The Immigrant Experience Is Central to Her Art

Alumna Yu-Wen Wu’s works embody conversations on migration and identity, longing and belonging

“A few weeks ago, everything was in pieces, and nothing was complete,” Yu-Wen Wu says from the artist co-op where she lives and works in Boston’s Fort Point Channel neighborhood. Work in progress hung from the ceiling, covered every table, and lay in disarray on the floor. “But now everything has come together.”

Wu, who received a studio diploma from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in 1987, is deep in preparations for her 2023 James and Audrey Foster Prize solo exhibition, which will open August 24 at the ICA/Boston.

The prestigious annual award recognizes and nurtures outstanding Boston area artists, symbolizing how Wu has been embraced by the city in which she has exhibited for over a decade and installed numerous public artworks since 2019.

“At this stage, I’m finalizing ideas and artworks,” she says, explaining her current exhibition preparations. “The ideas are coalescing as processes, materials, and concepts come together. Organic matter, porcelain, works on paper, and video are all part of this site-specific installation at the ICA. I’m thinking a lot about how the works will interact with each other and the architecture of the space.”

hundreds of fabric-covered bundles suspended in a rope net

“Suspended” was part of the “Leavings/Belongings” series, shown here in the exhibition “Displaced: Contemporary Artists Confront the Refugee Crisis” at SITE Santa Fe in 2020. Photo: Courtesy of Wu

She requires time and solitude for her pieces to develop, spending days digging into a project, only stopping to briefly sleep and eat. “It's really important in the initial stages to just test ideas and not be focused on the outcome. I trust the artwork to evolve in its own way,” she says.

Wu’s own path to becoming an established interdisciplinary artist, the kind whose work is glowingly reviewed by legendary art critic Jerry Saltz, wasn’t one that she was able to initially visualize from beginning to end either.

Born in Taipei, Taiwan, she was five years old when her family immigrated to suburban New Jersey in the 1970s to an overwhelmingly white town where they were the only Mandarin speakers. Although things are different now (there is now a Taiwanese church), back then, she says, “We really didn’t have access to immigrant organizations that could help us adjust to a new society. From the beginning, longing and belonging were part of the conversations in my first-generation immigrant community.

Wu wanted to be an artist from a young age, but her parents discouraged the instinct, an attitude that Wu says stems from an immigrant perspective fearful of the inability to support oneself in the arts.

Instead, she studied the sciences at Brown University, another passion that she thought to follow. Wu first moved to Boston in 1981 to work as a research assistant in the lab of Nobel Prize-winning neurophysiologist David H. Hubel, studying the structure and function of the visual cortex. The experience rerouted her life trajectory.

“That was the beginning of my realization that art could become a major part of my life—not just a hobby. I realized that I can’t do without making art.”

Artist Yu-Wen Wu

Hubel believed that scientists could benefit from cultivating artistic interests. He would support a class in music, creative writing, or the arts each semester for his students and junior lab staff. Wu enrolled in a night class at what is now SMFA at Tufts. “That was the beginning of my realization that art could become a major part of my life—not just a hobby,” she says. “I realized that I can’t do without making art.”

She decided to enroll in SMFA at Tufts full time. Yet she never gave up science completely. Wu’s practice remains deeply data driven. She explains: “Looking at data and how to visualize information in a meaningful and relevant way is a major part of my work. There is real beauty in being able to translate and iterate it into visual form.”

For Wu, who typically creates large-scale, site-specific installations, many of them grounded in public spaces, the data collection process begins with deeply and respectfully listening to the people who will regularly interact with her art. 

For an ongoing project that began in 2016, “Leavings/Belongings,” Wu and Minneapolis-based artist Harriet Bart partnered with nonprofits in Boston and the Midwest, respectfully, to invite refugees and immigrants to share their personal, often traumatic testimonies of global displacement.

As an artist-in-residence at Pao Arts Center, a community center in Boston’s Chinatown, Wu facilitated more than 50 workshops with residents, who first shared their stories, and then made metaphorical bundles of fabric to represent leaving their home countries and making a new home in Massachusetts. These bundles became the foundation for sculptural works created by Wu.

31 paper lanterns hang in a dark sky

Lantern Stories, a 2020 public art project commissioned by the Greenway Conservancy for Chin Park in Boston’s Chinatown, was reinstalled in 2022. Photo: Mel Taing

Wu built on those authentic relationships in 2020 with “Lantern Stories,” a public art project commissioned by the Greenway Conservancy for Chin Park in Boston’s Chinatown.

“For me, public art is most powerful when you’re listening to what the community thinks is important,” she explains. Wu first held listening sessions to collect community responses concerning which events and achievements in the neighborhood and wider Asian American history should be depicted on the series of lanterns to be strung across the park near the Chinatown Gates.

Topics included historic events such as the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act and the 1960s forced displacement of Chinatown businesses and residences to make way for the Mass Pike construction.

“I hope to translate the narrative content around issues of migration, immigration, identity, and belonging into abstract and representational forms,” Wu says.

Several of the lanterns responded to the current events of 2020. “Having a lantern that says Black Lives Matter in Chinese was really powerful,” Wu says. “As COVID progressed, there was an increased intensity of anti-Asian hate crimes. The lanterns provided a platform for difficult conversations to take place around recent and historical events.”

The project resonated so deeply with residents that in 2022 they requested a re-installation of Lantern Stories. The 2022 iteration also included a bicoastal dialogue with Lantern Stories San Francisco, another iteration of the project that was simultaneously installed in San Francisco’s Chinatown.

a metal and plexiglass sculpture

Wu’s “The Poetry of Reason,” 2022, is a permanent installation at Joyce Cummings Center at Tufts. Photo: Jake Belcher

That same year, Wu’s two-story sculpture “The Poetry of Reason” was permanently installed at Joyce Cummings Center at Tufts University. “I was thinking about interconnections and how people from different disciplines come together to share their knowledge,” Wu says.

As part of the conceptual process, she met with Computer Science students and faculty, and asked them to contribute concepts, theorems, or equations that were the most important to their research. The result is a metal and plexiglass wall sculpture that extends like a glimmering mind map, revealing how data points literally connect and spark creativity.

The joy she finds in her own creative process is evident as Wu works in her studio twisting a red cord, sifting through gilded tea leaves, drawing and collaging works on paper, piecing together, testing, and completing her next idea.

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