A fine brush gently sweeps across an eyelid, blending violet and coral eye shadow and rendering an exquisite feminine persona who draws viewers into Yao Cong’s 2015 short video Under Blue. Yet this sequence does not last long. A sapphire pigment falls, covering the skin. The lens gradually shifts from the actor’s face down a body disguised by blue powder to their male genitals, revealing the compelling beauty of this androgynous figure.
Yao’s early artistic interest in queer bodies, exemplified by Under Blue, led him to explore the fluidity of gender, race, and sexuality during his MFA at the Royal College of Art in London. In Uncertain Game (2017), a 17-minute video made for his graduation project, a gender-ambiguous and ethnically undefined protagonist embarks on a journey that symbolizes the delicate process of attaining sexual pleasure. In the video, they are carried on a hammock through the woods before ascending an old abandoned diving platform the middle of a lake, where they jump into the water and become a mermaid. In this depiction of a shapeshifting body, Yao overrides dichotomous and separatist ideas that constrain individual expressions of identity.
Yao’s recent works in his solo exhibition “Flies Beyond the Clouds” (2021) at Capsule Shanghai shifted in subject from gender and ethnicity to broader notions of identity. The photography series Gold Words (2019–20) depicts bodies seemingly abandoned in a barren desert, each covered in white cloths that are embroidered with the phrase, “An artist who is not based in the good place is no artist.” With its desolate setting evoking scenes of
refugees and migrants perishing on dangerous voyages, the work questions how conventional conceptions of geopolitical superiority affect our idea of who is an artist. Also featured in the show was the ten-channel video work The Square Reserve (2020–21),
in which Yao invited ten people of different genders, ages, and occupations to drink and dance on an artificial patch of grass in the open desert. Although seemingly restricting the performers’ positions, the small green square—with nothing but barren land around it—creates a symbolic heterotopia where they freely express who they are with their bodies.