GIPHY Artist Profile: Diane Zhou on Finding Meaning in Internet Debris

GIPHY Artist Profile: Diane Zhou on Finding Meaning in Internet Debris

By Celine Katzman

Diane Zhou grew up in New Jersey and currently lives and works in Beijing and New York. Through a variety of media, her work explores the complexity of Chinese identity (both across diasporic populations as well as mainland China) through playful engagement with cultural artifacts such as bubble tea. I asked her about surfing the Chinese internet, her GIF-making process, and anime in contemporary art, and she answered in both text and GIF.

What does your desktop or workspace look like?

Where do you spend most of your time on the internet? How have your online habits changed since moving to Beijing?

Unfortunately I spend most of my time on social media like almost everyone else, but since coming to Beijing, I use more Chinese sites and apps. Because of the Great Firewall, China has its own online infrastructure. For me, the most important ones are WeChat (like whatsapp but with amazing animated stickers which are like emoji on steroids), and Taobao (like eBay but more powerful).

My brain has been re-wired to need WeChat stickers in order to express my truest self. I feel stunted when I can't use them. I'm very enchanted by the power they seem to have; even if you've seen the same sticker many times, it brings a fresh punch of emotion each time it's used in conversation. I made my own stickers to express the gloom of a smoggy day in Beijing, and to see if I could harness that emotive power. I think I need to keep trying.

On Taobao, I buy a lot of junk, but mainly I enjoy endlessly scrolling through just to see the product photos, which often seem to blatantly disregard the idea that product photography should be appealing. I first thought they were comical because they seem like such a perversion of what online product photography "should" be like, but they're interesting because they offer a partial glimpse into what Chinese people value and desire, and they have their own lexicon that differs from my America-centric expectations.

How does making GIFs inform your physical media practice and vice versa? Can you describe your GIF-making process?

GIFs need to be processed more quickly than physical media and they deliver more information in a short period of time. They are useful to me for executing simple ideas. GIFs can be refined pieces of art or internet debris; the ability to be read or used as either makes them a fluid medium. The fact that GIFs are sometimes just internet junk frees me to create without clear meaning. I often end up revisiting these ideas in physical media, and the fact that I've already thought through them using GIFs allows me to explore different angles.

Many of the GIFs on your GIPHY artist page contain collaged, appropriated images. Do these come from different sources, or any one place in particular? Is the history of the circulation of these images important to you? Do you keep an archive?

They come from different sources, and they're mostly Creative Commons images or my own. I don't find it necessary to keep track of an image's entire circulation history, but I do like to use images whose original context adds content to the GIF. For example, the backgrounds behind the morphing bubble teas (see below) are Google Street Views of Taiwan. I was thinking about the relationship between bubble tea as a Taiwanese specialty/cultural symbol, the appearance of the Taiwanese landscape, and how national identity is defined. It's likely that none of this comes through in the final GIFs, but sometimes I just want to throw a bunch of stuff together and see what (if any) threads are visible to other people. I have an archive in which I obsessively save tons of images of anything online that I find interesting.

I've noticed a frustrating trend in contemporary art (both online and off) where stylistic elements from DeviantArt and anime are employed ironically or as reductive allusions. I appreciate your sincere engagement with this content; can you expand upon the diaristic nature of your work?

I liked anime and going on DeviantArt in middle school when it was considered completely shameful and disgusting. I remember a friend coming to my house and seeing a "How To Draw Manga" book and being like EW WHY, so I kicked it under a couch and pretended it wasn't there. My high school art teachers treated anime with contempt and told me it wasn't real art. So when I initially started using anime in my practice, it was a reaction to these experiences of my interests being continuously shamed and invalidated.

Recently, anime has appeared in fine art a lot more, but it's often presented as an exotic or sexually perverse artifact from an unfamiliar country or the sordid depths of the internet; it's been repeatedly used for shock value and to camouflage lack of substance. Even worse, now it's become associated with nazi internet trolls. It's another example of something (once-)unfamiliar and non-western being chewed up and spit out, which is a shame because it's a super wide-ranging art form with a long history and endless expressive potential.

There are a lot of artists who make interesting art using anime, and it's a shame that public perception has been poisoned. But, it does force those of us who enjoy anime to reflect on what about it has made it so amenable to this type of perversion. It's a complicated medium and often reflects racist beliefs that pervade Japanese society, and has a tendency to sexualize children. So… there's that! But I'd like to make and see more art that sincerely examines both the good and bad about it, without exoticizing or venerating it.

Visit Diane Zhou's website for more information on her work (you can also check out her Instagram and Twitter), and learn more about GIPHY Arts by following along on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.