Yiwen Zhang, an aspiring journalist and photographer, launched her ‘Untitled‘ project which advocates for the fluidity of gender by exploring the origins of human nature through visual aesthetics. Asian artists, cultures, and traditions are often seen as incompatible mediums and platforms for the discourse of gender. However, Yiwen shows that this is yet another stereotype that must be broken. Through ‘Untitled’, Yiwen does not simply engage with genderfluidity but uses traditional Asian aesthetic forms and cultures to communicate this, accentuating their applicability and relevance in contemporary discussions of gender. In this exclusive interview, Yiwen Zhang explains to us the philosophies and ideologies that lie behind the breathtaking photographic images of her project, while illuminating ongoing discussions about gender and social norms within Asian societies.
The ‘Untitled’ Project: Genderfluidity and Human Nature
Please explain to us, briefly, about your photography project!
A: Under the patriarchal social system, women are considered and expected to be feminine, men are expected to be masculine. There exists a very clear gender-binary. People are expected to meet these gender-stereotyped norms. But all the rules are reconstructed by human beings. If we think about the original essence of human beings, apart from the difference in biological structures, can we not decide upon our own gender? I think we should break this traditional stereotype. Then, gender can be fluid like water and wind. Therefore, I aim to take a series of photos to express this belief.
Do you think photography is an effective medium in portraying gender fluidity? If so, why?
A: Yes of course, photography is a direct visual approach. The visual stimulation could invite the viewers to think about themselves or even society. The Japanese style clothing, the hairstyle, the expression of models, etc, people may always find elements that relate to their own mind and culture, and make connections with photos, then explore their personal world, particularly their gender identity or any contemplations regarding gender norms.
What does gender fluidity mean to you?
A: It means that people who don’t meet the social standard and expectations of gender should be respected and feel free and safe to live in our society. I’m personally not the female who meets all the standards of being a traditional woman, although my identity is female. I think the concept of gender fluidity can help people break the binary restrictions of having to be either a man or a woman and avoid judging others based on gender stereotypes.
What aspect about gender fluidity did you attempt to portray in your project?
A: I used the silver cloth as the background to represent the feeling of fluidity. The guy with long hair and the girl with short hair are opposites to the expectation of their respective genders: a girl should have long hair to show her beauty and a man is supposed to have shorter hair to show masculinity. Also, the guy with Japanese geisha makeup and clothes represents a combination of female and male characteristics. This is because, in 17th-century Japan, geishas originally were all males who wore makeup, played traditional instruments, and danced delicately, so I was thinking if hundreds of years ago males could do things that were not ‘masculine’, how come people cannot understand those who do things that transgress gender norms today? Why can’t society be open and diverse like 17th-century Japan? I attempted to make the two models connected with each other, to show that they are just human beings, and they are basically the same in nature, despite their differing outward appearances. There can be traits of both traditional genders on a person and they can exist in freedom and fluidity.
We often consider Asian cultures and societies to be most unforgiving towards breaking gender norms. However, this is a stereotype that is as unnatural and unjust as gender binaries and norms. To overlook the avenues of artistic explorations related to gender identities, which is deeply embedded within the Asian aesthetic culture, is to do the contemporary cultural platforms a great disservice. It dismisses a great opportunity for portraying the true human nature that is independent from socially constructed images and standards. Yiwen further shares her views and knowledge on Asia’s traditional arts, in which her inspirations for this project lie.
Asian Tradition as the Inspiration for ‘Untitled’
Apart from the geisha culture in 17th century Japan, were there other sources of inspiration that made you want to pursue this study about gender?
A: Yes. Guanyin of the Southern Sea made me realize that there actually have been discussions about the culture of genderfluidity in Asian society. ‘One of the most revered deities in Chinese Buddhism, Guanyin is a goddess of mercy, compassion, and unconditional love. Artspace Magazine states that ‘Before the Song period (960–1279), Guanyin was portrayed with a mustache and distinctively male features, but around the time of the carving of this sculpture, the mustache disappeared and such feminine features as breasts and a softer, rounder face were assumed. Also, my personal experience of wearing gender-neutral clothes and having short hair and thus not being associated with ‘real women’ by my traditional family is a motivation. It made me feel unaccepted and I wished to break the gender norms. Although I identify myself as a woman, I think the concept of genderfluidity will broaden people’s minds and make society more open and diverse when it comes to gender norms.
As a general aesthetic form, what can traditional Asian art culture offer to the creative industry that more mainstream art forms cannot? What makes it so special in your opinion?
A: It can provide a different aesthetic style and angle when talking about the gender issue. Because Asian culture and society are generally seen as more conventional and involving more stringent gender standards compared to the Western world, people don’t often connect Asian traditional arts to more modern opinions like genderfluidity. However, I wish to use it to make people more aware that in Asian cultures, even in the more ancient and traditional societies, there were and still are continuous discussions related to genderfluidity. I also want to make people aware that we can learn from history and tradition to develop a new and modern opinion. The traditional aesthetic elements can produce impactful visuals that will surprise the viewers who never expected the combination of an Asian tradition and the newly developing ideas about gender.
I noticed in the photos that the models are sometimes blindfolded. Is there a reason why you incorporated this feature in the photographs? I feel like there would be some sort of a symbolic meaning behind it.
A: Yes, the blindfold is like the rules within society. It covers people’s eyes from the moment they are born. With the social rules blinding us, we tend to forget our true identities as human beings, that are separate from being a female or a male. Also, people transgressing the binary gender norms can’t find their positions and identities in such a society; they will feel lost and helpless, as if their eyes were being covered, making them blind.
Also, please share with us what it’s like to encounter gender stereotypes, or to interact with people who attempt to break away from it, within the social context of Asia.
A: Taking China as an example, there are various ways in which people try to break the stereotype like various celebrities or Key Opinion Leaders (KOLs), such as Sida Jiang, a Chinese media creator, who posted photos where he wears a long skirt and makeup. It causes controversial discussions within the Chinese social media platforms, which shows how brave he was in expressing himself. The discussion is a good development- more and more people will notice and think about the issue of gender norms. Also, some charities and non-profit organizations of LGBTQ+ contribute, such as Beijing LGBT Centre and OutChina. They convey the more diverse and inclusive gender culture to the society through public media content and activities that help people find and accept their ideal identities without the restrictions of binary norms.
Yes, Asian societies tend to be more conservative. Yes, they may be more unforgiving towards social concepts that betray the standards and rules upon which their conservative society is built. Ironically though, their ancient traditions and aesthetic cultures tend to be much more in tune with the current discussions of gender, identity, and freedom. Yiwen speculates that this may be because ancient cultures were more aligned with the idea of the essence of the human and what is natural. Dividing genders and imposing specific characteristics upon them is, in fact, far from what they advocated for.
Photographs: Courtesy of Yiwen Zhang (@evenzzzhang on Instagram)