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Lan Florence Yee

Destabilising “Chinatown” Narratives with Text and Embroidery



"A Legacy of Ethnography" by Lan Florence Yee

Toronto-based artist Lan Florence Yee’s work centres on the fusion between text and labour-intensive creation. Yee’s art presents a stumbling block to linear narratives of intergenerational knowledge. Through the intensive process of embroidering text onto fabric, Yee showcases experiences of dead ends, futility, failure and repetition. It seeks to deromanticize queer and racialized experiences. As both a visual artist and curator of Chinatown Biennial,  a digital exhibit, Yee explores the purpose of taking a closer examination into what we think we know.

sM | Your recent works that challenge racialized and gendered expectations often involve the intersection of text 

and embroidery textile. How did you arrive at this unique cross-section, and what other possibilities would you like to explore with it?

LFY ── I come to text mostly through the media of signage, templates, and forms. They are everywhere and yet invisible to those who have normalised the ways they guide people’s behaviour. Everything from the font, size, colour, placement, but especially the repetition, are taken for granted. Growing up in Montreal as a trilingual person, the hierarchy of language was a prominent feature in my environment.

"Proof: Community is Easy to Romanticize Darren Rigo" by Lan Florence Yee

At the same time, I was doing research into early Cantonese history in so-called Canada. From the nineteenth century onwards, the conditions of economic and political survival for Cantonese migrants were tied to their labour. As “hard work” became a measurement of value, I got interested in the contradictions of recognition and desirability. I became interested in “working” through the restrictive belonging we may seek from labour, language, and family with hand embroidery and other kinds of intensive creation processes.

Through embroidery, the text that I add onto fabric becomes texture. It mirrors the embodiment of my process by logging the time spent with the object. That heavy marker of time narrows the chasm I often feel between myself and the viewer, who spends a relatively short moment in front of it. It’s a willfully inconvenient method of working because I want to slow down.

"Proof" Detail

sM | Along with Arezu Salamzadeh, you co-founded the Chinatown Biennial in 2020. What differences and similarities between being an artist and a curator inspired your journey into the latter?

LFY ── The Chinatown Biennial is part actual biennial and part parody. Doing both at the same time needs the consideration of curation for ourselves and other artists at the same time as keeping in mind the intentions of emerging arts in the uncertain landscape that is “Toronto.”

"The Artist's Studio" by Lan Florence Yee

The large-scale, international events of biennials have their historical roots in the 19th and 20th centuries’ World Fairs, hosted by colonial empires that demonstrated the reach of their annexing powers and wealth. Similarly, they are now synonymous with art world establishment, status, and multinational sponsorship. By using the prized label of a “biennial,” we want to question for whom we reserve such titles. We were inspired by a legacy of institutional critique that involves the creation of alternatives, both through playful mimicry and transformative reimaginings. This is why the Chinatown Biennial’s inaugural theme was “furtive.” Biennials generally have a default of grandiosity; in contrast, we wanted to encourage the artists to ask themselves: If a tree falls in the forest, but no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?

Lan Florence Yee

The roles of artist and curator should be bound by an awareness of place. In our case, Chinatowns and other ethnic enclaves are often maligned as decrepit and dirty (a caricature which has worsened with the pandemic). However, they are also tokenized as festival spaces and venues of touristic entertainment. Rather than contributing to Chinatown’s perceived defaults as both archaic and exotic, the Chinatown Biennial aims to highlight a complex web of narratives tied to these neighbourhoods. They are sites on Indigenous lands, sites of labour movements, mutual aid, sex work, undocumented lives, fights against rapid gentrification, and so much more.

Arezu and I are currently thinking that the 2022 version of the Chinatown Biennial will be a retrospective publication about the 2020 one. We want to prioritise our current goals of slowing down, reflecting, and seeking humbler ambitions for contemporary art.


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