We interview the artist behind the popular Swiss Icon series which depicts iconic products as seen through the eyes of a foreigner living in Switzerland.
The expatriate experience is something that has defined the work for many artists, and the form by which this is expressed varies. Artist Xu Ying has presented a very unique way to express the expatriate experience, and this can be seen in her Swiss Icon series which depicts a number of iconic Swiss products as seen through the eyes of an expat living in the country.
Born in Shanghai in 1975 and educated in Beijing, Xu Ying moved to Switzerland when she married a Swiss national. Her new life in Schaffhausen was a stark contrast to the bustling lifestyle she lived during her youth in the Chinese mainland, and this exposure to an entirely new culture has since influenced her art.
We recently sat down with her to discuss the inspiration behind her work.
You are originally from Shanghai. What has it been like for you to be an Asian living in Switzerland? Was there a sense of culture shock and how were you able to adjust?
I think the sense of culture shock happens to anyone who moves to a new country, as there is always a great difference in terms of language, culture, mentality, values, and even food and the climate. So, yes: it was a difficult - and different - situation for me in the beginning.
Because I couldn't speak the language, I had to make the effort to reset my way of thinking by spending time on learning how Swiss culture is structured, to understand the perceptions of the locals, and to understand their values. It was difficult in the beginning, but it gave me the chance to look back at my own culture with a different perspective. It enabled me to learn more about my own culture and, in a way, learn more about myself.
Fortunately, food was one thing that's never been an issue for me; I love Swiss food and I've always been keen on learning how locals prepare their food.
The objects which are the focal points of your pieces are iconic Swiss products. What prompted you to feature these items in your work?
The idea that started my Swiss Icon art series came naturally following my move to Switzerland. The first paintings in the collection were done around seven years ago when I was a newcomer. I discovered a number of original things that became special to me when I learned about the history behind them. It stirred a desire in me to paint them.
At first, it was more like a visual diary. Over time, I delved deeper into the subject matter as my perspectives about it broadened. It became something like a documentary about my life in Switzerland.
The art style of my Swiss Icon series was inspired by the way I teach my kids Chinese, by reading image cards or what we call kàn tú shuō huà (看图说话.) It helps them understand words better as they associate it with an image; it's a popular way to study languages.
There are those who compare your work to that of Andy Warhol who famously used soup cans and soap boxes in his work. How does this make you feel?
Wow, interesting! As an artist, I am always fascinated by how different people look at my artwork; how they read it, perceive it, and understand it. I think it's probably because of the way we perceive the ordinary things around us that people connect the Swiss Icon series to Andy Warhol. But there are several differences: instead of glorifying consumer culture, Swiss Icon is more focused on discovering the similarities and common points between Swiss and Chinese culture.
Often, whenever I discover an item that is very Swiss, I would wonder and look for a version of it within my own culture. For example, the Tiger kids' shoes vs tiger-head shoes; Swiss fondue vs hot pot; or even Fasnachtschüechli (sweet fritters served before Lent) vs you tiao (deep-fried crullers).
Personally, I believe that everything that has been passed on from one generation to the next becomes part of the culture, whether these are customs, traditions, or even iconic items. This was what drew me in and it is what prompts me to continue discovering.
You may have noticed that the colours of the Swiss Icon series aren't bold; rather, these are painted in more sombre, vintage, nostalgic tones. In doing so, these objects are both familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. They are familiar to Swiss viewers as these are items they encounter in daily life or things from their childhood – but the Chinese interpretation of these items is totally new to them. For Chinese viewers, on the other hand, the way the paintings are structured is reminiscent of their own childhood memories, so even if the objects in them are new and foreign, they are drawn emotionally towards them.
When people see my paintings, they read and see at the same time. But this produces different emotional experiences depending on the audience. My work can be inviting but it also feels somewhat distant; yet, it always exuded a fun and playful feeling.
So people say "Go look at Swiss Icon" – and everyone can see, read, compare, question, and explore the relationship between the different cultures.
Of all the iconic Swiss products you have featured in your painting, which one of these is your favourite?
Now that's a pretty hard question for me - it's hard to choose just one!
But I've always been drawn towards portraits, so the pictures of the Urnäsch Silvesterchlausen (masked revellers at the feast of Saint Sylvester in Appenzell) are among my favourites, as are those of the Räbeliechtliumzug (beetroot lanterns), Tiger Shoes, and even my own Schweizer Pass (Swiss passport.)
For you as an artist, who or what have been the influences for your work?
Oh, there are so many things and great artists who have inspired me. I particularly like Yoann Bourgeois, Louise Bourgeois, William Kentridge, Olafur Eliasson, Laurent Grasso, and Tony Matelli among others.
Xu Ying’s work has been displayed at Galerie Mera in Schaffhausen, at Haus Appenzell in Zurich, at Museum Allerheiligen in Schaffhausen, at Vebikus Kunsthalle in Schaffhausen and at Kunstmuseum Singen (Germany).
Her work can also be seen online through her website at https://xuying.ch and via Instagram at @swissicon