Yuet Yean Teo’s beautiful prints combine influences from Eastern and Western artistic traditions to explore her travels, feelings and experiences. She brings the symbolism and spontaneity of her Chinese brush paintings to her intaglio prints, working mainly in etching, water-based woodcut (Mokuhanga) and monotype.
How did you get into printmaking?
My interest in printmaking can be traced back to my college time in Singapore. A close friend of mine was a printmaking student, whereas I was in the painting department. I used to watch her in the printmaking studio, and I was very fascinated by those techniques. But I did not start making prints until I studied my MA in printmaking at Buckinghamshire New University. During the MA course, I was based in the London Print Studio, and this is where I learned most of my printmaking techniques.
What printmaking techniques do you use?
I mainly work in etching, water-based woodcut (Mokuhanga) and monotype. I particularly love the effect from aquatint etching and sugar lift. This etching technique allows a more painterly and intuitive style, where my skills in Chinese brush painting can be used. I use a Chinese brush to make the mark, as the water-soluble sugar solution does not harm the brush, thus combining elements of Eastern and Western artistic tradition.
Similarly, I like to work with water-based woodcut (Mokuhanga). It is the oldest printmaking technique and it is from Asia. There is a sense of connection between the Chinese brush painting and Mokuhanga. The woodcut effect may be a bit more rigid compared to sugar lift, but a painterly effect can also be achieved. I also like monotype because of the painterly look.
I continue to explore and learn different printmaking techniques. Being in the West allows me to get first-hand information about intaglio techniques more easily, as they have been widely used in the West and have a long history in Europe.
You have a beautiful series featuring figures swinging over landscapes and landmarks. Where did that idea come from? Why has it become a favourite subject?
My work has always been autobiographical. It is a visual exploration of my feelings and a reflection of where my life is at any given moment. It gives the audience an inside view of my mind and life. I document and explore the countries and places I have lived and travelled, as well as capture the moment and the people I have encountered and touched. I use a girl on a swing to depict myself.
The swinging figures in my pieces are very active, they contort and flex their body to include the pendulum movement. They are all very involved in keeping that momentum going. They are inspired by my own experience of moving around from countryside to town, town to city, and country to country. I take these environments and turn them into a ‘bird’s-eye view’ through drawing, monoprint, and etching, looking at the pattern and layout of these spaces.
I wish to observe these places from the different perspective of a foreign immigrant by adding the image of myself swinging above them, trying to fit the unexpected behaviour into our unwelcome foreigner environment of everyday life, and see how the environment reacts and responds to that external influence.
There's a real sense of emotion in the swinging figures.
It was one of my favourite games when I was young. Once we grow up, we get busy with household responsibilities and earning money. But when we look back at our childhood, remembering the games we used to play as kids, we cherish the moments and it brings a sweet smile to our faces. The joy that we experienced during our younger times cannot be experienced by this generation, as everyone is growing up playing on smart phones and tablets.
We learn something from every game. Some of those games teach us how to live. What we earn, what we lose, why we lose, life's ups and downs, these are all things related to these games, which are suddenly obsolete from the new generation. I just try to introduce our old and traditional games to the new generation and take them to that magical world so they can experience the same joy that we used to get while playing. I try to bring our childhood memories back to our minds.
You often use a circular shape for your prints. Why do you like to use that shape?
I use the circular shape as a symbol of unity. I also want to express my experience of moving around and the feeling of restlessness – all circular objects are restless and have a natural instability.
I am obsessed with circular shapes. In traditional Chinese beliefs, the circle represents the sky and the square represents the land. Thus, ‘Earth’ is represented by a square and ‘Heaven’ by a circle. In Chinese, this is expressed as ‘Tian Yuan Di Fang’ (Chinese simplified: 天圆地方), in which ‘Tian Yuan’ means Heaven, represented by a circle, and ‘Di Fang’ is Earth, represented by a square. This also relates to the idea of Yin and Yang.
Is mixing different artistic traditions and elements something you aim for in your work? Why do you like to do that?
I was born and raised in Malaysia, a multi-ethnic society and post-British colonial country.
I love both Eastern and Western cultures and philosophies, so I aim to bring these two elements into my artistic creations. Also, the art training I received in traditional Chinese ink painting and Western oil painting will influence each other, naturally.
The "Swing" series of prints was both inspired by and based on Chinese ideology and Western art forms.
You studied both Chinese and Western painting – how does that affect your prints?
My background as a trained Chinese brush painter helps me access the unconscious yet sensorily acute state in which the work is made.
The aim of the traditional Chinese painter is to capture not only the outer appearance of a subject, but its inner essence as well – its energy, life force, spirit.
The freedom of the brush marks on the paper is very exciting for me. With a few strokes of a Chinese brush, your subject will come to life, and the viewer is invited to complete the image in his or her mind. The subject portrayed will often have symbolic meaning, and may be prepared for a special occasion. It is also a response by the artist to a particular time or situation. It will not usually be a faithful rendition, but more an impression, capturing a mood or a moment in time, together with the spirit, or “qi”, of the subject.
Materially, some of the works are part of a western tradition, while conceptually they are rooted in eastern philosophy and Chinese aesthetic norms. My work inspired by the Chinese Yin and Yang theory, which lies somewhere between the abstract and the figurative, the real and the virtual, east and west, presence and absence.
My work is rendered using the traditional Chinese perspective of high distance, presenting a view from a lower vantage point, while some works use the Western technique of foreshortening.
In Chinese painting, the background of the painting is normally left white as it is, according to Taoism’s aesthetic ‘qi’ (Chinese simplified: 气), which means energy, an inner flowing spirit. It creates a void and illusion in contrast with the black ink in Chinese painting.
By using an eclectic style, I can bring these great methods and philosophies from the West and East together.
You use a lot of lovely handmade papers for your prints. What role does the paper play in the finished artwork?
I particularly love the technique of chine-collé, in which the image is transferred onto a surface that is bonded onto a heavier support in the printing process. One purpose is to allow the printmaker to print on a much more delicate surface, such as Japanese paper, Chinese paper or linen, which pulls finer details off the plate. Another purpose is to provide a background colour behind the image that is different from the surrounding backing sheet.
As most of my prints are monotypes, I prefer to use this way of adding colour rather than using coloured ink, in order to keep the simplicity.
I usually create the image of the work first then decide what kind of paper to edition. Most of the chine-collé pieces I’ve made are printed on handmade Chinese rice paper or “Xuan Paper”, which I use for Chinese ink painting and calligraphy. I chose to use the paper which I’m most familiar with, and is also kind of a link to the influence of my indigenous background.
What have you been working on recently?
During the pandemic, I have not been able to access the print studio, so I have focused on woodcut and printing with a baren (a tool for hand-burnishing prints). I have been experimenting with printing on different handmade papers and silks, and trying out the difference between water-based inks and oil-based inks.
Yean’s prints are available at Greenwich Printmakers, 1a Greenwich Market, SE10 9HZ. See her artist's page to find out more about Yean and visit the gallery to see more of her beautiful work.