Yuqing Zhu is a Chinese American artist, writer, and Ph.D. student in neuroscience at the University of Chicago. Using materials including pencil, chiyogami paper, origami paper, and magazine cut-outs, Zhu creates colorful self-portraits that examine the nature of identity and culture. Neocha spoke with Zhu to learn more about her life, art, and studies. Check out the conversation below.
Neocha: As a neuroscience student, how do you balance your art with your academic studies?
Zhu: Before beginning my program, someone told me that finding a hobby as soon as possible is the best way to keep sane. Luckily for me, I already had something. I think the key to finding balance was by assigning equal importance to both art and science. It’s truly a matter of mindset. I’m serious enough about neuroscience to be part of a five-year-plus Ph.D. program, so it’s quite a struggle to match that level of dedication in my art! I may need to spend more time in lab or in lecture, simply due to the nature of the work, but I try to think about and create art consistently as well.
Some days I recognize that I’ve been neglecting creating art for too long. On those days I simply put down my science and draw. This usually rejuvenates my work on the science side as well. Scientific research can devolve into a lot of drudgery and grunt work but doing something creative reminds me to think broadly and reassess where I’m at. My most inspired periods in the lab usually match up with my most productive periods at the easel.
Neocha: What are some of the parallels between art and neuroscience?
Zhu: I’ve had a lot of people ask me this question, and I’m not sure if I can give a satisfactory answer even to myself! Here’s my shot at it: art and science are both parts of an abstract search for the balance between beauty and complexity. Self-portraiture and neuroscience are both parts of an abstract search of the core of one’s identity beyond one’s own biases.
I adore complexity. It wasn’t always obvious that the complex system I wanted to study was the brain. I used to, and still do actually, love things like M. C. Escher’s prints and delight in the extremely dense inkwork of Edward Gorey and more recently of Manabu Ikeda. Complex interactions in anything from ecology to musical scores are still fascinating to me.
A lot of times neurobiology gives you extremely elegant solutions to complex problems. How do we hear? How do entire nervous systems develop from embryonic stages into adulthood? How can we sense things like temperature, and how do we perceive things like colors? When systems like these come to be understood and explained, we realize how logically elegant they are! That doesn’t mean the solutions are simple or straightforward or even the most efficient, but nonetheless, they work, and I find them beautiful! A large part of the time we don’t know the full answer yet. For me, the process for finishing a work of art is the same as for finding a piece of evidence in the framework of a scientific theory.
我崇拜复杂性。以前我没搞清楚原来自己一直想研究的复杂系统就是大脑。我以前（现在也仍然）很喜欢M. C. Escher的版画，Edward Gorey以及最近很喜欢的池田学（Manabu Ikeda）他们那些极其细腻的钢笔画。从生态学到乐谱，任何事物间复杂的相互作用对我来说都充满魅力。
Neocha: Expanding on that, are there any other similarities between the creative process for art versus science?
Zhu: I think the creative process is crucial for good science. You can’t create good art or do good science by being dogmatic about it. Scientific research is all about finding something new that’s never been known before. Art is about creating something that has not existed in the world before. Paradigm shifts occur in science as well as in art! New movements emerge when individuals dare to look at things in vastly different ways. The move from geocentrism to heliocentrism, from Lamarckian inheritance to Darwinian evolution (and now to a complex epigenetics that is beyond me), all happened because scientists dared to think differently!
Neocha: What does your personal creative process usually look like?
Zhu: The process of creating a portrait is very straightforward. I can pull up a piece of paper and simply start drawing. Sometimes I’ll draw myself without much thought. Those are usually sketches to be filed away. Other times a specific idea will come to mind, and I’ll act on it. I like to finish pieces in one long breath – I’ll think of something as I eat breakfast and by the time I go to sleep that night it’ll be finished. Of course, I usually don’t spend that whole stretch of time literally drawing. Almost every portrait involves a little bit of research about the historical period I’m assuming in my clothing or looser web browsing for inspiration and references.
I’m terrible about finishing something that I started on a different day. I guess it’s possibly because when I wake up the next morning I feel like a brand new self and the half-finished piece no longer has power as a part of me. I rarely sit and ponder or actively brainstorm for a portrait. The pieces fall together as I work.
Neocha: How does heritage influence your work?
Zhu: I try to learn as much as I can about something before I incorporate it as a facet of my portraits. This is especially important for Chinese history – if I don’t understand something sufficiently (it’s the science researcher’s mindset), I feel like a fraud, like I’m wearing a “Chinese Halloween costume.” Sometimes I feel very far removed from China and its peoples and their rich history. Creating these self-portraits is a way to look at myself and see who I may be inside or the ancestors I contain.
The color palettes that I use are definitely inspired by the colors of modern metropolitan China as well as the dynastic past. Sometimes I have misgivings about using chiyogami. I try to pick patterns that are in common with traditional Chinese textiles and not ones that are uniquely Japanese since that culture is not part of my heritage. I got the idea of dressing my self-portraits from my paternal grandmother. She used to cut out patterned paper to decorate or altogether recreate scenes from children’s books, creating beautiful, intricate collages. Right now, I use a similar technique to what she did with tracing paper. I draw myself, get a rough sense of which collage elements I will need to overlay, and then use tracing paper in order to get the outlines exactly right. Then I use that as a stencil to cut shapes out of patterned paper.
Neocha: How have art and science changed your perception of self and identity?
Zhu: We are so, so biased in our conception of our brains because our thoughts can never escape them. Oftentimes, we fall into the trap of “this is so obvious,” when actually our firsthand experience is quite wrong. For example, our visual perception of the world is just a useful approximation of what is truly there. The perception of color – a biological representation of the electromagnetic spectrum across animal species – is the most fascinating thing to me (not to mention the phenomenon of consciousness, a taboo topic for most neuroscientists still). Working past, and sometimes outright rejecting the ideas that we hold based on our own brainy experiences is central to the practice of good neuroscience.
Self-portraiture is the exact same. We as individuals don’t, in fact, have an accurate idea of what we look like, much less of who we truly are. Someone once told me that, while I was pretty accurate at drawing other people, my own portraits were lacking. This was perhaps a year ago. That’s the point at which I began to draw myself in earnest and to strive for self-understanding and representational accuracy. I try to portray different aspects of what I understand as my actual self in my self-portraits. More and more, these are buried aspects – split open my face and what would you find? An octopus – an organism that is remarkably intelligent yet with an altogether alien nervous system. Do they operate at similar levels of cognition as humans? What would that mean in practice? Put my past in front of me, dress me in Qing Dynasty robes, and what do we have? The truth or still a self-distortion? As a young Chinese American, when I assume the attire of Communist-era China, am I connecting to my parents’ generation, or am I romanticizing a past that I do not have any true ownership of? These are questions I can’t yet answer.