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Detail of one of Yan Cong’s comics on view in ‘What to Do When You’re Feeling Dispirited’ at the Shanghai Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA) Pavilion (photo by Kelly McIlvenny, image courtesy Shanghai MoCA Pavillion)

SHANGHAI — When Yan Cong started self-publishing comics in the mid-2000s, his work ignored the conventions of the manga-influenced Chinese comics industry and looked instead like characters from children’s cartoons had wandered into an unexpectedly adult world. His 2007 work Harry Totter is a meandering story that moves at will from one protagonist to another. Early in the book, one of the characters is crying in a field, ripping up the grass and eating it. Only when he lays his head in a puddle of tears and looks at the sky does he seem content.

Yan Cong has published a huge number of comics, many of which are available on his website. His most recent works range from painfully honest autobiographies (Busty Temptation, 2014) to vibrant risographed collages (Be Matisse, published by Bananafish Books, 2015). Yan Cong is also active in a contemporary art setting. Represented by Beijing-based Star Gallery, he frequently participates in gallery shows. Most of his comics are done in black ink, but he works in a wide range of mediums and has exhibited collages, acrylic paintings, and watercolors.

Moving comics into a fine art context can feel like an unnatural grafting process, but Yan Cong’s work exists somewhere between the two worlds. His comics — loosely illustrated, digressive, at times extremely sexual — are stranger than many in China’s indie comics scene, and his paintings are more story-driven and playful than a great deal of his contemporaries. His show, What to Do When You’re Feeling Dispirited, on view at Shanghai Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA) Pavilion, features drawings, paintings, and a custom-made machine that dispenses candy. I discussed his work with him over WeChat.

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Installation view of ‘What to Do When You’re Feeling Dispirited’ at the Shanghai Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA) Pavilion (photo by Kelly McIlvenny, image courtesy Shanghai MoCA Pavillion)

R. Orion Martin: You graduated from the Central Academy of Fine Arts, Beijing, in 2006. Did you start drawing comics during your years at the university?

Yan Cong: I started drawing comics in elementary school. Back then I was just learning by copying. In high school, I switched to drawing single images, and it wasn’t until college that I began drawing narrative comics again.

ROM: Why did you start making comics?

YC: Really, I always wanted to draw comics. It was just that I had been reading Japanese manga since grade school and trying to draw like those artists. I was using a nib pen, and the drawings never looked any good. It wasn’t until later that I saw some underground European comics working in a loose style that I realized: I should be drawing like this.

ROM: In those years, did you have classmates who were also making comics? Did you talk to your professors and classmates about your comics?

YC: There were other students making comics, but we never talked about them. I never spoke to my teachers about the comics either. I only discussed them with friends I met online.

ROM: I’ve talked to many people in the contemporary art scene who knew you first on the social media website Douban (a social media website for posting reviews and sharing images). Can you describe the early years of Douban?

YC: Before Douban there were blogs and online forums like Green School — now defunct, Graphitti Kingdom, and Sick Baby. When Douban first came out, the most exciting thing was to start groups. All those people who had been in the blogging community started weird groups on Douban. I remember there was a “Depressing News Group” and a “Hilarious News Group” that were updated every day. Later Douban was censored and some of the groups were closed by the website’s staff. Then Weibo and WeChat came out and those Douban groups fell away.

ROM: Have you always painted and made comics? Or have you generally focused on one over the other?

YC: I spent just about all of college in my bedroom drawing comics. Only after I graduated did I start painting in acrylic.

ROM: What aspects of your work have you been focused on developing recently?

YC: I still want to make narrative works. I’m using all kinds of materials and searching for better ways to display comics in an exhibition space. 

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Installation view of ‘What to Do When You’re Feeling Dispirited’ at the Shanghai Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA) Pavilion (photo by Kelly McIlvenny, image courtesy Shanghai MoCA Pavillion)

ROM: What kind of challenges do you face when bringing comics into an exhibition space?

YC: When making comics on paper, you’re thinking about how to make a printed product. In an exhibition space, the work needs to be richer with physical details that would be lost in the flatness of printing. Also, there are more possibilities in terms of how the audience views the work.

ROM: What is possible in a space that’s not on paper?

YC: An important part of the cartoonist’s work is to guide the audience through the piece. When cartoonists break away from printed materials, they can transform their comics into many other media. Given the huge variety of work that cartoonists have created in the form of books, I have no doubt that they’ll invent new artistic methods in other media. 

Page from Yan Cong’s ‘Hello Comic Goodnight’ (2012) (image courtesy the Shanghai Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA) Pavilion and the artist)

ROM: I think narrative is something that strongly separates painting from comics (though there are exceptions in both directions). Why are you interested in stories?

YC: I think all kids who look at comics love stories and I was just one of them. The only difference is that I’m still obsessed with those stories. Most adults think there are more interesting things to look at.

ROM: You did a series of paintings last year titled A Bottleneck in which you painted a comic of multiple distinct panels on canvas. Were you satisfied with how those turned out?

YC: I was. I thought they had an easy directness. A Bottleneck was like a page from one of my comics, but while I was making it, I was completely focused on what it would look like in a space. The details of the brushstrokes and the texture would be impossible to replicate in print. When I use panels in a painting, they’re not simply the functional tools of perspective that they are in comics, I also use them to break up and stabilize the painting. The panels create the composition but also press down on the spaces they contain.

ROM: Is there any difference between how stories manifest in your comics versus your paintings?

YC: I think the narratives in my comics become less important when they’re moved onto the canvas. These works are comics, but they’re also paintings. In the future, they could take other forms.

ROM: In the gallery, did the audience read them to the end or just a part?

YC: I think everyone read them to the end.

ROM: Sometimes people look at paintings extremely fast, but there’s no way to look a comic on canvas that quickly. It has to be read slowly.

YC: Yeah. There are details that come through for the people who take it in. In that way it’s like reading printed comics.

ROM: In your recent comic strip, Beggar Comics, there is a portion of it that involves a comic artist working for a gallerist. Is the story related to your experiences?

YC: It is, but it’s also exaggerated. I have a good relationship with my own gallery, but I see the cruelty of the gallery industry. I exaggerate that cruelty and draw it.

ROM: Can you describe your project at Shanghai MoCA pavilion?

Page from Yan Cong’s ‘Be Matisse’ (2015) (image courtesy the Shanghai Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA) Pavilion and the artist)

YC: The title of my project at MoCA is What to Do When You’re Feeling Dispirited. It’s mostly made up of work I made when I was feeling down.

ROM: Some of your works in recent years, like Busty Temptation, are extremely sad. Do you make sadder works when you’re in a sadder mood?

YC: In Busty Temptation I recorded a part of my life, that feeling of helplessness. When I’m feeling at ease I make more works — that’s the only time I can really articulate experiences of sadness and joy. When I’m feeling unstable, the works I make are too outraged.

ROM: When I read your comics, I sometimes feel there’s a disjuncture between the appearance and the contents. Would you agree with that?

YC: What kind of disjuncture?

ROM: The characters are very simplified, but the stories can be so depressing.

YC: But isn’t there lots of work like that? Like Chris Ware.

ROM: I think the difference is that Chris Ware’s work is simplified, but there’s no doubt that his audience is still adults. Some of the characters you draw could be put into a children’s picture book and not seem out of place.

YC: I suppose there is a kind of contrast. Something looks cute, and then it gets real.

Yang Cong: What to Do When You’re Feeling Dispirited continues at the Shanghai Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA) Pavilion (People’s Park, 231 Nanjing Road (West), Shanghai, China) through May 2. 

R. Orion Martin is an Iowa-born writer and translator who currently lives in Chengdu, China. You can find more of his work at