2021/22 MCAD–Jerome Fellow Interview: Shun Yong | Minneapolis College of Art and Design

2021/22 MCAD–Jerome Fellow Interview: Shun Yong

By Yuanrong Li on May 11, 2022
Color photo of a person in a living room knitting
Kit, 2017; Medium Archival Inkjet Print; Photo credit: Shun Yong

In this interview, Shun Yong reflects on his multidisciplinary practice that explores immigrants and marginalized communities to feel a sense of belonging and empowerment.

How does your family background and experience of working and living in two ethnically diverse countries, Malaysia and the United States, give you a unique understanding of issues such as immigration, refugees, and belonging?

When I was a kid I considered myself colorblind. It wasn’t until I was five that I learned that there are different races, because we did not speak the same language. My mother tongue is Cantonese. In primary school, I learned how to speak Malay, the national language of Malaysia, and was also required to speak Mandarin. Everything was taught in Malay until the 12th grade when the lessons changed from Malay to English. This early multilingual experience shaped my understanding of the connections and separations between language and identity.

It is very interesting to look at the identity topic in Malaysia. Some said why don’t you just call yourself Malaysian? Why do you have to include a “Chinese” when describing yourself as Malaysian? People will call you out when you describe yourself as Chinese Malaysian, they will say that you are not patriotic enough. I could write a whole book on this. 

For me, I understood more about the issues such as immigration, refugees, and belonging when I first arrived in the United States. I searched for my identity and found a sense of belonging by photographing people like me. 

Photo of a man standing in a field with a gardening/farming tool
Kim; 2019; 42" x 56"; Medium Archival Inkjet Print; Photo credit: Shun Yong

I find that most of your photographs are presented as portraits. Why is this type of presentation so important to you? How does it relate to the concepts you want your audience to understand?

Portraiture has been a way for me to understand my own identity and to tell the layered stories of the immigrant experience.  

For example, my photo series Occupations consists of roughly 35 portraits of immigrant workers set in the environments of their workplaces. This series started while I was searching for my identity back in Malaysia in 2016. My grandparents were brought to Malaysia by the British to work in the rubber plantation. When I moved to the US, I continued with this body of work as a way to further explore my identity in a new place. By documenting each worker’s specific job, the photos allow viewers a glimpse into their daily life and how labor has formed their identity. 

Through making portraits of immigrants, I got to know their stories intimately and I found that we are experiencing a very similar journey of adapting to a new country. Some of these subjects are my immigrant friends and some are strangers. I noticed that by documenting these people, they helped me to achieve a sense of belonging in my new home. I also hope that documenting immigrants and showing these images will help new immigrants adjust to their lives in a new place. 

Photograph of a person wearing a black tank top on a black background
David; 2022; 42" x 56"; Medium Archival Inkjet Print; Photo Credit: Shun Yong

What made you become a photographer after receiving your undergraduate degree in physics? I'm curious about that transition.

My undergraduate degree specialized in astrophysics. I romanticize the cosmos! Then I realized quantum mechanics, thermodynamics, electromagnetics, and optics were requirements so I never signed up for those. Soon after that I chose to divorce myself from physics and now I am happily married to photography, maybe? 

For me, operating the camera is not tough, but creating a cohesive series of work is challenging. I am appreciative of having met a lot of great artists along the way to help me through the obstacles.

You were awarded the MCBA/Jerome Book Arts Fellowship in 2021. Although your primary work is as a photographer, has this experience given you some new ideas about combining handmade paper with photographs or other installation possibilities?

Yes, the fellowship definitely generated a lot of new ideas. I consider myself an interdisciplinary artist. I not only take portraits, but I also make paper, build sculptures, and have worked on several installation projects with CarryOn Homes–a collaborative group of artists including Aki Shibata, Peng Wu, Preston Drum, and Zoe Cinel.

Right now, I am thinking of including two bodies of work in the MCAD–Jerome Exhibition. One would be handmade paper with photos printed on it alongside another body of work of portraits. I’m already stressing out on how to install these images. 

Photo of a hand on a black background

JW; 2022; 66" x 42"; Medium Archival Inkjet Print; Photo credit: Shon Yong

How has the COVID-19 pandemic and its subsequent effect on marginalized communities and interpersonal relationships impacted your work and practice, if at all? 

I stopped making work for a year due to Covid. As an outlet in dealing with the isolation, I started climbing. 

In September 2020, I ran into a group of Chinese climbers bouldering in the Twin Cities Bouldering Center. We clicked instantly, because we are Chinese and speak the same language. To me, the gym is a very unwelcoming place. Due to my anxiety, I did not want to spend my time alone in the gym. Things changed after I ran into the Chinese climbing community. They invited me to climb in the gym and outdoor together constantly. We bonded by traveling to different locations to climb. Believe it or not, I traveled to fifteen different state parks to climb in five months. Just a few months after beginning to climb, I realized that I no longer felt anxious. I learned how to focus when I climb and not to overthink. I then made use of this experience outside of climbing. Climbing has not only improved my mental and physical health, it allowed me to focus on making art again. Hence, I questioned myself, why am I not combining art making and climbing together, since the activities are important to me in my life. Climbing has traditionally been a very Caucasian/white sport, especially in Minnesota. As a minority within the climbing community, I am curious to understand why the Asian climbers got into this sport? I am also curious to learn of other positive changes that this sport has done to them mentally and physically. The last year-and-a-half with this group really allowed for a lot of self reflection on who I really am. In fact, most of the members of this new community ended up becoming my subjects for a new series of work titled C-H-F.

Photo portrait of a person on a black background

David; 2022; 42" x 56"; Medium Archival Inkjet Print; Shon Yong

Have you found an audience highly sympathetic to your work over the past few years? Can you share some examples of how viewers responded in ways that you did not expect? 

My intention is that the audience will sympathize with stories and people represented in my work. I hope the portraits will provide local residents an understanding of who we are and why we are here. When I first started working on the Occupation series, I thought of using the portraits to help new immigrants adapt to their life in the US. The longer I worked on this project, I became more self reflexive. I realized that my images captured the friendships I made and how their stories mirrored my own journey. 

My works are straight forward enough, and viewers could view things differently. So I never expect the viewer to look at my stuff in a different way. At least for now. 

Photo of a person at a tree

Rubber Tapper; 2017; 42" x 56"; Medium Archival Inkjet Print; Photo credit: Shon Yong

How has winning the MCAD–Jerome fellowship affected and/or changed your work? 

Winning the MCAD–Jerome fellowship has allowed me to increase the scale of my work. With the resources at MCAD, I am able to work with 4x5 cameras and create large sheets of handmade paper.     

If you could describe your work in one word, what would it be?

Dramatic, like me.