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Remy Greasley talks to filmmaker and artist David Zink Yi about capturing ‘endless’ performances of Afro-Cuban music, a process displayed in a two-channel film set to be shown at Liverpool Biennial.
DAVID ZINK YI is difficult to pin down, both in his art and his backstory. Born in 1970s Peru, Zink Yi spent only a partial childhood there. A childhood which was further broken up by a stint in Kenya for his father’s job with the UN Development Programme. Aged only 16, he relocated to Germany to study. And it’s his Deutsche that he falls back to when his English fails him. His native Español comes in only occasionally, with offerings relevant to the Hispanic music that colour not just his sculptures and ceramics, but his films too.
The circumstances of Zink Yi’s upbringing could suggest two stories: the first of an ambitious, precocious youth, eager to get sculpting in the sandbox of the world; the second something akin to a military childhood, either on the move or on base, as those closest to him balance parental love with their own efforts as part of a greater good.
Wary of crossing a personal boundary I don’t question him on it, but I get the impression there’s truth in both. Suggested in part by the fact he hadn’t even finished his masters before being offered a solo exhibition. And in part by his conversational, empathetic sensibility, as if he could fit anywhere, understand anyone, talk to anybody. He’s both convoluted and coherent. And there’s a universal potency in Zink Yi’s words, which have a profound and plastic meaning that extends far beyond that which is immediately relevant.
This is a characteristic of his art, too, to the point you wonder where he ends and the art begins. There’s a sense of connectedness with the world in his films, performances and sculptures which are often combined; a fundamental compassion, the experience of which (even by proxy) is so intense and profound that I suspect the man in the box on the screen of my MacBook is closer to enlightenment than his chill red Nike sweater and clear-lensed Aviators may want to admit.
Even so, it hasn’t been the easiest of months for Zink Yi. His Being the Measure, a half-performative, half-sculptural piece, was initially destined for 2020’s postponed Liverpool Biennial. But thanks to you already know what, it became impossible to present the show, which relies on a live performance by Zink Yi and select Cuban musicians on playable sculptures and is intended for a live audience. There’s a spatial element to the work, with the audience’s own senses receiving the different sections of the performance in a way that requires it to experienced first-hand.
Being the Measure was to be a perfect bulwark piece for the biennial’s theme of ‘The Stomach and the Port’. With its live exploration of Afro-Cuban polyrhythms (a broad kind of rhythm consisting of two or more disconnected rhythms in tandem, though this is only the beginning of a definition), it studies the relation of individual personality and collective personality. As with most of Zink Yi’s work, the piece’s true value draws from deep in the ever pertinent, beautifully contradictory well of the question of identity. Another work was also pondered for the Biennial, although proved too demanding in terms of budget.
Instead, Zink Yi is bringing Horror Vacui to the Martin Luther King, Jr. building. The film installation predates Being the Measure by the length of an early childhood, but it’s still incomplete. It is the culmination of work beginning in 2002, when, in Cuba, Zink Yi formed De adentro y afuera, perhaps the first of his now characteristic artistic-musical projects. He began to film the band’s endless performances, all in an attempt to understand what he calls “this structural thing about Afro-Cuban music which makes it so hypnotic”. This ‘structural thing’ is so much more complicated than the polyrhythmic layering mentioned earlier.
It’s a way of playing as much as it is a way of life, with each musician given a relative freedom in a collective sound, relying on each other to fulfil their role, but never infringing on their freedom of expression. It’s a chaotic process of creation that only comes to an ephemeral completion in the beholder, as their ear and eye and brain scatter to locate themselves amidst what Zink Yi refers to constantly and so pertinently as a “magical cosmos”.
“It becomes a deconstructive moment of yourself, trying to gain a larger, a wider voice,” he says, illustrating what it’s like to take up a role in these performances. “Your right arm is doing something against your left arm, and your right foot is doing something following your left arm, but not necessarily your right arm, and your left foot is playing the clave, which is keeping everything together.”
Not just the whole performance, but the entire space which houses it becomes a singular and ever in flux body. This space, this body, extends to the rooms of his exhibitions, and the audience within. It’s this reliance on the audience to receive and amalgamate the overwhelming pieces of experience that leaves Horror Vacui incomplete, but by the same token universally relevant.
The performances and rituals which Horror Vacui juxtaposes were collected spontaneously over a period of around five years. The main part of the film takes place in the theatre of a synagogue in Havana, as Zink Yi tells me: “We rehearsed for three days. I really put them inside and locked the door, bought a lot of rum and let them play and rehearse and arrange all our pieces.”
The camera shares its frame between musicians, performers and instruments. “I was not filming individuals. I mean, [he gestures to correct himself] I was, but I was concentrating on the role in this specific context… not trying to make a personal protagonist, but more a role protagonist.” The style is minimal but it’s in no way no-frills. The camera lets its vivacious subject sing.
It’s also influenced by Cuba’s material situation, standing alone in history as perhaps the only country that never said yes to the USA. This has impacted the film in a way that is more than visual. The music owes much to this isolation: for the virtuosity of the musicians, and the nationwide popularity of the complex, polyrhythmic music they play, as well as the eclecticism of that same music. “My wife is Cuban. She’s a dancer and when she hears the salsa from outside Cuba, she cannot dance,” he says. “The way things are arranged is a totally different language.”
Not all Zink Yi’s projects have been musical, however. His work in sculpture and ceramics is equally as massive as his work in video, quite literally, featuring egregiously thick octopi tentacles and spawling Architeuthis (giant squid) which required a custom-built kiln.
But it seems his latest efforts in ceramics are moving away from this overwhelming enormity, and into a place more nuanced. The pieces in last year’s Rare Earths at the Hauser & Wirth gallery, Zurich, were minute in comparison to the squid, and abstract too, exploring process and reaction. The show had a great response, he tells me, but his drive to create something entirely new was so demanding that the lockdown arriving shortly after its closing was like a lotion for the soul.
Zink Yi isn’t done with video, though, or music. Although he’s moving away from the human subjects that’ve inspired so many shows. His new muse? “A bird that’s supposed to be the bird with the largest repertoire in the bird world.” It’s a bird that is constantly learning and forgetting to allow itself to learn more. It’s with this bird that we realise the sense of identity isn’t solely a human construction. In fact, it’s something far more natural, far more embryonic. And it’s partially this same understanding, which is in fact intrinsic in all Zink Yi’s work, that makes it so damn overwhelmingly profound.
Horror Vacui will be shown at the Martin Luther King, Jr. building from 17th May. Liverpool Biennial runs online and multiple venues across Liverpool until Sunday 6th June.