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Untangling the divergent worlds of illustrator Yang Liu

STIR interviews Yang Liu, an illustrator who highlights the distinctions between cultures, genders, and demographics around the world through simple yet hard-hitting pictograms

by Rahul KumarPublished on : Oct 03, 2022

An image is worth a thousand words. For that matter, anything communicated visually breaks the barriers of literacy and culture. People from many walks of life can quickly relate to visual imagery. Yang Liu creates pictograms – operating at the intersection of art, design, statistics, and illustration. She sources from her own experiences and observations, being Chinese by birth, German by choice, and someone who has travelled to and lived in many countries, encountering various cultures. Her work communicates disparities in approach and understanding of everyday situations. Hard-hitting and often humorous, the Chinese designer’s images provide for multiple vantage points.

East meets West, Digital Illustration, Yang Liu  | STIRworld
East meets West, Digital Illustration Image: Courtesy of the artist

Born in Beijing, China, Liu studied at the University of Arts, Berlin. She worked as a designer in Singapore, London, Berlin, and New York. In 2004 she founded her own design studio, in addition, she has taught at numerous universities in Germany and beyond, most recently as a professor at the BTK University of Applied Science, Berlin.

Man Meets Woman, Digital Illustration, Yang Liu | STIRworld
Man Meets Woman, Digital Illustration Image: Courtesy of the artist

I speak to Yang Liu on her practice and recent books she published under the ‘…meets’ series.

Rahul Kumar: Are you an illustrator by training? How did you conceive of your iconic collection of visuals comparing and contrasting complex Eastern and Western cultures through simplistic images?

Yang Liu: I have studied Communication design at University of the Arts, Berlin. The subject illustration, graphic design, photography, animation were all parts of our studying of communication design. Pictograms are one of the oldest used tools by humans to document and communicate. Using pictogram was for me a natural possibility to help people from different languages and cultural backgrounds to understand the content in a more direct way and possibly start communication. By the book, East meets West, which is the first book of the ‘meets’ series, was primarily a personal diary of my many daily situations of me as a Chinese versus me as a German. Especially between East and West, there is a language barrier on top of cultural differences, therefore I chose pictograms to address content in a better understandable way.

Today meets Yesterday, Digital Illustration, Yang Liu | STIRworld
Today meets Yesterday : Breakfast, Tax Evasion, Digital Illustration Image: Courtesy of the artist

Rahul: Is your work based on your perceptions and understanding of the cultures, or, are there true ‘infographics’ that are based on research and data to support?

Yang: The images are not classical infographics, that are solely reflecting an existing data, but rather a visual form to put daily situations or circumstances into new contexts with pictograms. The content of my books is mainly based on personal experiences, observations, and conversations with my surroundings. The books are rather using pictogram as my visual language, such as an author using words. Data mainly expresses a single aspect from a pre-giving condition, under which the data was collected. Putting existing situations without judgement into a context on the other hand can create a wider open space of possibilities, interpretations, and perspectives.

Big meets Little, Digital Illustration, Yang Liu | STIRworld
Big meets Little, Digital Illustration Image: Courtesy of the artist

Rahul: Do you travel extensively or study social psychology to arrive at the theme that you depict in each of your work?

Yang: I have lived in eight countries for a long period of time. And travelled to over 50 countries. My inspirations are coming from observations and personal experiences of daily life from all places I have been to or lived at. Partly also from many brief to deep conversations, I have had all over the world with many people from very different backgrounds. I love to interact with people wherever I am, and I enjoy listening to their stories and their perspectives. They are often perspectives or views that challenge my own beliefs; sometimes they are difficult to understand. These conversations inspire me to research the historical background or the cultural contexts. Over the years I have met many wonderful, inspiring people and had the opportunity to learn many unbelievable stories at each place I have been to. This has helped me a lot to be able to see the world and many situations from a different angle and perspective. And at the end, all this has helped me to understand the world, many cultures in different dimensions.

Europe meets USA, Digital Illustration, Yang Liu | STIRworld
Europe meets USA: Security, Risk, Patriotismus, Patriotism, Digital Illustration Image: Courtesy of the artist

Rahul: It is natural for a lot of your work to be critical. Although there is an element of satire and humour, would you agree that you are ‘judgemental’ in your work when comparing two worlds, that are separate genders, generations, or cultures?

Yang: My books, even though with two opposite ideas, are not divided by gender, generation or culture. They solely represent a perspective. I feel the best example is my first book as it shows the two sides of my own self. It does not mean I have to act one way or the other. But it provides the viewer with more possibilities to interpret situations. I sometimes behave more Chinese, sometimes more German. And I am still one person. The same is with gender, I was looking into two perspectives, so that we can understand many situations, without a need to divide them. Among many indigenes tribes, there are 5 to 7 genders. The one who is born with many gender identities would have a preference to lead the tribe, as this person will have all the perspectives to understand all kinds of people better. My books are about representing multiple perspectives of many themes that we are surrounded with in daily lives. I aim to provide a small contribution towards a better understanding between people and hopefully a conversation starter. The reason to have contrasting images is exactly to not be judgemental, to not express an absolute view, rather present possibilities and keep it open for individual readers to observe and have their own views and position with each of my illustrations.

Europe meets USA, Digital Illustration, Yang Liu  | STIRworld
Europe meets USA, Digital Illustration Image: Courtesy of the artist

Rahul: Lastly, I personally feel that your practice is a unique blend of art and design. What are your views about this?

Yang: I would agree. It is a blend of these two or more subjects, although art and design have many overlaps with each other and also other disciplines. My works move between subjects depending on the theme and context. It is not important to define it as one or another category, I am glad to be able to move in between the fields. This will keep changing in the future. The possibility of change is the challenge and at the same time also the inspiration for my further projects.

What do you think?

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