Qianyue Chen's ongoing series centers on ubiquitous traffic cones (cones), exploring the often-overlooked narratives they hold and the evolving interplay between human society and nature. This exploration spans various media, with cones serving as the focal point of her MFA thesis. In this casual conversation with Qianyue, we aim to uncover the stories behind her works and her creative process.
Cone (Inside Page)
From minority to inanimate objects, Qianyue focuses on the unexplored aspects of things and the hidden perspectives to be told.
Yuxuan Wei: As you said in your personal statement and during the Design Inquiry Presentation, you feel that there are a lot of everyday things like cones that are overlooked for their special functions. Could you expand on that?
Qianyue Chen: To me, the ubiquity of overlooked objects like cones represent micro-narratives submerged in a grand symbolic order. These things not only serve a functional purpose in life but also quietly narrate stories of resilience, adaptation, and transformation. They encourage us to rediscover the delicate cultural textures attached to the vast artificial landscapes and to re-appreciate the world we inhabit.
Yuxuan Wei: Did you ever feel similarly about other objects before?
Qianyue Chen: Initially, I focused more on people, especially women in traditional Chinese society. My greatest inspiration was my mother, who brought my two sisters and me into this world. My undergraduate Final Year Project was titled "Pregnant Vase"*. The term "vase" carries a metaphorical meaning in the Chinese context, referring to someone who appears beautiful on the outside but is empty and fragile on the inside. Society praises motherhood as selfless and noble, but beneath this nobility lies the physical and psychological trauma and pain endured by pregnant women and mothers without expecting anything in return. During this project, I interviewed many mothers and discovered that their lives were still affected by the trauma of pregnancy. What made me reflect even more was that many mothers no longer considered themselves beautiful: distorted bodies, stretch marks, surgical scars all made them feel further away from society's definition of "feminine beauty." Initially, I saw this as the result of traditional Chinese societal and cultural norms imposed on women, but this cold term concealed the selflessness and resilience that mothers actively chose. At my graduation design exhibition, I placed a guestbook next to the "Pregnant Vase," and many young women expressed words of shock and fear regarding pregnancy and childbirth. However, my intention was not to scare them; it was simply to highlight that when society associates maternal symbols solely with lofty and selfless praise, the individual choices of mothers can be reduced to the "you should" under the shackles of maternal symbolism.
Temporal Resilience (I-IV)
Qianyue excels in observing subjects by scrutinizing projections, which encompass more than just shadows. She focuses on the object's material and behavior in other manifestations, skillfully uncovering its conceptual core—a subtle and refined form of observation.
Yuxuan Wei: You mentioned that you want to talk about neglected topics, in terms of your Cones series, what topics do the cones present? What are the narratives it carries?
Qianyue Chen: They embody the untold narratives that surround us. As previously mentioned, they encapsulate the enduring process of transformation and the intricate, harmonious bond between humanity and the natural world. My first encounter with one of these cones (Temporal Resilience I) didn't occur on a construction site, where they typically serve as cautionary markers, but rather on a discarded couch strewn along Newbury Street. Since then I've been paying attention to the cones around me. I've become attuned to their various shapes and forms. For example, I watch the cones on my way to school every day. Through prolonged observation, I've come to discern the consistency within their cylindrical design, despite their ever-changing physical conditions. What once belonged beneath a house may find itself relocated elsewhere the next day, evolving from pristine to folded in half. Some have been flattened beneath the wheels of passing vehicles, wedged between cars and fences.
Remarkably, time leaves its mark on these cones as well. Some lose their bright colors from baking in the summer sun, and I spotted one under our house with its tip chopped off. In summer, grass sprouts from within it, while in winter, it lies beneath snow, the hollow interior filling with snow or meltwater. These signs of the passage of time have deepened my connection to the city's streets, underscoring the power dynamic between a man-made object and the forces of nature.
Often discarded carelessly, cones gradually integrate with their surroundings.They persist, becoming one with nature. Their surface bears witness to the ever-shifting imprints of time, even as they exhibit remarkable resilience. Cones can withstand vehicular impacts, human actions, and extreme weather. They have the resilience to smooth out the marks that the world has carved into them. It is in these often-overlooked details that I find a profound emotional resonance, refreshing my personal journey through life.
Yuxuan Wei: This is your unique perspective on the city.
Qianyue Chen: Yes. These artifacts aren't solely controlled by their creators, deployers, or even traffic authorities; they're often shifted by various individuals, both authorized and unauthorized.
Yuxuan Wei: Urban settings make cones ubiquitous, evoking roadwork and city development. Does your surroundings shape your perceptions? Do you get inspiration from objects beyond cityscapes?
Qianyue Chen: I don't consciously select observing objects based on the cityscape. But when it comes to non-urban objects, I especially like plant shadows. Often, we overlook trees while walking, but their branches' shadows dancing in sunlight captivate me. These shadows serve as both ground textures and reflections of a plant's vitality. I don't know how to describe the feeling in words, but it’s soothing.
Cone, Book & Earring Design
Various mediums serve distinct roles within a series. Some act as introductions, like business cards, hinting at the subject's existence. As Qianyue explores deeper into her topic, her research enhances her observational acumen, intensifying her connection with the subject matter.
Yuxuan Wei: You have created many different forms of work on the theme of cones, how do you think these forms present your understanding of the object from different perspectives?
Qianyue Chen: I've done books, bookmarks, posters and earring filters on Instagram so far. Books are a labor-intensive yet comprehensive medium for diving deep into the core concepts of my project. Within the pages of a book, I have the space to offer detailed explanations, categorized meanings, and vivid visual representations. Bookmarks and posters share a visual allure, aiming to capture attention and serve as daily reminders of my work. These tangible, accessible items provide a gateway for those intrigued to dive deeper by reading my publication. Instagram filter, on the other hand, offers a broader reach and interactivity. They enable more people to engage with my project without requiring them to purchase anything. I aim to strike a balance between serious academic exploration and playful expression, offering a spectrum of mediums to cater to diverse audiences. While not everyone may grasp the specific meaning I attach to cones, my primary goal is to evoke enjoyment and curiosity. Ultimately, if people find it engaging and enjoyable, that's a win.
Yuxuan Wei: Did your mindset change as you continued to create new works themed with cones?
Qianyue Chen: Definitely. I didn't overthink it at the beginning. I simply wanted to make my work accessible and engage in discussions with a broader audience. As the project evolved, research, interviews, and studying other artists and fields became integral. These experiences honed my perspective on cones. Initially, I hadn't considered their seasonal transformations, but through this journey, I noticed the color fading, grass growth, and snow accumulation. Creation and observation have become intertwined. What started as perceiving a single point has expanded into seeing multiple points and even entire surfaces, enriching my artistic practice.
"Invisible Ubiquity" in Sipping Room by Breeze
Creators shouldn’t isolate themselves; industry expertise and fresh perspectives from other fields are equally valuable. The location and format of an exhibition also determine the visitors, so let's appreciate both traditional galleries and nouveau exhibition spaces.
Yuxuan Wei: This question is about presentation. Taking the Cones book as an example, what is the difference between putting it in a book fair and displaying it in a cafe?
Qianyue Chen: I've had a long-standing exhibition at a local cafe, and I occasionally visit it. People from various backgrounds stop by, flipping through my books and reading my statement. Over time, the exhibition attracted a diverse audience spanning different ages and professions, which is a notable contrast to book fairs, primarily attended by design professionals or enthusiasts. The cafe's accessibility allowed everyone to engage with my work, fostering discussions with individuals from varied fields like writers, photographers, and entrepreneurs. While they might not have in-depth knowledge of design, that's not a prerequisite for meaningful conversations. These people bring unique perspectives to the table, offering fresh insights into the topic. I cherish these encounters as they enable me to explore design-related issues from new angles.
Yuxuan Wei: Do you prefer showing your work in a place like a cafe or a buyer's store than in a gallery?
Qianyue Chen: I don't think so. These are two ways of presenting that appeal to different groups of people. My aim is to engage not only with people in related fields but also with outsiders who bring uninhibited perspectives. It's like when we were designing for our undergraduate thesis. We immersed ourselves in our studios, surrounded by peers from the same discipline. But when your work is displayed in the open space of the school, people who have no idea what you're doing will come and look at it, and provide feedback that is different from what you've been working on. It's especially important for creative people not to stay absorbed in their own world. Having said that, exhibiting in non-traditional spaces like cafes, I believe, is an innovative and pragmatic strategy. Such settings broaden accessibility, enabling diverse audiences to encounter and interact with art, allowing cross-disciplinary dialogues that cultivate a richer understanding of artistic endeavors.
Yuxuan Wei: You know there are DJs in Japan who play music in convenience stores. This kind of space is actually more relaxed and welcoming than nightclubs or music festivals, and any passerby can enjoy a moment.
Qianyue Chen: Yes, that's an excellent example.
Yuxuan Wei: Would you consider exhibiting your Cone series in other forms in the future?
Qianyue Chen: In the long run, I’d like to try traditional forms of exhibitions like in galleries. However, I’m also open to other platforms. In fact, I just received a confirmation letter for an exhibition themed with time. The three photographs I submitted are the cones we talked about that change over time—whether it's seasonal or geographical. The exhibition space was similar to a glass window. There was no way for people to enter it, only to look at it from the street.
Yuxuan Wei: What do you think is the difference between a window exhibition and an ordinary exhibition?
Qianyue Chen: Window displays have limitations—you can't interact with the exhibited items as you would with a book or audio recording. I don't know if people will pay attention to this kind of artwork hanging in the window. Maybe people will just pass by. But the good thing is that it's open 24/7 and there's no time limit on visiting. A lot of people like to look around when they walk. I like to look around. This format increases the chances of people encountering the works as they go about their daily routines compared to a hidden gallery. My aim is also always to bring this subject matter into view. I like its uniqueness and hope that this uniqueness can be noticed by others. I appreciate its uniqueness and hope others will notice it too.
*Traditional Chinese society believes that women must achieve their self-value through childbirth, but at the same time, society also has strict requirements on women's appearance and body. In social ideals, women's bodies should be as slim as a vase, with smooth and flawless skin. But I found through research that most women perceived the pregnant body to be out of their control and as transgressing the socially constructed ideal, against which they tried to protect their body image satisfaction.
This book is an excerpt from my interviews with women who have experienced pregnancy. I hope the audience can understand the harm of pregnancy to women through the book and jointly explore the relationship and conflict between these harms and social demands.
INTERVIEWER: YUXUAN WEI
CURATOR: KE ZHANG, WANTONG YAO, CHENYU LIN
EDITOR: WANTONG YAO, YUXUAN WEI, CHENYU LIN
GRAPHIC DESIGNER: YUXUAN WEI
Qianyue Chen (b. Guangdong, China) is a Boston-based artist and designer. She focuses on the ubiquitous but invisible individuals in social life, dedicates herself to shedding light on the neglected ones through her works, illuminating an intimate space for their implicit but dazzling self-manifestation.