At the 2024 edition of Art Rotterdam, Migrant Bird Space, an art foundation and gallery based in Berlin and Beijing, is presenting the work of Luo Yang. She was born in the 1980s in the Liaoning Province in China and her work is a unique combination of carefully staged portraits with a raw, blurry, snapshot-like aesthetic. These photos reveal the strength, vulnerability, and inner life of her subjects, mostly young people growing up in a rapidly changing China. She portrays these young individuals in such a way that highlights that what makes them unique — their style, appearance, tattoos, quirky gaze, or personality.
For the artist, this deep dive into the lives of others is also a way to better understand her own life. For that reason, her work has both an autobiographical and a societal aspect, reflecting a kind of local universality within the context of China. Some people, including her friends, she has followed for a long time, showing a certain evolution or growth — a growth that mirrors her own. Additionally, she immortalises friends of friends, strangers she encounters on the street, or people she meets on the internet.
In her ongoing central series “GIRLS” (2017-), Yang captures the nuances and complexity of being a woman in contemporary China, exploring themes such as youth, the naked body, and femininity. She photographs women from different generations and backgrounds. These women are vulnerable yet self-aware and innately cool. Together, they embody a culture that deviates from dominant conservative expectations and stereotypes. It's important to note that her intention is not to incorporate Western expectations. In the West, for instance, Chinese art is often viewed through a Western gaze, based on certain ideas about what China and its people look like. In a 2018 interview with METAL Magazine, the artist noted that “people in China see my photos as an honest record of girls’ lives, simple as they are. Whereas in the West, my works are inevitably interpreted from a political or feminist perspective, neither of which is my intention.” At the same time, her photos also show a rawer and less polished image than, for example, the K-pop stars who are popular worldwide, including in China. In 2017, ten years after starting the series, Yang published the monograph GIRLS.
Luo Yang, Cheng Zi, 2017, Migrant Bird Space
Characteristic of Yang's work is her ability to build an intimate bond with her subjects. This connection and empathy are clearly visible in her sensitive photos, where models often look directly into the camera: a direct, candid, and almost reciprocal exchange between subject and photographer. Her characters are often nude, but this is not something the photographer asks or requires of her subjects. Rather, it’s the natural result of the trust that develops between the photographer and the person she captures. This is further reinforced by the fact that these people are often photographed at home or in another familiar place.
Yang uses photography as a means to capture shared emotions, worries and life experiences, imbuing her images with an ambiguous depth that is not immediately discernible. In a 2016 interview with IGNANT, Yang stated that “by shooting them, I understood their life better and it made my own world bigger and wider. We might have different values and world views, but what we have in common are a fragility and braveness inside of us. We face the world with our sincerity.”
In her more recent series “Youth” (2019-), Yang focuses on younger generations growing up in a globalizing (and even faster-changing) China. In this series, she explores gender, identity, and the personal growth of people born in the 1990s and early 2000s. Yang's portraits offer a rare glimpse into the inner lives of these young people: not just young women, but also young men, and young gender-fluid and transgender people. In doing so, she questions prevailing gender norms and highlights a certain diversity among young Chinese people.
Yang studied graphic design at the Lu Xun Academy of Fine Arts in Shenyang. In 2022, she started the Cité internationale des Arts residency program in Paris. Yang divides her time between China and Europe and has exhibited her work all over the world. In 2012 she was praised by none other than Ai Weiwei as one of the "rising stars of Chinese photography" (in an interview with Statesmen). Shortly thereafter, Yang displayed her work in his group exhibition 'FUCK OFF 2' (2013) at the Groninger Museum in the Netherlands. In 2018, she was included in the BBC's ‘100 WOMEN’ list, and a year later she was nominated for a C/O Berlin Talent Award and won a Jimei x Arles Women Photographer's Award. Currently, her work is on display in the ‘NUDE’ exhibition at Fotografiska in Berlin.
During Art Rotterdam (1 - 4 February, Van Nelle Fabriek), Luo Yang's work is presented by Migrant Bird Space in the Solo/Duo section.