Artist John Yuyi On Skewering the Post-Internet Economy

In less than a decade, the viral artist has transformed a side hustle into an art practice that skewers the internet’s instinct for self-commodification.

At age 23, Taiwanese artist John Yuyi went viral for the first of what would be many times. Then, it was for her dreamy swimsuit collection, Clay Project, released in 2014. By age 27, the young artist transitioned her bold fashion aesthetic into striking and playful photography that all but conquered the internet. Her work went viral again, landing her a collaboration with Gucci, a spot on Forbes’ 30 Under 30 list in 2018 and her first solo exhibition. Now, at 32, the New York-based artist is adding another buzzy project to her decorated career: a collaboration with Skateroom, an arts organization that combines skate culture and art history to champion social justice.

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The ‘All You See Is Me’ skate deck. JP Bottom

The recently released collaborative collection, which turns skate decks into canvases featuring Yuyi’s sleek and glossy photos, falls in neatly with the organization’s previous collabs featuring the work of Jeff Koons, Yoshitomo Nara, Andy Warhol and other acclaimed artists. Teetering between provocative advertisements, fashion editorials and unique portraiture, the decks delve into consumerism and identity in the post-internet age—themes that have underscored her work since her former fashion days.

Yuyi’s road to virality is a winding one. After graduating from Shih Chien University in Taipei with a degree in fashion design, she transitioned from fashion to fine art by accident. While working on Clay Project, her line of bubblegum-colored swimwear featuring images of her pottery in digital Dada-esque style, she was selling temporary tattoos of social media iconography.

‘I Knife You’, 2019. © John Yuyi

“I was promoting the swimsuit collection around the Facebook era, and Instagram was still quite niche,” Yuyi tells Observer. “I took cyber symbols and made them into temporary tattoos and put them on my back, then posted an image on Facebook, but that was only to promote my swimsuit collection.”

Still, the post garnered so much attention that Yuyi went viral again, sparking a new direction for her career. She shot the temporary tattoos on other subjects, sourcing models on Tinder or Instagram and covering them with the emblems of their digital profiles. At a time when influencer culture and social media were just starting to take off, the work became a prescient look at how what happens on the internet and who you are online doesn’t exist in a vacuum.

The temporary tattoo project felt not unlike an episode of Black Mirror where digital identities, online clout and follower count follow us, influencing how others treat us in real life. In Yuyi’s photos, subject and object become one, just as people become a brand—a commodity to be sold online.

It’s been nearly a decade since Yuyi began to shoot with temporary tattoos, and the distance from the project allows her to see how it inadvertently captured the fast-paced hype cycles we live by now. With the advent of digital platforms, she explains, “everyone got a ticket to become famous, to become relevant, but also you to be forgotten in the next second.” Such is the short lifespan of our hype-focused economy.

Yuyi points to the death of online platforms as an example: “I realized one day that all this social media will be irrelevant—which is true. Now, only Boomers use Facebook, and Snapchat no one really uses.”

Smoke me, 2019. © John Yuyi

Over time, the project has become an internet archive, where the platforms, people and things that mattered so much to us now feel nostalgic. In some ways, the project is a warning: things that were once cool easily become cringe.

If the first half of Yuyi’s art involved placing objects on people, the latter half, which the collection with Skateroom captures, does the opposite. She puts women, usually herself and usually nude, on objects. In Smoke Me, Yuyi transfers her body onto a series of cigarettes and captures them as they begin to burn. The merging of women and objects makes for a visual commentary on the objectification of women and the ways they’re exploited for marketing.

“It’s about consumer culture,” she says. “I was thinking a lot about how people did advertisements so differently in the past. Back then, the product and the face of the product itself weren’t so tied to one another. Now, it’s all micro-influencing, being so loyal to influencers who maybe only have 80,000 followers. What I feel now about that consumer culture is that a lot of things are approachable. You can be the receiver and you can also be the provider in this advertisement system.”

Narcissism, 2019. © John Yuyi

While there’s a certain surreal, dystopian quality to the sleek decks, there’s also a sense of power. Here, Yuyi and the naked women she shoots are unapologetically sultry, staring down the lens of the camera. For Asian women in particular, their likeness on objects adds another way to read the work as a visualization of how Asian women in America are often fetishized—an experience Yuyi didn’t have until moving to New York from Taipei in her 20s.

In her work, Asian bodies replace and become images of desire—but these are images that they can control. Yuyi, who often had to fight brands at the beginning of her career to be both the photographer and model, owns her image and body as she reclaims her sexual objectification. In one piece, she projects a naked mirror selfie onto a knife. The title: “I knife you.”

In less than a decade, Yuyi has transformed a side hustle into an art practice that skewers the internet’s instinct for self-commodification and the objectification of women inherent within. Throughout this time, she’s thought about post-internet misogyny and her own suppressive upbringing.

“Being naked is a way to express my anger,” says Yuyi. There’s certainly a lot to be angry about.

Artist John Yuyi On Skewering the Post-Internet Economy