Yi Yin – Encounters
WORDS BY ALICE ZOO
“Will you miss the sunsets in Camberwell and Peckham when you move away?” - Yi Yin’s Encounters
In 2012, a study in Psychological Science suggested that important decisions should be made, if possible, in a second language. From a Wired article about the study: “Thinking in a second language reduced deep-seated, misleading biases that unduly influence how risks and benefits are perceived.” The study suggested that, in a second language, people are less averse to perceived or speculated losses. According to the same article, “communicating in a learned language forces people to be deliberate, reducing the role of potentially unreliable instinct.” Reliance on our native tongue causes us to follow our native thinking patterns, fettered as they are by emotionality or unconscious resonances inherited from years of learning to speak from our parents, from the culture that surrounds us, from television. Perhaps a second language strips away the possibility of going down those well-trodden paths, a limited ability to speak English actually facilitating a simple kind of engagement uncomplicated by poeticism or veiled meanings.
There’s an argument to be made for working in a second language. Beckett wrote in French; he said that “more and more my own language appears to me like a veil that must be torn apart in order to get at the things (or the Nothing-ness) behind it.” Xiaolu Guo’s first novel written in English begins with its narrator hardly able to speak the language, and her language develops over the course of the story, eloquent by its end. Jenny Zhang, a Chinese-American writer, titled her debut poetry collection ‘Dear Jenny, We Are All Find’, after her mother’s frequent solecism in emails. Elsewhere, Zhang has written about “the relishing of mistakes…The isolation, but also the community that mistakes afford us and force us into.” A lack of language in itself can be productive grounds to work from; the gaps can be filled with something else.
Such may be the case for Chinese photographer Yi Yin, who describes his own command of English as "not good”. During the summer of 2015, Yin moved to England from Shanghai and met the group of friends that would come to participate in his translingual, or perhaps rather supralingual, project, Encounters. Yin distributed sketchbooks to five friends — coming from international backgrounds and with varying levels of English themselves — without instruction; he waited for the project to lead itself, and during the course of a year the books were passed back and forth, filled with letters, drawings, photographs and watercolours and glued-in ephemera. The prevailing tone of the work is one of openness, simplicity and, above all, trust. The group record their small experiences of joy and interest, but also of sadness, regret, or disappointment; it is hard to imagine this particular kind of directness occurring via WhatsApp, or amongst a group of friends coming from a less culturally or linguistically diverse context. The fact that the notes are written by hand invites a kind of intimacy that a Messenger thread would be unable to replicate, and the subject matter itself is somehow more elemental. A question like “What is your favourite landscape?” is reminiscent of the kinds of conversations had with children, not only in its simplicity of expression, but also in its largeness. Its koan-like profundity is the unintended product of a lack of common language. Elsewhere, emotional pain is communicated with a similar lack of ornament, as when Yin tells a friend: “I miss my parents again.” These are adults forging relationships without the prevaricating murk of small-talk or bravado.
Just as the words found in the project are deliberate and ingenuous, the images are direct and intimate, circumventing the problem of uneven language via the viewfinder. We see Yin’s friends — Gwen, Jess, Lowri, Martina and Ollie — gazing across a landscape, or head tossed back in laughter; we see them at work, painting, or bleary-eyed in bed, the tungsten lamplight leaving it unclear whether it’s late at night or early in the morning. Yin’s photographic portraits are guileless and unguarded; the impression is one of glances exchanged naturally between friends, rather than a pose contrived for a particular purpose. There’s a view across a lake, an origami bird. The light is usually soft. In one of the pieces from the project, Yin uses the back of a torn brown envelope to record all the times he sees Martina cry. “I told you I will make notes when I see you cry,” he announces. The whole subsequent space of the envelope is filled with dates and records, reasons for crying unelaborated on.
This material spontaneity of Yin’s approach — along with that of his friends, for it’s important to note the extent to which this project is so thoroughly a collaboration — echoes the spontaneity of the project at large. Whatever material or medium that comes to hand will do, as with the torn brown envelope: if a camera is unavailable, an image can be recorded in the mind and painted later. In a message to Martina, a rainy inner-London crossing is rendered in black pen and warm colours; this rendering is, one would imagine, gentler and more inviting than a photograph would have been and, especially in this case, such an impression is preferable: “I know you don’t like central London. Because it makes you feel chaotic,” Yin writes alongside the watercolour. When photographs appear, they range from colour to black and white, from 35mm to medium format, following no particular thematic logic. The priority is the moment, or the occasion, or the feeling that occasioned the recording of an image; it is impossible to strategise a friendship for a careful and rigorous aesthetic. Instead, the aesthetic is rangy, informal, unconcerned.
What all of the work seems to amount to is — rather than a clever visual designed with a witness in mind — a textured experiment in communication. We can ask questions of one another designed to get at each other’s hearts; if words fail, then images can shore them up. Ultimately, the project seems to form its own language. It is a means of communication more than a record; it is a gerund, a coming-to-know. This approach provokes a kind of vulnerability uncommon in the ironic, dispassionate Twitter era, as when, in one example from the notebooks, a watercolour Chinese character is asterisked with the message “hope this says hello and I wrote it right.” Even a greeting can be equivocated to draw attention to its hope that the recipient will understand it as it is meant. The whole piece has this sense: that honesty of intention is preferable to neatness, that confidence is less important than respect for the other.
Yin is the kind of photographer always with a camera in hand, a true enthusiast. He seems to shoot without agenda, for the joy of seeing an image revealed, and the dark room is as enticing a place as the moment of photographing itself: the process is the reward. Encounters is a finished project, always intended only to represent the delicate period after meeting his new friends at university, and — friends established — the project came to a close. “Encounters project is one of the most beautiful projects I have done. Because it is pure,” he tells me via email. In another article about that 2012 Foreign-Language Effect study, the primary researcher said — in an unexpectedly poetic moment for a scientist describing his data — “if one asks oneself the classic question: Is it the head or the heart?, it seems that the foreign language reaches the heart.”
Yin ended up marrying Martina, the central character within the work, and who is depicted with the closest intensity; the woman whose crying Yin recorded on the back of the envelope. Initially, he had been unsure if she’d even want to be involved, had thought that perhaps she wasn’t interested, but she came to enjoy it alongside all of them, the photographer explains. The project was a way of learning about one another, about telling one another’s stories: “emotions without any conceal,” as Yin puts it.