less profound position as artists," she goes on. "There's much less room to think and more to brand. But that helps artists by generating more work opportunities and it helps us explore other canvases - where you display the work, on streets, in stores, on fashion brands."

This sounds like marketing waffle (in 2010, she set up an advertising company in Shanghai, a joint venture with a French agency intended to encourage collaboration between artists and luxury goods companies). Isn't the artist's work more likely to become lost these days? "I agree," she says, unexpectedly. "Now it's more about the venue than the artwork itself. There's less clarification of the artist, it's more about the globalisation of a brand."

What, then, about her own advertising connections? "I did that for a year-and-a-half when I first moved to China, but I realised it's hard for me to take care of other artists," she says. "So I took the chance China gave me to create my own space, and started my studio two years ago."

She stops to swallow some vitamins, check her phone ("Everything's OK"), and smile, a little wearily.

Although she was born in Shanghai, and brought up by her grandmother in Hangzhou, she moved to Rome when she was 10, where her "entrepreneur" parents were based. The self-image that fuels her is of an isolated, driven child lost in an alien culture. She had few friends, was self-competitive and hypersensitive. "You have that cross of Jesus in front of you every day, and every Sunday you see the Pope speaking on television," she says. "This presence, and these stories, influenced deeply my childhood."

She wouldn't be the first to find Catholicism morbidly stimulating, but a young, polyglot Chinese woman using Dante and other European classics for artistic inspiration is rare. After she graduated - having begun a degree in politics at the London School of Economics, which she finished in Paris - she worked as an artist's assistant. She taught herself flash animation, and in 2002, was taken on by the Jerome de Noirmont gallery in Paris.

In 2004, she created a 3-D animation, One of These Days, which was shown, to acclaim, at the Guangzhou Triennial. She became known for her disjointed, dreamlike and decaying images and for working with diverse luminaries such as Pharrell Williams, Diane von Furstenberg and Charlotte Gainsbourg. In 2010, she returned to Shanghai.

"My God, someone called me," she cries, suddenly, glancing at her phone. She employs "seven or eight" staff. A brief conversation in Putonghua ensues. "There's a guy who left yesterday, he doesn't work with me any more," she says. "And he's intruded in the office. He knows I'm in Hong Kong." She suddenly looks like an anxious child. But the video game keeps beeping, and the interview continues.

Why did she go back to China? Zhou hesitates, then says: "Because of the French company." She thinks about this for a while, then adds: "Before, I was a little dot in the universe. In China, I started shining more, I'm different, I stand out. I speak five languages well."

The language she's clearly speaking now, however - no translation required - is the universal one of fear. She's already said that she spent some of the previous night crying, that she couldn't sleep ("Being an artist is a vulnerable state"), that she was up early to catch the flight to Hong Kong.

Now she's on the phone to the office again. "I want to check the guy left, I'm so afraid of being blackmailed," she explains. More Putonghua follows. Then there's a silence, a hollowness, scooped out of the preceding chatter.

After a suitable pause, the obvious question: has she ever been blackmailed? Zhou sighs. "Honestly, if I write the story of my life, it's 11 volumes. I was blackmailed by my concierge in Paris. She'd knock on my door looking for drugs. She sent two people to my apartment at 8am on May 21, 2009. They handcuffed me, they robbed me, there were death threats. I have these bad memories."

Is what happened the real reason she returned to China? "I've thought about that," she replies, slowly. "No, I moved to another apartment. But someone robbed me afterwards. You get more careful. In Shanghai, I live in a very secure building."

There's something touching about that image - the public woman, with her many social platforms, immured within a fortress - that one can only wish her happiness. "Why?" she says, surprised. "Do I not look happy?" Well - no. And, frankly, in the promotional film that accompanies her Yoox jewellery launch, she seems thoroughly miserable. Zhou nods a little at this and says, "I did that last December. I wasn't happy. It's hard to go back, take care of people. China's a very mobile work market. I was really happy yesterday, then I got the news of people leaving. That's what it is. To be honest." She looks up. "Do we love people who are always happy?"

She begins to talk about the 3-D animated films she'll be showing at the Vladivostok Biennale later this month. "A lot of my animations explore water and drowning - being above the water and below the water," she says.

Then, of course, there's the Lutetia suite, the latest construct in her own frantic, glossy, surreal edifice. "David Lynch did one too," she informs me. In that case, well, it must be OK.



48 Hours - the short film that Zhou Yi and celebrated photographer Wing Shya made exclusively for this cover story - has been selected for the official competition and screening at ASVOFF 6 at the Pompidou Centre in Paris between October 11 and 13. Launched in 2008 by fashion blogger Diane Pernet - who also curates it - ASVOFF (A Shaded View on Fashion Film) is "the first international fashion, style and beauty film festival" and promises to focus on the moving image in an industry dominated by the photographic medium.


Check out 48 Hours at